Let's backtrack a bit. We can break down fats into three main categories: 1) saturated, 2) unsaturated, and 3) trans. To learn more about the types of fats before diving in deeper, see our article on oils and fats. As shown below, omega-3 fats are a small subset of the total fats we can get from the foods we eat, and yet they are one of the most vital for our overall health and well-being.
Omega-3 fats in brief
Omega-3 fats are the raw building material for our brain, nervous system, and the outer structure of our cells. They work favourably in the body to support immune function, vision, and heart health. Omega-3 fats can reduce the risk of a wide range of diseases, such as heart disease, cognitive decline, autoimmune diseases, and several types of cancer. Omega-3 fats are also known to help prevent deficits in child development. This means they're especially important during pregnancy, infancy and childhood to support the growth and development of little ones.
Types of omega-3 fats
The main three omega-3 fats include alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
ALA is an essential fat which means our body can't make it. Due to this, we must get ALA from food. Plant-based sources of ALA include canola oil, chia seeds, flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, full-fat soy foods, hemp seeds, hemp seed oil, pumpkin seeds and walnuts.
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
EPA and DHA aren't essential, which means our body can make them. For non-vegans, EPA and DHA are highest in fish. For vegans, plant-based sources include microalgae and sea vegetables. Overall, our body can convert ALA into EPA and DHA:
Omega-3 ALA --> (lots of extra steps) --> EPA --> DHA
The Institute of Medicine (IOM) has set an Adequate Intake value for omega-3 ALA intake. It's important to note that optimal amounts and recommendations are still being debated and researched.
- 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
The original values assume the population is eating DHA- and EPA-rich food sources, such as fish. As a result, for those not consuming fish, it's estimated that the ALA recommendation should be doubled to 3.2 g ALA per day for men, and 2.2 g ALA per day for women. This is to ensure enough ALA converts to EPA and DHA to meet our needs.
Factors that reduce ALA conversion
There are several aspects that impact our omega-3 status, most notably by affecting the conversion of ALA into EPA and DHA. Some factors that reduce our body's ability to make EPA and DHA from ALA include:
|No.01||Chronic diseases such as diabetes or high blood pressure.|
Poor overall nutrition including inadequate protein and vitamin intake. In particular, older adults may be at a higher risk for less ALA conversion due to a decline in overall intake.
High intake of omega-6 fats. In order for ALA to be converted to EPA and DHA, it requires enzymes (a type of protein) that help the process along. It turns out that both omega-3 fats and omega-6 fats compete for the use of these enzymes in our bodies. This means that an excess of omega-6 fats can reduce ALA conversion.
How to get enough omega-3 fats
No. 01 - Optimize omega-6 and omega-3 intake
If omega-6 fats dominate, it reduces the body's ability to make EPA and DHA from ALA. This is of greater concern to those of us who follow plant-based dietary patterns and don't consume direct sources of EPA and DHA from fish. The optimum ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats is still up for debate, but it's thought to be around 1:1. Currently, in most Western diets, the ratio is closer to 15:1! This means that generally, omega-6-rich ingredients are being consumed much more than omega-3 rich foods. Omega-6 fats are found in corn oil, grapeseed oil, safflower oil, soybean oil, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, pine nuts, and soybeans.
Experts recommend choosing foods high in omega-3 more often and being conscious of foods high in omega-6 so as to choose these less often.
In summary, it's important to be mindful of omega-6-rich food sources. Aim to consume omega-6-rich foods sources less often, while aiming to consume omega-3-rich food more often. This will help our body to better convert ALA to the beneficial EPA and DHA.
No. 02 - Consume ALA-rich foods daily
It's recommended to get as much omega-3 from food sources over supplements wherever possible. Here at PUL, we also aim to get fats 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 regular vegetable oils may not offer. Aiming to consume at least one ALA-rich source daily can help meet our needs. Some ALA-rich ingredients include:
4 - 7g ALA per serving:
- Flaxseed oil (1 Tbsp)
- Chia seeds, ground (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)
With this in mind, there are several ways we can boost our intake of omega-3 fats, such as to:
- Add chia seeds, ground flax seeds, hemp seeds, and walnuts to oatmeal, smoothies, or parfaits. These ingredients can also be added to baked goods such as cookies, muffins, or breads.
- Top yogurt with hemp seeds.
- Enjoy a handful of walnuts on their own or in a trail mix.
- Add ground flax seeds to homemade veggie patties.
Even with the increased intake of ALA though, the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA may be unpredictable. Overall, the conversion of ALA to EPA can range from 0.3% - 21% and the conversion of ALA to DHA can range from 0% - 9%. Due to this, supplementation may be beneficial.
No. 03 - Consider a supplement
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.
To be safe, though, taking an omega-3 supplement, in addition to ensuring consistent intake of omega-3 rich foods, can be beneficial. If looking to supplement, consider finding sources derived from algae. This may especially be true for groups that have difficulty with the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA, such as pregnant or breastfeeding women and those with a chronic disease, such as diabetes.
Supplementing with a microalgae capsule that offers 200-300 milligrams of EPA/DHA two to three times per week should suffice. In any case, consulting with a physician or dietitian is always the best practice.
- Find a balance between omega-3 and omega-6. Choose omega-3-rich foods more often and omega-6-rich foods less often as able. This helps our bodies to better convert ALA to EPA and DHA.
- Include a high dietary ALA source daily. Whole food sources include ground flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and walnuts.
- Consider an EPA/DHA supplement. Although not necessary, supplements do effectively boost omega-3 fat status in the blood and may be beneficial. Aim for a microalgae supplement that offers 200-300 milligrams of EPA/DHA two to three times per week.