When you hear omega-3s, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? I’ll bet it’s fish. Eating fish has been a standard recommendation for getting your omega-3s but does that mean you have to eat fish to get omega-3s? Nope!
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What are Omega-3s?
“Omega-3s” is short for omega-3 essential fatty acids. They are polyunsaturated fatty acids, meaning they have numerous cis double bonds in their molecule. If you’re interested in breaking this down a little bit further, here is a brief explanation:
This tells you that the first double bond in the molecule is between the third and fourth carbon in from the end of the tail. This doesn’t really matter for the purpose of general nutrition but it’s cool to know if you like science. Here’s an image if you want to see what I’m talking about.
Our bodies can’t make omega-3s so we have to get them from our food. However, our bodies can convert shorter omega-3s into longer omega-3s (and even retroconversion from longer to shorter) – we’ll get more into that later.
We don’t actually eat free fatty acids – we eat triglycerides. Triglycerides contain three fatty acids and one glycerol. Triglycerides are broken down by pancreatic enzymes so the free fatty acids can be absorbed in the small intestine.
(Wow this really makes me miss school!)
There are several types of omega-3s but there are three important ones to remember for purposes of human nutrition. They are:
ALA (alpha-linolenic acid)
EPA (eicosapentanoic acid)
DHA (docosahexanoic acid)
What Do Omega-3s Do?
Omega-3s have numerous functions all throughout our bodies. For starters, they are incorporated into the phospholipid layer of cell membranes to help give cells structure. Omega-3s in cell membranes also impact enzymes, signaling and gene expression of cells. Pretty neat, right?
Perhaps omega-3s’ most well-known function is in the brain. The brain and eyes contain higher amounts of omega-3s than other areas of the body. Omega-3s are critical for proper cognitive development of fetuses and babies. That’s why you’ll often hear about DHA for pregnant people and in baby formula.
Omega-3s aren’t just important for the beginning of life. We need them for our entire lives (they’re essential, remember) and it’s important that we obtain enough through food.
Heart health is another area often associated with omega-3s because they help reduce inflammation. However, research is mixed on the effect of omega-3 intake on risk for heart disease.
Regardless of the impact of these fats of certain health conditions, they’re still essential nutrients that we need to consume regularly.
Where Can You Get Omega-3s?
While it’s true that cold water fish are the main dietary source of the long chain omega-3s EPA and DHA, there are plant sources of the short chain omega-3 ALA. The body can convert ALA to EPA and DHA. So, if you’re eating enough ALA, you shouldn’t need to worry too much about EPA and DHA. And, your body can even convert some DHA back to EPA.
Food Sources of Plant-Based Omega-3s
Good plant sources of ALA are walnuts, ground flaxseed (your body can’t break down whole flaxseed and you’ll just poop them out without absorbing any of their nutrients), flax oil, chia seeds, hemp seeds, canola oil and soybean oil. The Institute of Medicine recommends adult females consume 1.1 grams of ALA per day and adult males consume 1.6 grams of ALA per day.
Here is the ALA content of selected plant foods:
1 tablespoon flax oil = 7.26 grams
2 tablespoons chia seeds = 4.28 grams
2 tablespoons ground flaxseed = 3.19 grams
¼ cup walnuts = 2.27 grams
2 tablespoons hemp seeds = 1.74 grams
1 tablespoon canola oil = 1.28 grams
1 tablespoon soy oil = 0.92 grams
As you can see, if you’re incorporating these foods into your eating pattern, you won’t have any difficulty meeting the ALA recommendations.
ALA-rich Meal and Snack Ideas
- Oatmeal with ground flaxseed and walnuts
- Toast with peanut butter and hemp seeds
- Salad dressed with lemon juice and flax oil
- Chia seed pudding
- Veggies sauteed in soybean oil
- Popcorn popped in canola oil
Some people are concerned that their bodies may not be very good at converting ALA to EPA and DHA and therefore want to take an EPA and/or DHA supplement for extra insurance.
It’s true that the conversion rate of ALA to EPA and DHA is variable and can be quite low. You may have heard about the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats. The reason people talk about this is because the same enzyme is used to convert these fats. If you’re eating too much omega-6 fat, they could be crowding out the enzyme that ALA needs to get to EPA and DHA. (Here’s a cool graphic showing this.)
While I don’t think generally healthy people need to count grams of omega-6 and omega-3 fats, I do think it’s important that vegans incorporate the foods listed above on a regular basis. And if that is challenging, there are always supplements.
RELATED: 10 Strategies to Help You Go Vegan
Supplement Sources of Plant-Based Omega-3s
Fish oil supplements have been very popular in recent years as people want to safeguard their heart health. There is conflicting research on if fish oil supplements actually provide benefits.
If you’re vegan and have trouble eating enough ALA-rich foods and want to take a long-chain omega-3 supplement, look to algae.
Did you know that algae are where fish get their EPA and DHA? That’s right, algae are at the bottom of the omega-3 food chain.
There are several kinds of algae oil omega-3 supplements on the market. Some come in vegan capsules and others you take as a liquid oil.
Remember how the body can convert some DHA back to EPA? If you want to take a vegan long chain omega-3 supplement, consider taking a DHA supplement.
Can Vegans Get Enough Omega-3s?
By eating a variety of ALA-rich plant foods, vegans can get all the omega-3s they need. For those who wish for extra insurance, they may take an algae-based long chain omega-3 supplement.
If you have concerns about your omega-3 needs or intake, please work with a registered dietitian nutritionist for personalized guidance and recommendations. I offer one-on-one nutrition counseling and you can learn more about my services here.
USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference.
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