Omega-3 fatty acids are an important part of a healthy diet. Here’s everything you need to know about these healthy fats and the best vegan food sources to get enough omega-3s in your diet.
What Are Omega-3s?
Omega-3s are polyunsaturated fatty acids that are essential for health. The fatty acids have two ends – carboxylic acid and methyl – that make up the beginning and tail of the chain.
There are three important omega-3 fatty acids to know about when discussing human physiology. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are usually found in marine oils, whilst alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is commonly found in plant oils.
ALA is made up of 18 carbon atoms. EPA and DHA are considered “long-chain” omega-3s because they contain more carbon atoms; 20 and 22 respectively, National Institutes of Health explains.
Mammals, including humans, can’t make their own omega-3s but they can get them from their diet. ALA is the most common fatty acid found in food. The other two are more difficult to find in plant sources. However, the body can use ALA to create the long-chain EPA, a process that takes place mostly in the liver. EPA can then be used to create DHA, which many hail as the most important fatty acid. Some foods are fortified with EPA and DHA so that the body does not have to complete the long-chain process.
How Do Omega-3s Impact Health?
1. Mental Health
Research suggests omega-3s could benefit mental health. DHA is a key structural component of neuronal membranes, making it valuable to the central nervous system, according to research from Swallownest Court Hospital in Sheffield in the UK. Changing the fatty acid composition of neuronal membranes can result in shifts in the activity of receptors and other proteins. People suffering from schizophrenia, depression, borderline personality disorder, and ADHD have experienced positive results due to increased omega-3 levels.
“Epidemiological studies indicate an association between depression and low dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids, and biochemical studies have shown reduced levels of omega-3 fatty acids in red blood cell membranes in both depressive and schizophrenic patients,” the Swallownest Court Hospital research reads.
Five out of six double-blind, placebo-controlled trials in schizophrenia as well as four out of six trials in depression reported therapeutic benefit from omega-3 fatty acids, especially when EPA is added to existing medication, the research pointed out.
Other studies, including one from a medical school in Italy and another from Taiwan, suggest that those who consume omega-3s regularly are less likely to be depressed. EPA seems to be the most effective fatty acid for combatting depression, according to research from the Department of Nutrition, Faculty of Health, Shahid Sadoughi University of Medical Sciences in Iran.
2. Eye Health
DHA makes up 60 percent of the retina of the eye so vision problems could arise due to low DHA levels.
Studies show omega-3 fatty acids could help protect the eye from macular degeneration, one of the world’s leading causes of permanent eye damage and blindness. A 2009 National Eye Institute study looked at data from the Age-Related Eye Disease Study and found that individuals who reported the highest level of omega-3s in their diet were 30 percent less likely to develop macular degeneration.
Other research suggests that infants on a DHA-fortified formula develop stronger eyesight than other children with non-DHA-fortified formulas.
AllAboutVision.com, an online database for information on eye health, recommends some dietary swaps to include more omega-3s and thus improve eye health. It recommends replacing cooking oils that are high in omega-6 fatty acids with olive oil, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, avoid fried foods and foods containing trans fats, and limiting the consumption of red meat.
3. Heart Disease
The British Dietetic Association (BDA), a trade union for dieticians in the UK, says that a diet rich in omega-3s could reduce the risk of heart disease. Good omega-3 levels have been linked to a nearly 10 percent lowered risk of fatal heart attacks, according to a meta-analysis published in 2016.
EPA and DHA could help lower cardiac risk by reducing triglycerides, a type of fat (lipid) found in the blood, registered dietician Carly Johnston told LIVEKINDLY in an email. High triglycerides could lead to the hardening of arteries and the thickening of artery walls. This increases the risk of stroke, heart attack, and heart disease.
Inflammation is part of the body’s immune system, so it’s beneficial in the short-term for fighting off infection. However, inflammation that lingers can be associated with type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, and Crohn’s disease.
Samantha Morrison, Health and Wellness expert for Glacier Wellness, told LIVEKINDLY that omega-3 fatty acids can effectively treat and reduce inflammation.
The claim is backed up by research from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. It found that omega-3 fatty acids could inhibit inflammation and it hopes the findings could help those with meningitis, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, or jaundice.
Morrison also noted that omega-3s are “known for their cancer-fighting properties.”
Sarah Rafat, RD, a senior dietitian at MD Anderson Cancer Center, said in a statement, “Omega-3 fatty acids are thought to reduce inflammation in the body. And a variety of cancers have been linked to chronic inflammation.”
A 2018 study published in the Journal of Mammary Gland Biology and Neoplasia found that fatty acids could prevent breast cancer cells from forming and spreading.
