Omega Fatty Acids
Let's backtrack just a little bit. Fats can be categorized as:
As we can see, omega-3 is a small subset of the total fats we can get from the foods we eat. Despite being small, this little fat is a vital one. To learn more about oil and fats in general before diving in deeper, see our article on oils and fats.
Omega-3 fatty acids are the raw building material for the brain, nervous system, and cell membranes. They work favourably in the body with a whole bunch of essential processes to enhance cell signalling and help prevent a wide range of diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune diseases and several types of cancer. Decreased levels of omega-3 can lead to deficits in neural development and function. This means it's especially critical during pregnancy, infancy and childhood.
Types of omega-3 fats
Let's briefly outline the types of omega-3 fats. Please note that there are more types of each fatty acid than what is below, but for the sake of this article, these will be the ones we cover.
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
ALA is an essential fatty acid that needs to be obtained from food. It's used to make EPA and DHA, which are other omega-3 fatty acids that we discuss below. We can get ALA from foods such as canola oil, flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, chia seeds, hemp seeds, hempseed oil pumpkin seeds, walnuts, and full-fat soy foods.
Eicosapentanaenoic acid (EPA)
EPA isn't an essential fatty acid, meaning that our body can make EPA from APA. We can still get our EPA in small amounts from plant-based foods, such as microalgae and sea vegetables.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
DHA is highly potent and beneficial for neural development. Like EPA, DHA is also not an essential fatty acid and can be converted from ALA. DHA can be found in microalgae.
Omega-3 ALA --> (lots of extra steps) --> EPA --> DHA
The Institute of Medicine (IOM) has set an Adequate Intake value for omega-3 intake. It's important to note that optimal amounts and recommendations are still being debated and researched. These values also assume the population is eating other high DHA and EPA sources, such as fish.
- Men: 1.6 g/day (3.2 g/day for vegans)
- Women: 1.1 g/day (2.2 g/day for vegans)
- Pregnant women: 1.4g/day
For those not consuming fish, it's estimated that this value for ALA should be doubled to 2.2 g ALA per day for women, and 3.2 g ALA per day for men. This is to ensure enough of the ALA converts to EPA and DHA to meet our needs.
Here are some vegan sources of omega-3:
4-7g ALA per serving
- Flaxseed oil (1 tbsp)
- Chia seeds (2 tbsp)
1-3g ALA per serving
- Flaxseeds, ground (2 tbsp)
- Hempseed oil (1 tbsp)
- Hempseeds (2 tbsp)
- Canola oil (1 tbsp)
- Walnuts (¼ cup)
- Tofu (¾ cup)
We generally recommend obtaining our omegas from whole foods before oils, if possible. This is because foods often contain fibre and other vitamins and minerals that are beneficial to our overall health that oils may not have. Foods such as chia seeds and flax seeds are also fantastic sources of soluble fibre, which are difficult to obtain from fruits and vegetables alone. Not to mention, they're super delicious!
Even with the increased intake of omega-3's, though, studies have shown that the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA is unpredictable. ALA has multiple routes it can take once absorbed into the body. The conversion of ALA to EPA can range from 0.3% - 21% and the conversion of ALA to DHA can range from 0% - 9%.
So, is it possible to get enough omega-3 from just foods? Let's explore this further!
How to incorporate omega-3s
There are several ways in which we can boost the omega-3 content of our everyday meals and snacks:
- add chia seeds, ground flax seeds, hemp seeds, or walnuts to oatmeal or smoothies, or parfaits
- top yogurt with hemp seeds
- Stir-fry tofu, topped with hemp seeds or walnuts
- add ground flax seeds to home-made veggie patties
- add ground flax seeds to soups and stews
- add chia seeds, ground flax seeds, or hemp seeds to baked goods such as cookies, muffins, or bread
- enjoy a handful of walnuts on their own or in a trail mix
Maximizing omega status
Omega-3 vs. omega-6 competition
So far we've discussed omega-3 fatty acids, but recall that there are other types such as omega-6 and omega-9. It turns out, that both omega-3 and omega-6 compete for the same path to convert them to into their respective acids. This means that an excess of one can reduce the conversion rate of the other. The optimum ratio of omega-6 LA to omega-3 ALA is still up for debate but is around 1:1. Currently, in most Western diets, the ratio is 15:1!
This means that omega-6 fatty acids dominate the pathway. This reduces ALA's conversion to EPA and DHA, thus leading to reduced levels of EPA and DHA. Recall that decreased levels of DHA can lead to deficits in neural development and function, which is especially critical during pregnancy, infancy and childhood. This is of greater concern to those of us who are vegan or vegetarian and don't consume direct sources of EPA and DHA from fish.
Sources of omega-6
Omega-6, in high amounts, can be found in corn oil, grape seed oil, safflower oil, and soybean oil. It can also be found in hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts, pine nuts, soybeans and so on. As we can see, it's not black and white: many of the foods that contain omega-3 also contain omega-6! This isn't to say we must remove omega-6 from our diet altogether. Omega-6 fatty acids are still considered "essential" fatty acids needed in our body! However, meeting the recommended amount of omega-6 isn't an issue as it seems too abundant in most of our lives. The focus we recommend, instead, is to balance out this ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats and to bring it closer to 1:1. We can do this by choosing foods high in omega-3 more often and being conscious of foods high in omega-6 so as to choose these less often.
To date, there are no studies that outright recommend an omega-3 supplement for vegans. One study found that those following a plant-based diet were able to increase their body's omega-3 levels through supplementation, but whether this supplementation would provide additional health benefits is still unclear. Omega-3 has often been hailed as a nutrient that decreases the risk for certain diseases, but this risk is generally already much lower in vegans than it is in omnivores. With that being said, it's still usually best to not make supplements our main source of omega-3 fats. Instead, we can try to find a nice balance between getting our omega-3s from both foods and supplements, if desired.
If looking to supplement, consider finding sources derived from algae. This may be needed for groups that may have difficulty with their conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA, such as pregnant/breastfeeding women, those with hypertension, and those with diabetes.
Supplementing with a microalgae capsule that offers 200 - 300 mg EPA/DHA 2-3 times per week should suffice (page 134). Try to find a combination supplement that includes both EPA and DHA. In any case, consulting with a physician or dietitian is always the best practice.
- Include a high dietary ALA source daily. Whole food sources such as ground flax seeds chia seeds, hempseed and walnuts, are often preferred over oils. We can spread these sources out between meals throughout the day.
- Find a balance between omega-3 and omega-6. Choose foods high in omega-3 more often and foods high in omega-6 less often to bring our ratio of omega-3 : omega-6 closer to 1:1 for higher efficiency of ALA to EPA and DHA conversion.
- Consider an EPA/DHA supplement. Although not necessary, supplements do effectively boost omega-3 fat status in the blood.