Omega-3 fatty acids – you’ve probably heard of them, usually associated with fish and fish oils. But what are they, do you need them, and is there any way to get omega-3s without animal products, on a vegan diet?
Omega-3s and a Plant-Based 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.
Regarding human physiology, there are three important omega-3 fatty acids. 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 – 20 and 22 respectively – National Institutes of Health explains.
Mammals – including humans – can’t make their own omega-3s but can get them from diet. ALA is the most common fatty acid found in food, with the other two being slightly 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
Upping omega-3 levels is a tactic that has been used to treat disorders like schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, and ADHD, with positive results.
Similarly, 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.
2. Eye Health
DHA is a major structural component of the retina of the eye; vision problems could come about with inadequate DHA levels. Further, obtaining sufficient omega-3 is said to reduce one’s risk of contracting macular degeneration, one of the world’s leading causes of permanent eye damage and blindness.
3. Pregnancy and Infancy
DHA makes up 40 percent of the polyunsaturated fatty acids in the brain and 60 percent of the retina of the eye. Research suggests that infants on a DHA-fortified formula develop stronger eyesight than other children with non-DHA-fortified formulas.
And getting enough omega-3 during pregnancy has been said to offer benefits to children once they are born including stronger social skills and higher intelligence. A lowered risk of ADHD, autism, and cerebral palsy could also be linked to good omega-3 levels.
4. Heart Disease
The British Dietetic Association (BDA), a trade union for dieticians in the UK, believes a diet rich in omega-3s offers a lower risk of heart disease. In fact, 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.
It’s also suggested that EPA and DHA can decrease cardiac risk by reducing triglycerides, slowing growth of artery-clogging plaque, and decreasing the risk of arrhythmias, registered dietician Carly Johnston told LIVEKINDLY in an email.
Samantha Morrison, Health and Wellness expert for Glacier Wellness, told LIVEKINDLY that omega-3 fatty acids can effectively treat and reduce inflammation, a statement also made by Harvard, nutrition consultant Amy Goodson in an interview with Men’s Health, and research from 2007.
Morrison also noted that omega-3s are “known for their cancer-fighting properties.”
Similarly, Goodson told Men’s Health, “There is some evidence that omega-3 fatty acids can also be protective against some types of cancers.” One animal study found that canola oil, rich in omega-3s, could inhibit the growth of colon cancer tumors.
7. 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 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.
Can I Get Enough Omega-3s on a Vegan Diet?
Speaking to LIVEKINDLY, Nick Rizzo, Training Director at RunRepeat.com, said that it is “most definitely possible” to receive 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.”
She 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!”
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, 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 seafoods, 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.
What Are Some Plant-Based Sources of Omega-3?
“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 to RunRepeat.com’s Rizzo. 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.
4. Brussel 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 vitamins K and C.
5. Algae Oil
For those struggling with health, or anyone seeking some peace of mind about their omega-3 intake, supplements can be a good 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 in an email.
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 even 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 a rich source of omega-3s from Nannochloropsis sp. marine algae with 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.
Wild rice can be included in many diverse, nutritional recipes, like these vegan mini stuffed pumpkins.
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.
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 this extra firm tofu from House Foods that 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 milks can be fortified with DHA, providing a sound way for vegans, or anyone looking to ditch animal products, to get enough omega-3.
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