The researchers fed two groups of adult female rodents near-identical diets. The difference was that one group consumed a diet rich in omega-6 polyunsaturated fats while the other focused on omega-3s. Breast cancer cells were “significantly” less likely to spread to the breast glands on the diet rich in omega-3s. Any tumors that did develop grew much more slowly than the other group.
6. Brain Health
Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are “critical” for healthy brain functioning, medical publication Healthline writes. Omega-3s work in the cell membranes of brain cells to preserve membrane health and assist with cell communication.
Research has found that low levels of DHA in the blood could be connected to smaller brain size, which is an indicator of accelerated brain aging, according to Healthline.
Dr. Scott McGinnis, an assistant professor in neurology at Harvard Medical School, wrote about omega-3s and brain health on the Harvard Health Publishing website. “There’s evidence they can have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects as well, which means they might promote healthier brain cells and less deterioration of the brain,” he said.
Can You Get Enough Omega-3s on a Vegan Diet?
Speaking to LIVEKINDLY, Nick Rizzo, Training Director at RunRepeat.com, said that it’s “most definitely possible” to get enough omega-3 on a plant-based diet.
Sunny Brigham, board-certified clinical and integrative nutritionist, confirmed this and added, “The only concern that some have is the body has to work hard to convert ALA to the usable form of EPA and DHA. If you consume processed foods or have poor overall health, I’d recommend a supplement like algae oil that already has ALA converted.”
Brigham continued, “But if you’re overall a healthy individual with no digestive concerns, add some walnuts to your morning oats and you’re all set!”
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a non-profit research and advocacy organization, explains that a plant-based diet could actually be the most effective at getting enough omega-3s. “Omega-3 fatty acids are important in the normal functioning of all tissues of the body, but they are best obtained through a plant-based diet, not fish oil supplements,” the organization writes on its website. PCRM points to research that found that women who adhere to a plant-based diet have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood than those who consume fish, meat, and dairy.
Most plants are low in fat. The fats they do contain are in the “perfect amount” to allow ALA to convert to EPA and DHA, PCRM says. Adding more fats into the diet can make the conversion difficult, so PCRM recommends an overall low-fat, plant-based diet – “no supplements required,” it says.
Plant-based sources of omega-3s come with other benefits, too, like fiber, which improves bowel health, cholesterol levels, and blood sugar levels. Fiber cannot be found in animal products, it exists only in plant sources.
What’s Wrong With Getting Omega-3s From Fish?
Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA can be found in animal products like fish, fish oil, squid oil, krill oil, and eggs, although for the latter, eggs containing EPA and DHA come from chickens that were intentionally fed these supplements.
Oily fish are a strong source of omega-3s, however, the National Institutes of Health points out that the omega-3s present in fish products originally come from microalgae, not the fish itself. “When fish consume phytoplankton that consumed microalgae, they accumulate the omega-3s in their tissues,” it said.
While eating fish is an efficient way to absorb these fatty acids, the food poses health risks. Alongside rising levels of ocean pollution and fish farming, contaminants including plastic, growth hormones, mercury, herbicides, antibiotics, and fungicides make their way into fish and seafood, and eventually the people that consume them, clean meat startup Finless Foods highlights.
Besides the health risks, fishing is highly unsustainable. Fifty-three percent of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited, Finless Foods reports, and 25 percent are overexploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion. Many fish populations have been hit hard by commercial fishing, like the Pacific bluefin tuna which has seen population numbers decline by 97.4 percent.
Considering this and the abundance of cruelty-free, plant-based sources available, many choose to get their omega-3 fatty acids from vegan foods.
Plant-Based Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Ounce for ounce, walnuts contain more omega-3 fatty acids than salmon, Dr. Greg Maguire, founder of BioRegenerative Sciences, told LIVEKINDLY in an email.
“The omega-3 fatty acid in walnuts is in a different form than that in salmon. But like salmon, when humans eat omega-3 fatty acid in the form of ALA they can also convert it to EPA and DHA. You don’t need a salmon to convert it for you,” Dr. Maguire said.
The National Institutes of Health recommends between 0.5 and 1.6 g of ALA each day. An ounce of dried English walnuts offers 2.6 grams of ALA, whilst black walnuts provide 0.6 grams, Dr. Maguire said.
If you prefer, you can enjoy walnuts as a spread, like Crazy Go Nuts’ preservative-free vegan walnut butter.
2. Chia Seeds
Chia seeds are a “phenomenal” source of omega-3s. according toRizzo. Nutritionist Brigham noted that one tablespoon of chia seeds provides 1.6 grams of ALA or 162 percent of the daily requirement.
