Omega 3s get a lot of attention in the nutrition world, and for good reason! Omega 3s are an essential nutrient for humans to consume and are associated with many health benefits. Vegan diets may be lacking in this nutrient therefore it’s important for vegans to be aware of how to meet their intake requirements for Omega 3s.
- What are Omega 3s?
- What Do Omega 3s Do in the Body?
- Daily Intake Recommendations for Omega 3s for Vegans
- Omega 3 Deficiency
- How to Consume Enough Omega 3s as A Vegan
- Vegan Food Sources of Omega 3s
- Omega 3 Supplements for Vegan
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What Are Omega 3s?
Omega 3s are a type of fat. There are two types of essential fatty acids humans require: omega 3s and omega 6s. While omega 3s often get grouped into one category, there are different types of omega 3 molecules. The 3 types of omega 3s that are important for humans to consider are: ALA, EPA and DHA. Each of these omega 3s can have a unique role in the body and therefore impact health outcomes in different ways.
The body is unable to create the structure of omega 3 fats which is why omega 3s (and omega 6s) are essential to consume.
What Do Omega 3s Do in the Body?
Omega 3 fats are a commonly studied nutrient. Omega 3s have many vital roles in the body including:
- Cell walls: Omega 3s are used to create phospholipids, the basic structure of cell walls in the body 2.
- Anti-inflammatory eicosanoids: Omega 3s can be changed into other molecules that play a role in reducing inflammation 2.
- Blood pressure regulation: Omega 3s are part of a pathway that can dilate blood vessels and decrease blood pressure. This is thought to be one of the reasons why omega 3 intake is associated with better heart health 1, 2, 3.
- Blood clotting: One of the primary roles of omega 3s are how they work to help with platelet aggregation aka blood clotting 2, 3. Omega 3s seem to reduce blood clotting which can lower the risk of heart attacks 3.
- Cholesterol levels: Omega 3s play a role in managing cholesterol levels, yet another reason they may be beneficial for heart health 1, 2, 3.
- Brain health: A type of omega 3 called DHA is a major component of the grey matter of the brain 1, 2. Some studies show omega 3 intake can protect brain health and improve cognitive decline with age 1, 2, 3.
Omega 3 fatty acids may play a role in other areas of the body; there are higher concentrations of omega 3 fats in the retina, testes and sperm 1. They are also thought to be associated with many health conditions.
ALA is the omega 3 fat most abundant in diets. ALA can be converted into a longer chain omega 3 called EPA and there is some concern that this conversion doesn’t happen efficiently enough to create adequate levels of EPA in the body. However, some research suggests humans are efficient enough at creating EPA (from ALA) if enough ALA is consumed in the diet.
EPA is converted into DHA in the body 1. The body is not very good at converting EPA into DHA and very large amounts of ALA are needed to convert into adequate amounts of DHA 3, 4. Genetic variations in the body’s ability to make this conversion may also be present.
Daily Intake Recommendations of Omega 3s for Vegans
There are recommendations for the general public on intake of omega 3s. There are no specific recommendations for vegans/ vegetarians so the best evidence we have suggests vegans should aim to consume these basic levels. For adult men, adequate intake levels are set at 1.6 grams/ day, and for adult females, adequate intake levels are set at 1.1 grams/day 5. Typically, on a vegan diet, omega 3s are naturally present as ALA.
But what about EPA and DHA which are two other types of omega 3s that are important for health?
It’s thought that EPA shouldn’t be a concern for vegans who meet the adequate intake amounts of omega 3s listed above 3, but since a large amount of ALA is required to produce adequate blood levels of DHA, some vegan healthcare providers take these recommendations one step further. Vegans are generally recommended to consume an additional 2 grams of omega 3s per day (present as ALA in plant-based foods) or consume a supplement that contains 200-300 mg of DHA 6.
Always consult your doctor or dietitian before making changes to your diet and before adding nutrition supplements. There’s no specific upper level set for intake of omega 3s, but there can be side effects of taking too much, including increased bleeding and bruising, so more is not necessarily better 5.
Omega 3 Deficiency
Overt deficiency of essential fatty acids is extremely rare as the needed intake of omega 3s and omega 6s for basic function is quite low 2. Infants and hospitalized patients are the most high-risk groups for developing a deficiency in omega 3s.
The body can store omega 3 fats in adipose tissue (body fat) and release them during times of low dietary intake or malabsorption 2.
Signs of omega 3 deficiency could include: decreased central nervous system development and lower IQ in children, decreased visual acuity and retinal development. A deficiency may also cause rough, scaly skin and dermatitis 2. Typical diets provide enough omega 3s to prevent these clinical outcomes.
