A Guide on Getting Enough Omega-3 Fatty Acids Through a Vegan Diet

Author: Vanessa Gagliardi   Date Posted:8 October 2019 

More and more people are choosing to follow a plant-based way of eating, and there are many benefits of doing so. There is, however, an increased risk of nutrient deficiency when following a plant-based diet, as certain nutrients that are easily acquired through an omnivorous diet are not always available or as easily absorbed in plant-based/vegan diets.

Omega-3 fatty acids are an example of a nutrient that can be lacking in a vegan diet. Omega-3s are readily available in oily fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines. Omega-3s are also found in some plant foods such as flaxseeds, chia seeds and avocado, but the body needs to undergo a conversion process to be able to absorb and utilise them (more on this topic further down).

If you’re already following a plant-based diet, or you are looking to incorporate more plant-based foods in your diet, keep reading to find out what plant foods are highest in omega-3 fatty acids, how your body can best absorb plant-based omega-3s and the types of vegan omega-3 supplements to consider.

 

What are omega-3 fatty acids?

Omega-3 fatty acids are known as ‘essential fatty acids’ – being essential, this means our bodies are unable to produce them, we need to eat them or get them through supplementation. There are two main types of omega-3 fatty acids:

  • EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid)
  • DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)

These fatty acids play many important roles in the body to maintain optimal health and function of our cells, hormones and body systems. Omega-3s can support healthy cardiovascular function, support the synthesis of certain hormones, promote healthy skin and can reduce joint pain and inflammation, just to name a few benefits.

 

Are there any plant foods high in omega-3 fatty acids?

Plant foods such as flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts contain omega-3 fatty acids. Getting a bit science-y now, they actually contain the fatty acid ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) which our bodies then need to convert into the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA for their benefits. Here is a list of these plant foods in order of highest omega-3 content to lowest:

 

PLANT-BASED FOOD

OMEGA-3 CONTENT PER 100G (mg)

Flaxseeds

22,813

Chia seeds

17,830

Walnuts

9080

Firm tofu

582

Avocado

111

Spirulina

42

 

 

Is there a significant difference in how much omega-3 I will absorb if I eat plant foods, rather than fish?

Omega-3 fatty acids from oily fish (and fish oil supplements) are readily available, absorbed and utilised in the body. And as mentioned earlier, plant omega-3s are absorbed differently than fish omega-3s, they undergo a conversion process from ALA into EPA and DHA.

Interestingly, plant foods like flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts are higher overall in omega-3s than most fish are. However, the conversion process significantly reduces how much omega-3 actually gets absorbed and then utilised in the body – it is much less compared to eating a direct source of omega-3 like oily fish, falling far from being able to maintain adequate levels in the body.

You can, however, increase the efficacy of the conversion process. Vitamins A, B6, C, D and E, as well as magnesium and zinc can help to optimise the conversion of ALA into EPA and DHA, although in most individuals this will still not yield enough EPA and DHA to maintain optimal levels in the body.

Here’s an easy recipe that brings some of these vitamins and minerals together, to help optimise the conversion of plant-based ALA into omega-3 fatty acids:

  • Breakfast pudding: Soak chia seeds in milk of your preference in an airtight container overnight. The next morning add some ground flaxseeds, stir well and top with fresh berries, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and walnuts. Sweeten with a drizzle of maple syrup if needed.
    • ALA containing foods: chia seeds, ground flaxseeds, walnuts
    • Vitamin C: berries
    • Magnesium and zinc: pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds

 

Are there any vegan omega-3 supplements I can take?

Yes, there certainly are! Supplementation is highly recommended for those following a plant-based/vegan diet, as it is difficult to maintain optimal EPA and DHA levels through a plant-based diet alone.

Algal DHA is a supplement made from algae that can be taken alongside a balanced diet to support optimal levels of omega-3s in the body.

Algae are a group of aquatic organisms that are the primary producers of DHA in the marine food chain. They are not necessarily a plant, a fungi or a seaweed but are considered vegan, making them an alternative source of DHA for people following plant-based/vegan diets.

 

Please seek advice from your doctor or medical professional if you are concerned about omega-3 and/or if you are on any medication prior to taking any supplements.

 

References

- Craddock, J.C., Neale, E.P., Probst, Y.C., Peoples, G.E. (2017), Algal supplementation of vegetarians eating patterns improves plasma and serum docosahexaenoic acid concentrations and omega-3 indices: a systematic literature review, Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, DOI: 10.1111/jhn.12474

- Gerster, H. (1998), Can Adults Adequately Convert alpha-linolenic acid (18;3n-3) to Eicosapentaenoic Acid (20:5n-3) and Docosahexaenoic Acid (22:6n-3)?, International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research 68(3):159-731

- Vidyasagar, A. (2016), What Are Algae? Live Science, <https://www.livescience.com/54979-what-are-algae.html>

 

Written by Vanessa Gagliardi

Vanessa (BHSc Naturopathy) is a qualified naturopath with a passion for good food. She uses nutrition and herbal medicine to help people feel their best, from the inside out.

Vanessa enjoys nature walks and Pilates, and loves a good almond mocha.


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