Omega-3 can be a confusing topic, and one that is still not completely understood by researchers. In this article we’ll discuss some of the common misconceptions about omega-3, how much of it we need, and how to obtain it on a plant-based diet.
Omega-3’s and omega-6’s each have a parent essential fatty acid. Linoleic acid (LA) is the parent of the omega-6’s group, and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is the parent of the omega-3’s group.
*Read last week’s post all about fats and oils here.
Difference between LA and ALA
Omega-3 fatty acids provide building materials for the brain, nervous system, and cell membranes. They also play a role in the reduction of disease development, such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune disease and several types of cancer.
Omega-6 help to regulate our genes, promote immune health, aid in blood clotting, and help with symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. However, more research is needed to understand the full effects of omega-6.
Types of Omega-3
There are 3 main types of omega-3 fatty acids.
ALA —> EPA —> DHA
This conversion happens through a series of complicated reactions.
- ALA: Essential to consume, and can be obtained from a variety of plant-based sources (outlined below)
- EPA: Not essential to consume as it is made from ALA, but can be found in plant-based sources such as Irish moss, kelp and wakame. However, these sources do not contain as much as in non-vegan sources such as fish. EPA is an anti-inflammatory, but not as potent as DHA.
- DHA: Not essential to consume as it is made from ALA. DHA can be found in microalgae, and in non-vegan sources such as fatty fish, and has been shown to be a highly potent anti-inflammatory and helps with neural development.
Although our body is able to convert ALA to extremely important EPA and DHA, there are some foods that contain DHA and EPA, meaning that our body does not have to go through the process of converting. However, these are typically fish sources or fortified animal products. Some seaweeds contain EPA such as Irish moss, kelp, and wake, and DHA can be found in micro algae (1).
Ratio of LA (Omega-6) to ALA (Omega-3)
Western diets are typically made up of an excess of foods that contain mostly omega-6, or LA. This is a problem because omega-3 ALA and omega-6 LA compete for the same enzymes to form things like EPA and DHA (from ALA, omega-3) and DGLA and AA (from LA, omega-6). This means that if we consume too much LA (omega-6), our body won’t be able to reap the benefits of ALA (omega-3).
Usually our bodies have our backs and will prioritize making DHA and EPA from ALA (omega-3) rather than conversions through LA. However, if the ratio of LA over ALA gets too big, enzymes will become preoccupied converting LA, which will reduce the conversion of EPA and DHA.
Trans fat consumption, excessive alcohol and caffeine intake, protein deficiency (read more about protein here), and deficiency of vitamins and minerals such as zinc, magnesium, niacin, pyridoxine and vitamin C can reduce the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA.
Vegan Food sources of LA
LA (omega-6) is found in soybeans, corn, sunflower and safflower oil, nuts and seeds. Some of these sources contain both omega-3 and omega-6. This can make having a low ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 confusing! Instead of cutting these foods out all together (remember, our body does need omega-6!), we should instead focus on decreasing the amount of foods that contain mostly omega-6, and increase the amount of foods that contain mostly omega-3.
Dietary sources of ALA
Vegan Food Sources of ALA:
Canola oil (1 tbsp): 1.3g
Chia seeds* (2 tbsp): 4g
Ground flaxseeds* (2 tbsp): 3.2g
Hempseeds (2 tbsp): 1.7g
Walnuts (1/4 cup): 2.6 g
Flaxseed oil (1 tbsp): 7.3g
Seeds (namely chia seeds, flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, hempseed and hempseed oil) and walnuts contain ALA (omega-3). Although greens do contain omega-3 fatty acids, it would require about 10 cups of greens to acquire just 1g of ALA.
Ground Chia seeds, flaxseeds, and hemp seeds can be added to smoothies, sprinkled on salads, or added into yogurts! Additionally, ground chia seeds or flaxseeds can be used as an egg replacer in baked goods. Simply combine 1 tablespoon of ground chia or flax with 2.5 tablespoons of water and let gel for 5 minutes. Use in baked goods or vegetarian burger patties the same way you would an egg!
Chia seeds can also be added to plant-based milk to make a chia “pudding”. Check out my Instagram for more ways to incorporate these powerhouses into your diet!
* Flaxseeds and chia seeds must be ground before consuming in order to obtain the omega-3 benefits. Otherwise, flaxseed and chia seeds will simply provide fibre rather than the other health benefits.
Recommendation for Consumption
The IOM recommends that men consume 17 grams per day of LA, and women consume 12 g/d. (1).
Women over 19 should consume 1.1g/day of ALA, and men over 19 consume 1.6 g/day of ALA. Women who are breastfeeding require slightly more, 1.4 g/day, and women who are breastfeeding require 1.3 g/day.
Individuals following a vegan diet need to ensure they are getting more ALA than those who consume fish and animal products. This is to allow the body to have enough ALA to convert into EPA and DHA.
Vegans should consume double the AI for ALA intake. This means that men should consume 3.2 g/day of ALA and women should consume 2.2 g/day.
Although conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA is generally slow and may not be complete in vegans, it has been shown to be sufficient when consuming enough ALA and following a balanced diet.
Individuals who follow a vegan diet or do not consume adequate quantities of foods containing EPA and DHA may consider taking a supplement. Supplements derived from algae are an adequate source of DHA and EPA. Consuming a supplement that contains 200-300 mg of EPA and DHA 2-3 times per week should be adequate. As always, consult a physician or dietitian when taking any supplement.
- Davis, B., & Melina, V. (2014). Becoming Vegan: The Complete Reference to Plant-Base Nutrition. Book Publishing Company.