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Getting Omega-3 On A Plant-Based Diet

Omega 3 on a plant based vegan diet

Omega-3 has been a nutrient of interest for general health and well-being for a long time. 

A diet rich in omega-3 is important for maintaining cell membranes, regulating metabolism, and reducing inflammation. 

Research suggests that omega-3 fatty acids likely protect against heart disease due to their impact on cholesterol and blood pressure. 

Omega-3 fatty acids are also particularly important during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Furthermore, there is evidence from studies in athletic populations to support high omega-3 intake and supplementation for performance and recovery. Whilst evidence is mixed, omega-3 in the form of EPA and DHA may:

  • Facilitate muscle growth during resistance training 
  • Help preserve muscle mass when calories are restricted or during immobilization
  • Contribute to increased muscle mass and strength
  • Improve endurance capacity by reducing the oxygen cost of exercise
  • Reduce oxygen consumption, heart rate, and perceived exertion during endurance exercise.
  • Improve muscle function and fatigue 
  • Improve lipid metabolism 
  • Decrease inflammation
  • Reduce muscle soreness and lessen oxidative damage to muscles

What Is Omega-3 & Where Do You Get It?

Omega 3 is an essential fatty acid as our bodies cannot produce it and as such, it must come from our diet. 

There are three forms of omega-3 fatty acids:

  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) 
Vegan sources of omega 3

The parent fatty acid of omega 3 is known as ALA (alpha linoleic acid) and can be found in certain plant based foods such as: 

  • Flaxseed/linseed
  • Chia seeds
  • Hemp seeds
  • Canola oil
  • Soybeans 
  • Walnuts

Our bodies are able to convert ALA into other forms of omega-3 known as EPA & DHA, which are the compounds shown to have positive health outcomes such as reduced risk of heart disease as well as positive impacts on recovery in athletes. 

However, the process of converting ALA to EPA & DHA is not very efficient and can be hindered by a high consumption of omega 6 (another essential fatty acid) as well as the consumption of trans fats (found in some highly processed foods) and alcohol. 

Direct sources of EPA and DHA are quite limited. Non-vegans can source a significant amount of EPA and DHA through the consumption of oily fish such as salmon.

Whilst, vegans are limited to seaweed and microalgae oil. 

Due to this, vegans typically have significantly lower levels of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) in their blood. 

Seaweed

In regards to the consumption of seaweed for omega-3, a study published in 2011 found that seaweed does not have a particularly high omega-3 content in comparison to oily fish. 

The 6 best seaweed benefits

Of all the strands of seaweed included in the study, only one contained DHA whilst others only contained a small amount of EPA. 

To get a better idea, a regular 85g serve of salmon contains 15x the amount of EPA than a common 5g serve of the highest EPA containing seaweed. 

Even if you were to have a much greater intake of seaweed, above what is considered an average serving, you may run into issues with iodine toxicity. 

Seaweed is a great source of iodine which is considered an essential nutrient. However, iodine does have an upper limit and overconsumption can have a detrimental effect on thyroid function as well as pregnancy. 

How Much Omega-3 Do Vegans Need?

To prevent deficiency, it is suggested that vegan adults should aim to include a minimum of:

  • 2.6g of ALA (adult male)
  • 1.6 g of ALA (adult woman)
  • 2.0g of ALA (pregnant woman) 
  • 2.4g of ALA (lactating woman)

In the table below you will see how much ALA is in common plant-based sources of omega 3. 

ALA omega 3 in plant based sources

A general person looking to improve their vegan or plant-based diet would likely be just fine with these less efficient sources of omega-3 as long as intake was adequate and consistent. 

On the other hand, if you are a vegan athlete looking for improved recovery or want to increase omega 3 for heart health or a specific medical condition, you may benefit more from direct DHA supplementation. 

If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, it is also suggested to take an omega-3 DHA supplement to ensure the healthy development of your baby. 

Studies have shown that without supplementation, vegan and vegetarian mothers have lower levels of DHA in their breast milk compared to omnivorous mothers. 

Supplementation For Vegans

Vegan Omega-3 Capsules microalgae

Vegan EPA and DHA supplements are available and are derived from marine microalgae.

At this current time, there is limited data published on algae oil and DHA levels. However, the data we do have is looking very promising. 

Trials that are published to date have found that algae oil supplementation significantly raised DHA levels similar to fish oil, which did not occur with plant based sources of ALA such as walnuts.

Be mindful that some vegan omega-3 supplements are predominately ALA as they are made from flax or walnut oil. 

When looking for an omega-3 supplement, make sure it meets the following criteria:

  • Is made from microalgae
  • Contains EPA & DHA
  • Provides at least 200mg combined EPA & DHA per serve (at least 300mg for people who are pregnant or breastfeeding)

Omega-3 Index Testing

Omega-3 Index Risk Zones

If you are unsure whether or not you would benefit from supplementation, it could be worthwhile having an omega-3 index test done. 

You don’t need a doctor to obtain an Omega-3 Index test. In fact, most doctors won’t or cannot test for omega-3 unless they have access to omega-3 testing kits. You can purchase these online or from some health professionals.

It is a simple finger prick blood test that you send back for testing. The lab will test the EPA and DHA levels in your blood, specifically in the membranes of your red blood cells.

If you have low levels of omega-3, you can supplement with EPA and DHA from marine algae.

Take-Home Messages

  • Omega-3 is an essential nutrient & must be provided through the diet or supplementation. 
  • The omega-3 found in most plant-based sources, known as ALA, is not a very efficient source of omega-3 compared to animal sources such as oily fish.
  • You might be able to meet your omega-3 needs on a plant-based diet by consistently getting enough ALA from flaxseed, walnuts, chia, and other plant-based foods but vegans notoriously have lower blood levels of omega-3.
  • For some plant-based people such as those with heart disease, athletes looking to improve recovery and pregnant and breastfeeding people, supplementation with microalgae may be beneficial and/or necessary.
  • If you are going to take a vegan omega-3 supplement, make sure it has direct forms of EPA & DHA, is derived from microalgae, and contains at least 200-300mg per serve of combined EPA & DHA.

If you would like to read more about meeting your nutrient requirements on a vegan diet, see our previous article “9 Things You Should Be Doing On a Vegan Diet”.

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