Omega-3 is a long, complex, and still widely debated topic. Let's attempt to sift through and simplify it.
Omega Fatty Acids
Let's backtrack just a little bit. Fats. Fats can be categorized as:
a. monounsaturated fats
i. omega-9 fatty acids
b. polyunsaturated fats
i. omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids
As you can see, omega-3 is a small subset of the total fats we can get from our diets, but this little fat is a vital one to our overall health and wellness. We've created an entire other article all about oils and fats - read it here.
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 line enhancing cell signalling, and they also help to 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 DHA (from omega-3) can lead to deficits in neural development and function, which is especially critical during pregnancy, infancy and childhood. In short: it's pretty important stuff.
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.
ALA (alpha-linolenic acid)
+ Essential: yes
+ Vegan sources: canola oil, flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, chia seeds, hemp seeds, hempseed oil pumpkin seeds, walnuts, full fat soy foods
+ Benefit: can be converted to EPA and DHA (not a very efficient process, but can be done nonetheless)
EPA (eicosapentanaenoic acid)
+ Essential: no; the body can convert ALA to EPA
+ Vegan sources: microalgae and sea vegetables (but not as much as the amount found in fatty fish)
+ Benefit: less potent anti-inflammatory
DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)
+ Essential: no; the body can convert ALA to DHA
+ Vegan source: microalgae
+ Benefit: highly potent anti-inflammatory, neural development
A brief definition: in scientific terminology, "essential" doesn't just mean "important". It means the body cannot synthesize it, so it must be derived from dietary sources or you run the risk of deficiency. In this case, ALA is essential:
Omega-3 ALA --> (lots of extra steps) --> EPA --> DHA
The Institute of Medicine (IOM) set an Adequate Intake value of omega-3 at 1.6 g/day for men, 1.1 g/day for women, and 1.4g/day for pregnant women (1). It should be noted that optimal amounts and recommendations are still debated and are still being researched. Furthermore, these values also assume the population is eating other high DHA and EPA sources such as fish. For vegans who are not consuming this, it is 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 (1). This is to ensure enough of the ALA converts to EPA and DHA to meet our needs.
But again: what the heck does that mean? What foods can this be obtained from and how much do those foods offer? Here are some vegan sources of omega-3:
Flaxseed oil, 1 Tbsp: 7.3 g ALA
Chia seeds, 2 Tbsp: 4.0 g ALA
Flax seeds (ground) 2 Tbsp: 3.2 g ALA
Walnuts, 1/4 cup: 2.6 g ALA
Hempseed oil, 1 Tbsp: 2.5 g ALA
Canola oil, 1 Tbsp: 1.3 g ALA
Hemp seeds, 2 Tbsp: 1.7 g ALA
Tofu 3/4 cup: 0.3-0.5 g ALA
We generally recommend obtaining your omegas from whole foods before oils, if possible. They contain fibre and other vitamins and minerals that are beneficial to your overall health that oil 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.
However, studies have shown that the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA is unpredictable because ALA has multiple routes it can take once absorbed into the body (1). 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 you might be wondering: is it possible to get enough omega-3 from just foods? Keep reading as we'll be exploring this later in the 'supplements' section!
Increase Absorption: use ground flax seeds instead of whole flax seeds. They are better absorbed as whole flax seeds pass through the digestive system largely unabsorbed. The same can be said for chia seeds.
Add chia seeds to your parfaits and pudding such as in this Vanilla Berry Chia Seed Pudding,
or this Chocolate Chia Breakfast Pudding
These Blueberry Almond Breakfast Cookies include both flax seeds and chia seeds
Omega-rich walnuts are added to this Roasted Red Pepper & Walnut Spread
These delicious Chocolate Fudge Brownie Bites contain walnuts, which are flavourful and rich in omega-3!
You can even add chia seeds to home-made jam! It helps thicken the jam up, like in this Berry Chia Seed Jam.
Let's put this into a practical view. Mix and match any of these breakfast, lunch/dinner and snack ideas and you'll go above and beyond in your omega-3 intake. It's easier than you may think.
