Like most people, I always relied on fish to get omega 3 fats before I went vegan.
With that option being gone, I did a lot of research on vegan alternatives.
I’ll sum up all the useful things I learned here, backed with plenty of studies if you wish to learn even more.
To start with, omega 3 deficiency is relatively common in the general population, as not all people eat a lot of fish, which is by far the best source for omega 3s.
A study of British men looked at omega 3 levels in meat-eaters, vegetarians, and vegans.
Let’s go through the main conclusions.
The proportions of plasma EPA and DHA were lower in the vegetarians and in the vegans than in the meat-eater…
Ouch…EPA and DHA are the most important forms of omega 3 fats, as they are actually useable by the body.
In the vegetarians and the vegans, plasma DHA was inversely correlated with plasma LA…
This means that even in vegans with a lot of linoleic acid (LA), which not a great form of omega 3s, DHA didn’t significantly rise. That’s a bit worrying.
Finally, the researchers concluded:
This finding suggests that when animal foods are wholly excluded from the diet, the endogenous production of EPA and DHA results in low but stable plasma concentrations of these fatty acids.
In plain English: On a vegan diet, you’re mainly getting LA (or ALA to be more specific), which is supposed to be converted to EPA and then DHA. But even if you get more than enough ALA, your body only converts a small amount.
That’s probably enough to be “healthy,” but not all vegans are even going to be at that point.
Bottom line, vegans are at a higher risk of omega 3 deficiencies than omnivores or pescetarians, and it’s near impossible to have high levels of EPA or DHA solely through your diet.
So the question now becomes, what are the consequences if you do end up deficient in omega 3s?
Side Effects of Not Getting Enough Omega 3s (DHA/EPA in particular)
A lot of research has been done showing the importance of getting enough omega 3 fats.
They’re involved in a variety of metabolic processes, affecting everything from eyesight to brain function.
Here are some of the most notable findings from studies:
- Low maternal DHA increases the risk of impaired visual and neural development in kids (Source).
- Low levels of omega 3 result in behavior problems in children. These range from temper tantrums, sleep problems, and concentration issues (Source).
- Low omega 3 levels have been linked to neuropsychiatric (i.e. brain) diseases, most notably depression (Source).
I could go on, but it’s clear that not getting enough omega 3s (DHA and EPA in particular) can cause serious health issues.
It’s particularly important for expecting mothers and children.
Where Do Vegans Get Omega 3s?
First you need to understand the 3 types of omega fats, which are generally split into 2 categories:
- ALA – A short chain fatty acid that needs to be converted by the body into longer chain fats (EPA/DHA) that are more useable.
- EPA/DHA – The long chain omega 3 fats that the body actually uses in its biological processes.
Omega 3s are found in food from 2 sources: plants and marine life.
Plants like flaxseed, hemp, and walnuts are almost entirely comprised of ALA. Here’s a full list of the best vegan sources of omega 3s.
That’s why those studies we looked at before showed that vegans had lower levels of long chain omega 3 fats.
What about marine sources of omega 3s?
These omega 3s are mainly EPA or DHA, which makes them the best sources. While most people know about fish, they often don’t know that fish get their omega 3s from eating algae.
If you’re able to get your hands on algae and don’t mind eating it, it’s a great source of omega 3s for vegans.
But most don’t have that option.
What Vegans Worried About Omega 3 Deficiency Should Do
We saw that vegans are at a higher risk of omega 3 deficiency than meat eaters.
We also saw that an omega 3 deficiency can cause a wide array of serious health problems like depression, vision issues, and concentration problems.
If you are deficient in omega 3s, you will likely see benefits from taking omega 3 supplements, whether you were vegan or not.
The biggest issue that vegans face is that omega 3s from plants are mostly in the ALA form, which means they convert poorly to the useful forms of omega 3s – DHA and EPA.
That leaves you with 2 main options:
- Focus on eating a lot of vegan recipes high in omega 3 (i.e. get as much ALA as you can).
- Use a vegan omega 3 supplement made from algae, which will have plenty of DHA/EPA.
I’ll leave the choice up to you.