Do Vegans Need DHA? Or is ALA from Plants Enough?


If you’ve found this post, you probably know the basics of omega 3s already.

Most plant sources of omega 3 fats consist mostly of ALA, which converts to the useful forms of omega 3s (DHA and EPA) at poor rate (5-15%).

The only plant-based source of DHA is algae, but most vegans never eat algae, meaning they exclusively get ALA.

So the question is whether or not that’s okay.

If you eat enough ALA, will you ultimately convert enough to DHA?

I came across a study based in Britain where the research team analyzed the omega 3 levels in vegans and meat-eaters.

Here’s a summary table of the plasma levels of each main type of omega 3 fat:

  Meat-eaters Vegans
Total fatty acids (mg/L)  3125 2346
Percentage of ALA (%) 1.30 1.41
Percentage of EPA (%) 0.72 0.34
Percentage of DHA (%) 1.69 0.70

Here are the main takeaways from that chart:

  • Meat-eaters had more total fatty acids (of all kinds, not just omega 3s).
  • Vegans had a higher portion of ALA, but similar when you look at raw quantities.
  • Vegans had much less EPA and DHA than meat eaters.

Basically, they found that the body will convert a small amount of ALA to DHA in vegans, but never in much excess.

I found a few other studies that also found that increasing ALA in your diet will increase certain omega 3 fats, but won’t have a significant effect on DHA, which is what we believe is the most important one.

Is this a bad thing?

That’s where the research becomes unclear. While there is some proof of benefits from taking omega 3 supplements as a vegan, the benefits usually only appear if have a significant deficiency.

There are so many confounding factors when it comes to omega 3 fats that it’s not clear which factors are the most important when it comes to reducing the risk of heart disease and avoiding omega 3 deficiency symptoms.

How Can Vegans Get DHA?

At this point, the only thing we know for sure is that you should try to get a reasonable amount of ALA in your diet. Here are some vegan recipes high in omega 3s if you need help with this.

That will keep your DHA at a stable baseline, even if it might be lower than optimal. Again, we need to wait for evidence either way.

Second, it is possible to get vegan DHA through supplements, it’s the only realistic vegan alternative to fish oil.

There are omega 3 supplements derived from algae (a marine plant), which are composed of DHA and EPA. Fish actually get their omega 3 content from algae in the first place.

Here’s a summary of the best vegan omega 3 supplements if you’re interested in that route.

Keep in mind that the science on whether fish oil supplements (comparable to algae supplements) are effective for the average person is pretty controversial. Some studies show a benefit, while others don’t.

Again, we’ll need a lot more research before we can conclude anything.

At worst though, an omega 3 supplement is unlikely to hurt you, and could potentially make you healthier. So if the cost isn’t an issue, it might be worth a try.

Sorry I couldn’t give you more concrete answers here, but if you have any questions, just leave a comment below.

About the author

Dale Cudmore

Your friendly neighborhood vegan from Toronto. Chemical engineer turned semi-professional soccer player and freelance nutrition writer. I've been vegan for years and try to make life easier for others by sharing what I've learned.

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