The notion that you cannot obtain omega 3 fatty acids on vegan diet is simply false. This is supported by well established and accepted scientific literature that will be linked for your review below. Why is this even a question?
Celebrity Miley Cyrus claimed that she was abandoning a veganism (or more likely a plant-based diet) in an interview this week because “my brain wasn’t functioning properly“. Cyrus didn’t provide details about what that specifically meant symptoms wise, or what she tried doing to address the problem prior to abandoning her diet.
What are omega 3 fatty acids?
There are three primary omega-3 fatty acids called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
- DHA and EPA are found in fish and other seafood.
- ALA is mostly in plants flax, soy and canola. It’s a fatty acid found in the plant’s fats.
There are many essential benefits to omega 3’s in our body, from heart to cognitive health so it is worthwhile to be aware of and consume food that contains these nutrients.
Sufficient omega 3 fatty acids are generally obtained by humans by simply eating food, without the need of supplementation or special considerations. Deficiency is said to be rare by the US Department of health, however if you are deficient you may experience symptoms such as flaky skin or rashes.
Can plants contain omega 3 fatty acids?
Information about plant based sources of omega 3 fatty acids are well known and established in nutrition, and were included in my mainstream nutrition course at Tufts University. From the mainstream nutrition textbook we used at Tufts University, School of Nutrition Science:
A diet that includes some meat, fish and eggs provides much more omega-3 fatty acids than a vegetarian diet, but the blood differences between those eating fish and others is relatively small (footnote source). Researchers speculate that the smaller-than-expected differences may reflect a more efficient conversion of plant-derived fats to omega-3 fats in non-fish eaters. Vegetarians can obtain sufficient amounts of omega-3 fatty acids from plant sources such as flaxseed, walnuts soy and canola oil. Whitney/Rolfes, Understanding Nutrition (2012 ed.), 66
It’s well accepted that you can obtain healthy amounts of these fatty acids from plant-based and optionally algae sources. Flax seeds are a powerhouse, and offer the highest amount of ALA per calorie. Many of these sources, and their amounts of ALA per 200 calorie serving, are listed below. How much conversion between ALA and EPA/DHA, balancing the fatty acids, and other finer details about benefits are still being studied, but the important basics are well accepted in the science performed so far.
More information about why plant sources are safe and beneficial are found in this article below.
What is the daily recommended amount?
This may vary by country, but the National Institute for Health in the USA recommends the following in the form of ALA for adults:
- Men 19+ years 1.6 g
- Women 19+ years 1.1 g
You can find other recommendations here. Note that the values offered below are in mg, so you can see how easy it is to reach the recommended values in very small amounts of food.
DHA and EPA are in animal products. Do you need them?
ALA cannot be made by the human body, but when you do consume it the acid can convert in small amounts to DHA and EPA.
You can get DHA from algae, which is not an animal product. Algae are cryptophytes, and are hence not a plant, animal or fungi. Algae is the source of DHA and EPA in fish, so you can “skip the middle man” and use algae for these nutrients as well.
Additionally, recent studies have suggested that you do not need fish-based sources to gain benefits from these fatty acids. “Researchers followed 4,000 patients over a five-year period and found that the supplements don’t slow cognitive decline.” [PCRM]
How to get omega 3’s on a vegan diet, and why
There are plenty of trustworthy resources on how and why it may be beneficial to obtain omega 3 fatty acids from plant-based sources over animal-based ones. Here are a couple studies and a few general articles to refer to regarding plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids:
- E Peltomaa et al, Marine Cryptophytes Are Great Sources of EPA and DHA
- D Rodriguez-Leyva et al, The cardiovascular effects of flaxseed and its omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid
- Penn State. “Nothing fishy about health benefits of plant-based omega-3 fatty acid.” ScienceDaily, 17 November 2014.
- Nutrition Facts videos about omega-3 fatty acids.
- General information about flaxseeds.
- General information about purslane.
Are you interested in making chia flour to add to your meals? Here’s a simple DIY “recipe” to make it. There are more recipes linked below.
Non animal-based food items that contains omega 3
The following plant based food items are excellent sources of omega fatty acids. Source of nutritional data for this list: USDA Food Data Central, and for flaxseed, purslane, and walnuts here.
I have converted and listed these values in calories to “level the playing field” in terms of comparing food sources. You do not necessarily need to eat 200 calories to obtain the desired intake amount. See the recommended values above in this article, or consult a registered dietician to work out an appropriate amount for you.
You can refer to the sites above (or list on this page) to review the mg or grams per tablespoon or cup measurement. You can also use this search tool to find many foods, however the ALA measurement is missing from some of the food items (including the ones listed below).
- Flax seed: 12,690mg ALA in 200 calories
- English walnuts: 11,750 ALA in 200 calories
- Chia seeds: 7337mg ALA in 200 calories
- Purslane: 4000mg ALA in 200 calories
- Hemp seeds: 3141mg ALA in 200 calories
- Zucchini: 718mg in 200 calories
- Edamame: 592mg in 200 calories
- Summer squash: 453mg in 200 calories.
- Algae: Algae contains a vegan-friendly form of DHA, and is most easily obtained as a supplement (see more below).
We have many recipe on this website that include flax and chia seeds. Find these recipes here:
Chia seed recipes
Flax seed recipes
I also grow purslane and it is an amazingly delicious green. It is becoming a bit easier to find at specialty grocery stores, but it is also a weed you can forage!
View this post on Instagram
This purslane offered itself from last years garden. It’s often a weed, but there are varieties you can plant too that grow more upright and are easier to harvest. It is one of the very most delicious greens i have ever had (first introduced it at some fancy restaurant many years ago). I was kicking myself I forgot to start some this year, and then this lil plant popped up from under a bunch of compost and mulch I put down- must have heard me. #purslane #purslanesalad #goldenpurslane #veganswhogarden #veganfarmer #veganicgrown
Nutritional supplements for vegan omega 3s
While it’s usually best to get your nutrient intake from whole foods, if you want to intake DHA (via algae) you may need to consider a supplement as this is the only safe source I am aware of at this time.
Many omega 3 supplements are not plant based or vegan-friendly products. There are some that do not contain animal products, and will typically be marked vegan friendly or certified vegan. Here is a sampling of supplement products available that you can take to increase your omega 3 intake. This list is automatically populated for vegan omega 3 supplements to stay relevant over time, and many or all will contain vegan DHA, but do check the status of each product individually to ensure it is vegan and suitable for you.
We got a liquid DHA supplement called NutraVege from our local grocery store (no affiliation with the product or store).
I have concerns and symptoms. What now?
Whether you obtain sufficient omega 3 fatty acids, or should consider changing food based sources or add supplementation, is a conversation best had with a trusted medical professional. It is important to balance your omega fatty acid intake.
If you are experiencing symptoms or feel that you are lacking omega 3 fatty acids, the first person to talk to is your medical professional about being referred to a certified plant-based dietician.
There are many things you can try with your health team in order to address these concerns without necessarily consuming animals.
Let us know about your experiences in the comments below!
- Pad Thai Protein Salad recipe from The Plant-Based Cookbook + Book Review and Giveaway! - December 9, 2020
- Lemon ginger bowl sauce with miso recipe (Oil free, no added sodium) - November 30, 2020
- New vegan bacon at Whole Foods Market – 300 store roll-out - November 15, 2020
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