+ Oatmeal with 1 tbsp either chia seeds or ground flaxseeds or 2 tbsp hemp seeds or handful of walnuts
+ Fruit smoothie with 1 tbsp either chia seeds or ground flax seeds or 2 tbsp hemp seeds or 1 tsbp flax oil
+ Add 1 tbsp hemp seeds or 1/2 tbsp chia seeds or ground flax seeds to breakfast parfaits
+ Salad with 1 tbsp hemp seeds or handful walnuts sprinkled on top
+ Stir-fried tofu using canola oil and serve alongside salad topped with hemp seeds or walnuts
+ Add ground flax seeds to home-made veggie patties; add up to 2-3 tbsp per batch
+ Add 1-2 tbsp ground flax seeds to soups and stews - adds a nutty flavour and slightly thicker consistency
+ Add up to 2 tbsp (per batch) of chia seeds, ground flax seeds and/or hemp seeds to baked goods such
as cookies, muffins or breads
+ Top plain yogurt with 1 tbsp hemp seeds (and maybe some fruit, too!)
+ Handful of walnuts on their own or within a trail mix
+ Add walnuts to hummus
+ Add walnuts to brownie bites
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 enzymes 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 a staggering 15:1!
This means that omega-6 fatty acids dominate the enzymes, which reduces ALA's conversion to EPA and DHA, therefore leading to reduced levels of EPA and DHA. Recall that decreased levels of DHA (from omega-3) can lead to deficits in neural development and function, which is especially critical during pregnancy, infancy and childhood. This is of greater concern to vegetarians/vegans who rely on their EPA and DHA sources from this conversion from ALA compared to non-vegetarians who 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 (1). As you can see, it's not black and white: many of the foods that contain omega-3 also contain omega-6! And this is not to say you must remove omega-6 from your diet altogether - it is also an "essential" fatty acid needed in your body! However, clearly meeting the recommended intake needs of omega-6 is not an issue as it seems to abundant in most people's diet. The focus is, instead, is to be placed on balancing out this ratio to bring it closer to 1:1 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 (like cardiovascular diseases and some cancers), but this risk is already much lower in vegans than it is in omnivores.
If you are looking to supplement, consider finding sources derived from algae. This may be needed for groups that may have have difficulty with their ALA >> EPA and DHA conversion such as pregnant/breastfeeding women, those with hypertension, and those with diabetes.
Fun fact: Fish, known to be great sources of omega-3, get their omega-3 from algae! This is why we can skip the fish and consume our omega-3 straight from algae source like fish do.
Supplementing with a microalgae capsule that offers 200 - 300 mg EPA/DHA 2-3x/week should suffice. Try to find a combination supplement that includes both EPA and DHA (1). In any case, consulting with your physician or dietitian is always best practice.
Note: This is not to say that supplements are to be the main omega-3 source. Supplements are great for giving us a boost of omega-3, but it's still equally as important to consume omega-3 containing foods!
Include a high dietary ALA source daily: whole food sources are preferable from ground flax seeds chia seeds, hempseed and walnuts, followed by the oils of these products. You can spread these sources out between meals throughout the day.
Reduce modifiable risk factors: such as smoking, alcohol and caffeine intake, and intake of high trans fat foods (packaged and deep-fried foods) as well as high omega-6 fatty foods (processed foods such as salad dressings, margarines, crackers, cookies as well as oils including sunflower, safflower, corn, grape seed and sesame oils). Substitute with canola oil or extra-virgin olive oil when needed, but again: whole food sources are always preferable.
Find 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 your ratio of omega-3 : omega-6 closer to 1 for higher efficiency of ALA to EPA and DHA conversion. More focus can be placed on limiting the oils high in omega-6 before the whole foods as they are much higher in omega-6 and do not provide extra health benefits such as fibre.
Consider a EPA/DHA supplements: if desired, or if you have risk factors for deficiency. Although not necessary, supplements do effectively boost omega-3 fat status in the blood.
(1) Davis, Brenda, and Vesanto Melina. "Becoming Vegan: the Complete Reference on Plant-Based Nutrition." Becoming Vegan: the Complete Reference on Plant-Based Nutrition, Book Publishing Company, 2014, pp. 109-135.
Psst: » Find this book in our shop! Choose between the comprehensive edition or the express edition.
Want to Learn More?
Read this previous nutrition article called COFFEE » the strengths & weaknesses for your health
What about you?
Are you getting enough omega-3 fats? Let us know in the comment below or share your recipes rich in flax, chia, hemp seeds or walnuts with us on Instagram with the hashtag #pickuplimes.
❤ Written by: Mitra (PUL Executive Assistant and Dietetic Student) & Sadia