One study saw participants eating ground chia seeds each day for seven weeks. Researchers noted that EPA levels in the blood went up by 30 percent, UK health food chain Holland and Barrett reported. Chia seeds also offer fiber and protein.
Easy to sprinkle on top of smoothies or cereals, chia seeds can also be included in various recipes. If you like to get creative in the kitchen, you could whip up this vegan chia seed pudding parfait.
“Flaxseed oil is the most concentrated natural source of ALA,” Dr. Maguire said. Even small servings of flaxseed can deliver your daily requirement of omega-3s since each tablespoon of flaxseed oil has 7.3 grams of ALA – more than four times what an adult male requires in a day.
While ground or whole flaxseeds don’t have as much ALA as oil, the seed is still the best choice as it is also a good source of dietary fiber and phytochemicals, Dr. Maguire said. The body can also absorb the nutrients from ground flaxseeds more easily. Medical News Today highlights that flaxseed could also help to lower the risk of diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
4. Brussels Sprouts
Cooked Brussels sprouts contain a “significantly high” amount of ALA, according to Caleb Backe, Health and Wellness Expert for Maple Holistics, a company dedicated to cruelty-free, natural, and sustainable personal care products.
There is 135mg of ALA in one half-cup of cooked Brussels sprouts. As well as omega-3, the food is a good source of vitamin C and vitamin K. The latter is important for bone health and wound healing. The body needs vitamin K to produce prothrombin, a protein that helps the blood clot appropriately.
Try including a side of Brussels sprouts with your next homecooked meal or make them the star of the show by whipping up a vegan Kung Pao chicken — trade out the chicken with Brussels sprouts to make this Chinese stir-fry rich in omega-3s and flavor.
5. Algae Oil
For those struggling with health, or anyone seeking some peace of mind about their omega-3 intake, supplements can be a way to ensure your nutritional needs are being met. “At the end of the day, omega-3 supplementation is not necessary for most people — vegans and non-vegans alike. But, as with any nutrient, it depends on an individual basis,” Siavash Ghazvinian, co-founder of EthicalTree that focuses on vegan, fair trade, and women-owned businesses, said to LIVEKINDLY.
Marine algae oil is arguably the most effective source of omega-3 for those on a plant-based diet. A 2014 review found that algae oil supplements resulted in “significant increases” in DHA in the blood, Holland and Barrett reports. Other research found that algae oil was more efficient than krill oil at raising levels of EPA. “So seaweed could be the solution to upping your omega-3 levels, whether you’re vegan or not,” Holland and Barrett wrote.
Zenwise Health’s Vegan Omega-3 — available online — contains Nannochloropsis sp. marine algae, which has high concentrations of EPA and DHA. The supplement can support joint, immune, skin, brain, and cardiovascular health.
6. Wild Rice
Wild rice — a low-calorie and protein-packed grass — has nearly 500mg of omega-3 in one cup, Glacier Wellness’ Morrison highlighted. “As an added bonus, wild rice is also rich
in fiber, B vitamins, zinc, and magnesium,” she said. Magnesium is needed for the upkeep of muscle health, including the heart. It also assists in transmitting electrical signals throughout the body.
Wild rice can be included in many nutritious vegan recipes. This plant-based recipe includes mini pumpkins stuffed with wild rice. The hearty dish is low in fat and combines savory and sweet flavors, while shiitake mushrooms bring a meaty bite.
7. Plant Oils
Avocado oil — ideal in salads, marinades, or baked goods — has a high concentration of omega-3 fatty acids, according to Morrison. Further, roughly 70 percent of avocado oil is oleic acid, a heart-healthy, monounsaturated, omega-9 fatty acid.
Other plant oils, like flaxseed oil and canola oil, also deliver good amounts of omega-3. Both oils are also effective at lowering cholesterol.
Tofu is a source of ALA, Dietitians of Canada highlights. One hundred grams of firm tofu offers 0.4 grams of ALA. You can also purchase tofu with added DHA, like House Foods’ extra firm tofu, which is vegan, gluten-free, and a good source of protein and calcium.
9. Fortified Drinks
Hemp contains naturally occurring omega-3 fats. Hemp milk (like the kind from vegan brand Good Hemp – available online) is a useful way to obtain the fatty acids by using the plant-based milk in breakfast cereals, smoothies, coffee, or in baking and cooking.
Since flax also contains omega-3s, flax milk is a great option for those looking to boost their fatty acid levels. Good Karma’s low-calorie flax milk contains 1200mg of omega-3 fatty acids as well as calcium, vitamin D, and protein.
Additionally, most vegan milk can be fortified with DHA, providing a sound way for vegans, or anyone looking to ditch animal products, to get enough omega-3.