Researchers haven’t established a cut-off point for blood or tissue levels of omega 3s below which we would see these outcomes 2.
However, there is a difference between meeting the very basic needs of the body and optimizing long-term health.
How to Consume Enough Omega 3s as a Vegan
It’s possible for vegans to get enough omega 3s through their diet. Meeting the base recommendation of 1.6 g/day for adult men and 1.1 g/day for adult women is not challenging given the abundance of certain omega 3s in plant-based foods. However, keep in mind this is ALA, which needs to be converted to EPA then DHA in the body, and the body isn’t great at doing this.
Omega 3s in the form of ALA are found in high concentrations in many vegan foods. Seeds, particularly hemp, chia and ground flaxseed, as well as walnuts, and soy (including tofu, tempeh, soy milk) all contain omega 3s for vegans. There are also large amounts of ALA in canola oils, another vegan option.
Vegan Food Sources of Omega 3s
|Food||Portion Size||Amount of total Omega 3s (present as ALA) 7|
|Hemp seeds||1 tablespoon/ 10 grams||0.8-0.9 grams (1)|
|Chia seeds||1 tablespoon/ 10 grams||1.8 grams|
|Ground flaxseed||1 tablespoon/ 10 grams||1.6 grams (2)|
|Walnuts, chopped||1 tablespoon/ 7 grams||0.6 grams|
|Flaxseed oil||1 teaspoon (5mL)||2.4 grams|
|Canola oil||1 teaspoon (5mL)||0.4 grams|
|Walnut oil||1 teaspoon (5mL)||0.5 grams|
|Soybean oil||1 teaspoon (5mL)||0.3 grams|
|Tofu, extra firm||100 grams (about 1/3 block)||0.2-0.3 grams (3)|
|Tempeh||100 grams||0.2 grams|
|Soy milk (full fat)||1 cup||0.2 grams|
(1) Canadian nutrient database = 0.8 grams vs US database = 0.9 grams.
(2) Data from US database; whole flaxseed provides 2.4 grams per tablespoon, however this is not digested or absorbed (the body does not breakdown whole flaxseed so nutrients pass through).
(3) Canadian nutrient file showed 0.2 grams of omega 3 per 100 grams of tofu, however US database showed 0.3 grams.
As you can see from the chart, one tablespoon of chia seeds or ground flaxseed per day can meet the needs of adult males and is more than enough for adult females 5. Alternatively, a combination of a few servings of the other foods listed can easily add up to meet the general omega 3 recommendations. However, to optimize DHA production, larger amounts of these foods are needed or a DHA supplement could be considered (always speak to your doctor before starting any supplements).
Omega 3 Supplements for Vegans
It’s possible to meet the minimum adequate intake of omega 3s for vegans; however, more research is needed to determine the optimal amount of vegan food sources of omega 3s to meet DHA production needs.
As mentioned, omega 3s present in plant-based foods are in the form of ALA which must be converted into EPA then DHA. The body is not very efficient at making this conversion to DHA 3.
Therefore, healthcare providers have come up with additional recommendations for vegans to consume larger amounts of omega 3s (ALA) from foods, or to consider a DHA supplement (always speak to your doctor before starting any supplements) 3. The recommended intake of DHA from supplements is often 200-300 mg per day 3, 6.
An ALA supplement is generally not required if eating adequate amounts of foods that contain omega 3s. EPA may or may not be needed based on omega 3 intake from food. Again, always speak to a doctor before starting/ stopping supplements and consider working with a dietitian to find an eating pattern that best meets your nutrition needs.
There are many vegan omega 3 supplements on the market and are typically sourced from algae.
Summary: Omega 3s for Vegans
Omega 3s are an essential nutrient and one that is important for vegans to be aware of. Plant-based foods can provide adequate levels of one type of omega 3: ALA. However, there are two other types of omega 3s that are important for health: EPA and DHA. The body converts ALA into EPA then converts EPA into DHA. It’s thought that if enough ALA is consumed, adequate EPA can be created in the body. High intakes of ALA (the only omega 3 present in high amounts in plant-based foods) would be needed for the body to create enough DHA, or vegans can consider taking a DHA supplement after speaking with their doctor or dietitian.
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- Omega-3s Part 1—Basics
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids Fact Sheet for Health Professionals
- Omega-3s Part 2—Research
- The Fatty Acids
- Dietary Reference Intakes
- Daily Needs
- Canadian Nutrient File (CNF) – Search by food
Please note that this is a curated list of references for the topics above and is not intended to be comprehensive.
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