How To Get Enough Omega-3s On A Vegan Diet | Plant Nutrition Wellness
August 30, 2022
While plant-based diets are often rich with vital nutrients, consuming and absorbing enough omega-3s on a vegan diet can be slightly challenging. Omega-3 fatty acids (omega-3s for short) are essential nutrients. This means that our bodies are unable to make them and they must be obtained through food. Unfortunately for vegans, the most common and accessible sources of omega-3s are found in fatty fish.
The good news is that our team of online nutritionists and vegan dieticians are on the case. This article breaks down the main considerations for vegans or those following a plant-based diet that limits fatty fish or other animal-based sources of omega-3.
Types of omega-3s
Before we start, let’s specify the types of fatty acids we’re targeting. There are many different types of omega-3s (1). The forms thought to be the most important for human health are:
- Alpha-linoleic acid (ALA)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)*
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)*
*EPA and DHA are collectively known as long-chain fatty acids.
Why are omega-3s important on a vegan diet?
Omega-3s play an important role in our health. Some of their more notable contributions are as follows:
- Structural component of body cells, particularly the retina, brain, and sperm
- Production of hormones that regulate blood clotting, artery wall contraction, and inflammation
- Regulation of gene function (1)
- Management of cholesterol levels
Let’s break down a few of the most common health claims associated with omega-3s.
In the past, increased consumption of omega-3s has been promoted due to the belief that it is protective against heart disease.
With new research, it is now thought that:
- Increased intake of EPA and DHA may provide little to no protection against heart disease and related death.
- Increased intake of ALA may slightly reduce cardiovascular events, heart irregularities, and related death.
There is no strong evidence to support the recommendation of omega-3 supplementation for protection against heart disease (2).
DHA is a major structural component of the brain and is essential for normal brain function. Supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids may improve cognitive function in people with mild cognitive impairment.
It is still unclear whether increased omega-3 fatty acid intake can improve cognitive development in healthy young adults, elderly individuals, and those with Alzheimer’s disease (3).
Some studies in adults have found that omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA, may be helpful in the treatment of mild to moderate depression. More research is needed to discover how they work, their effectiveness, and the long-term safety of omega-3 supplementation for mental health (3,4).
Having enough DHA during pregnancy is important for pregnant and lactating women, and infants. The brain undergoes rapid development in the third trimester and first year of life. During this time DHA is released from the mother’s fat tissues and provided via the umbilical cord or through breast milk (5).
DHA accumulates in the foetal brain and is essential for:
- Normal brain function.
- Development of the nervous system and eyes.
- Motor and cognitive development.
There is research to support that supplementation with EPA and DHA during pregnancy and lactation can help to improve visual acuity and verbal learning in infants (3).
You can read our comprehensive article on plant-based nutrition for pregnancy here.
Omega-3 daily requirements
The level of EPA and DHA needed to support optimal health in vegans and omnivores is still unknown. In Australia, the amount of omega-3s required is based on the average intake of the population with no apparent essential fatty acid deficiency. This is known as ‘Adequate Intake’ (7).
Below is a summary of the recommended daily requirements for omega-3 based on the values provided in the Nutrient Reference Values for Australians and New Zealanders:
|Age||Daily ALA Requirements||Daily DHA + EPA Requirements|
|19yrs +||Men: 1.3g
Does being vegan or plant-based place you at risk for omega-3 deficiency?
Long-chain fatty acids EPA and DHA are mostly found in animal products such as fatty fish and eggs, with small amounts found in seaweed. This can make them difficult to obtain on a plant-based diet. The short-chain fatty acid ALA is found in small amounts in a variety of plants, such as flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and their oils.
There is some concern that conversion of ALA doesn’t happen efficiently enough to create adequate levels of EPA in the body. While ALA can be converted to EPA in the body, this conversion is thought to be very low – between 1-10% (8). However, there is some research to suggest that humans can create enough EPA if enough ALA is consumed in the diet.
After ALA is converted to EPA in the body, it must be converted into DHA. This process is also not very efficient, therefore large intakes of ALA are needed to convert into adequate amounts of DHA. Genetics may also play a role in the efficiency of conversion.
Vegans and vegetarians tend to have lower blood and tissue levels of EPA and DHA compared to omnivores who eat fish. However, clinical signs of DHA deficiency are not commonly shown in those following plant-based diets (6).
Signs of a DHA deficiency include:
- Dry skin and hair
- Attention and concentration problems
- Joint pain and arthritis
Getting enough omega-3s on a vegan diet
It is possible for vegans to get enough omega-3s on a vegan diet. The following table lists the amounts found in different plant-based foods (9):
|Chia seeds, 1 tablespoon||1.9g|
|Flax seeds, 1 tablespoon||2.5g|
|Hemp seeds, 1 tablespoon||3.0g|
|Canola oil, 1 tablespoon||1.3g|
|Walnut oil, 1 tablespoon||1.4g|
|Soy beans, 1 cup||0.7g|
How can you get more omega-3s on a vegan or plant-based diet?
- Add 1 tablespoon of ground flax seeds to your porridge or smoothies for breakfast
- Make chia pudding by combining 1-2 tablespoons of chia seeds with ½ cup of plant-based milk
- Add hemp seeds to home-made dips such as hummus, or sprinkle them over a salad
- Use ground flax seeds or chia seeds as an ‘egg replacer’ in baked goods by combining 1 tbsp with 2 tbsp of water in recipes
- Add chopped walnuts to lentil bolognese sauce or enjoy them raw as a snack
Should vegans supplement omega 3s?
Although we can meet ALA requirements from plant-based food sources alone, unfortunately, the same cannot be said for EPA and DHA.
This is because the only dietary sources of omega-3s are oily fish. We can make DHA from ALA, however, this conversion process is very inefficient. Current research estimates that only around 1-10% of dietary ALA is actually converted to DHA and therefore can’t be relied on.
Supplementation is especially important for plant-based eaters if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. This is because research suggests that dietary ALA is not able to increase DHA levels in our blood and breast milk, meaning that it is unlikely to actually reach your baby (1).
Because EPA and DHA are just as essential as ALA for health and wellbeing, we recommend adding in an EPA/DHA-containing supplement daily if you are following a plant-based diet. Omega-3 EPA and DHA supplements suitable for vegans are derived from algae oil. Micro-algae supplements offer the same health benefits and are as bioavailable as fish or krill-based sources (10).
For generally healthy adults, a supplement containing at least 200mg DHA is adequate to meet requirements but this will vary from person to person. We recommend consulting a vegan dietitian first to determine how much you need specifically.
As always, we advise you to consult your doctor or dietitian before starting on any supplement. While there is no ‘upper level’ for intake of omega-3s, and minimal risk of toxicity, side effects can include increased bleeding and bruising, so it is important to discuss any changes with a health professional.
It can be difficult to get enough omega-3 on a vegan or plant-based diet. The top food sources of ALA (plant-based omega-3) include walnuts, flax seeds, hemp seeds and chia seeds. Due to the low conversion rate of ALA to DHA and EPA, taking an algae oil-based omega-3 supplement may be necessary to meet requirements.
If you are concerned that you aren’t meeting your nutrition requirements on a vegan or plant-based diet, you can book an appointment or a free 15 minute discovery call with one of our online nutritionists and vegan dietitians at The PNW Clinic.
Article written by: Student Dietitian Zoe Cooke