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OMEGA-3 » recommendations for vegans, simplified

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:

  1. saturated fats​

  2. unsaturated fats a. monounsaturated fats i. omega-9 fatty acids b. polyunsaturated fats i. omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids

  3. trans fats

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

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.

Types

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.

  1. 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)

  2. 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

  3. 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

Recommendations

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