Omega 3 fatty acids are essential for maintaining the health of your heart and brain and are vital for kidney function, eye health, healthy skin, reducing inflammation, decreasing blood triglycerides, and even reducing the risk of long-term medical conditions such as dementia.
The most common way to obtain the omega 3 fatty acids your body needs is fish or fish oil supplements. Still, there are plenty of vegan omega 3 foods that will give you the essential fatty acids your body needs without turning to meat or fish.
What is omega 3?
First things first… Omega 3 is a type of fatty acid that we must consume through our diets and foods rich in omega 3 as our bodies cannot naturally create it.
There are three main types of omega 3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic (ALA), eicosapentaenoic (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The first type, ALA, is the most vital to consume, as this is the one the body cannot create itself. ALA is also not so active in the body and must be converted into DHA and EPA acids to be used.
Omega 3 often comes hand-in-hand with another essential fatty acid: Omega 6, or linoleic acid (LA). Together, these two omega fats are instrumental in healthy functioning immune systems, nerves, brains, and eyes.
Where does omega 3 come from?
Fish is commonly cited as one of the best sources of omega 3, but you can also find omega 3 in plants such as seaweed, Brussel sprouts, nuts, and seeds.
But although plant-based omega 3 can be found in abundance, these sources of omega 3 tend to only offer ALA, which the body has a limited ability to absorb. According to PubMed Central, only around 5% of ALA is converted to the EPA, and under 0.5% is converted into DHA. Because of these low numbers, it's essential to consume plenty of foods high in ALA to ensure you're getting enough omega 3 from plants.
The FAO and EFSA both suggest that the average adult should consume approximately 250mg of omega 3 daily, as we cannot create the acids ourselves. People who are pregnant or breastfeeding and infants should be particularly aware of their omega 3 intakes, as omega 3 has such a vital role in brain health and development.
While 250mg doesn't seem like a considerable amount, the modern American diet is sorely lacking in this essential fat, so vegans and carnivores alike should be putting a little more effort into ensuring their omega 3 intakes are sufficient.
What does omega 3 do?
Omega 3 fatty acids are essential for a vast range of brain and body functions. Not only does omega 3 fight depression and anxiety, but it's also used in multiple physical aspects of the human body.
- It's a major structural part of the retina of the eyes.
- It's vital in brain growth and development in infants and during pregnancy.
- It reduces the risk of heart disease.
- It can maintain healthy blood pressure levels.
- It may reduce symptoms of ADHD in children.
- It lowers "bad" cholesterol levels.
- It improves insulin resistance and reduces inflammation.
- It maintains a healthy immune system and is vital in combatting autoimmune diseases.
- It improves bone strength and joint health.
- It keeps your skin cell membranes healthy, resulting in softer, more supple, and wrinkle-free skin.
- It helps block substances that eat the collagen in your skin following sun exposure – protecting you from sun damage.
Studies have also shown that consuming sufficient omega 3 fatty acids could be crucial in fighting and preventing certain cancers and age-related mental decline such as Alzheimer's disease.
Are there any vegetarian omega 3 sources?
While it is possible to find vegetarian and vegan omega 3 sources, it's not possible to consume vegan DHA. However, plant-based omega 3 sources are generally rich in ALA, which can be converted by the body into DHA and EPA to provide a massive selection of benefits.
Although there aren't any vegan sources of DHA, the following foods are excellent sources of non-fish omega 3 for vegans and vegetarians to enjoy.
- Algae oil
- Hemp seeds
- Kidney beans
There are also many seeds with omega 3, including hemp seed and chia seeds, and many vegan protein substitutes are rich in this essential fatty acid.
Can I get vegan omega 3 supplements?
Although vegan options like hemp seed omega 3 are rich in some of the essential fatty acids our bodies need, even non-vegans often turn to supplements to ensure they're getting their daily dose of omega 3 fatty acids. Vegan diets, however, aren't suited to most omega 3 supplements, as these are generally made from fish oil.
Algal oil (an oil derived from algae) is one of the very few vegan sources of omega 3 containing EPA and DHA. This makes it an effective vegan fish oil alternative and a hugely beneficial source of omega 3 for a plant-based diet.
Other vegetable oils are also carriers of vegan omega 3 - in particular, canola, rapeseed, and flaxseed oils - are useful additions to any vegan or vegetarian kitchen, thanks to offering plenty of omega 3. Non-fish oil supplements make an excellent source of omega 3 and can be used in your everyday cooking to give you a boost of this essential fatty acid.
Balancing omega 3 and omega 6
As we've mentioned, omega 3 on its own isn't necessarily enough to maintain a healthy body and brain, and it needs to be balanced with omega 6 fatty acids (LA).
Getting the right balance between these fats is essential. While vegans and vegetarians, in particular, might find it tricky to consume enough ALA fats, LA can be found in large quantities when eating a varied and well-balanced plant-based diet.
The problem with this is that linoleic acid can restrict the body's ability to convert ALA into DHA and EPA, which reduces the amount of omega 3 in the blood. A diet that's high in omega 6 but low in omega 3 can increase disease and inflammation risks in the brain and body.
Therefore, it's vital to get the right balance between these fats, so they can work together to make you healthier instead of overwhelming your body with too much omega 6 vs. omega 3.
How much is enough omega 3?
Filling your diet with foods rich in omega 3 is by far the best way to ensuring a healthy body and mind. Vegans and vegetarians should aim for plenty of omega 3 rich foods such as chia seeds, hemp seeds, and walnuts. Omega 3 can also be found in vegetable oils such as rapeseed and canola, so it's a good idea to switch to an omega 3-rich vegetable oil for cooking.
The FAO and EFSA are generally in agreement that most adults need approximately 250ml of omega 3 daily. For context, this amounts to around a tablespoon of chia seeds or ground linseed, two tablespoons of hemp seeds, or six walnut halves.
An excellent way to ensure you're getting your daily dose of omega 3 is to mix up your favorite seeds and nuts into your breakfast cereal or sprinkle them over a salad. Tasty and healthy, what could be better?
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