Omega-3 fatty acids are essential and have many vital functions. The three primary omega-3 fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Vegans generally are well supplied with ALA, which the body can convert to EPA and DHA. However, this conversion is limited. As a result, vegans may have an increased risk of omega-3 deficiency.
That's why in this post, we'll talk about plant-based omega-3 sources and how you can meet the need on a vegan diet.
- What are the benefits of omega-3, and why is it important?
- The importance of the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio
- Are vegans at risk of omega-3 deficiency?
- Which vegan foods are rich in omega-3?
- Do animal products contain omega-3?
- How much omega-3 should you consume daily?
- How can you test if you have an omega-3 deficiency?
- What are the symptoms of omega-3 deficiency?
- Is it dangerous to take in too much omega-3?
- How can vegans prevent an omega-3 deficiency?
- Summary: how to prevent omega-3 deficiency on a vegan diet
What are the benefits of omega-3, and why is it important?
Omega-3 serves as a building block for the cell membrane and is a part of inflammatory processes as well as energy production.
Additionally, the fatty acids have a positive influence on blood pressure, blood cholesterol levels, eyesight, cognitive development, and the immune system.
Further, omega-3 fatty acids aid in the prevention of diabetes mellitus type II, obesity, dementia, and rheumatoid arthritis.
The importance of the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio
Both fatty acids have a different purpose and effect in the body. Omega-3 acts anti-inflammatory and has a positive impact on the cardiovascular system and on rheumatic diseases.
Omega-6, on the other hand, can cause inflammation, which may promote chronic diseases.
The ratio of these two fatty acids to one another is (among others) important because omega-3 can balance out the negative impact of omega-6.
The recommended ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is 5:1. However, vegans often don't archive this ratio.
The reason is usually the frequent use of oil when cooking. Particularly oils made from wheat, thistle, sesame, and soy have a high omega-6 content.
But sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and most nuts (+ as well as oils made from these foods) also contain a lot of omega-6.
To archive a balanced ratio, vegans can decrease their consumption of omega-6 rich foods and increase their intake of omega-3 fatty acids.
Are vegans at risk of omega-3 deficiency?
Generally, vegans get enough of the omega-3 fatty acid ALA. However, the fatty acids EPA and DHA are challenging to get. Although the body can convert ALA to EPA and DHA, the conversion is limited.
Currently, it's unclear whether the converted amount is sufficient to prevent adverse health consequences in the long term.
Thus, many doctors, who specialize in plant-based nutrition, advise vegans to take a DHA and EPA supplement.
Which vegan foods are rich in omega-3?
The following are excellent vegan sources while also having a good omega-6 to omega-3 ratio.
- Flax seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Chia seeds
- Oils made from these foods.
Do animal products contain omega-3?
Some kinds of fish eat microalgae and, therefore, serve as an omega-3 source. However, fish also contain arachidonic acid, which, at least in part, undoes the positive effects of omega-3.
Another argument against the consumption of fish is that they contain heavy metals (such as quicksilver) as well as environmental poisons (plastic, dioxins, PCBs). These can harm your health.
How much omega-3 should you consume daily?
According to dietary associations, ALA should make up 0.5% of your daily calorie intake. So, if you consume 2000 calories per day, you need to take in at least 1.1 g omega-3.
The recommended intake for EPA and DHA is 250 mg/day each.
How can you test if you have an omega-3 deficiency?
One way is to measure the fatty acid distribution in the serum with a blood test. The standard values vary for each fatty acid:
- DHA 50-110 mg/l
- EPA 20-55 mg/l
- ALA 15-30 mg/l.
However, this test is not ideal because the values might fluctuate depending on your recent eating habits.
A better option would be getting an Omega-3 index done. However, not all doctors and laboratories do that test. Another possibility is administering a self-test (consult your doctor beforehand).
What are the symptoms of omega-3 deficiency?
Because Omega-3 has many vital functions, a deficiency can have severe consequences:
Among others, it may increase the risk of various chronic illnesses such as:
- Heart disease
- Cardiovascular disease
- Inflammatory diseases
- Rheumatoid diseases
- Neurological disorders such as (Alzheimer's disease, depression, ADHD, schizophrenia).
Common omega-3 deficiency symptoms are:
- Muscle fatigue
- Trouble concentrating
- Sleep problems
- Stunted growth
- Strawy hair and dry skin
Is it dangerous to take in too much omega-3?
Consuming too much omega-3 is not poisonous but can have adverse consequences. However, dietary associations are not clear on how much omega-3 is too much.
According to the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, an amount of more than 1,5 g/day can lead to prolonged bleeding time, suppression of the immune system, and increased LDL cholesterol levels. Thus, they recommend not to take in more than 1.5 g/day.
On the other hand, the European Food Safety Authority states that an intake of up to 5 g /day does not pose any risk.
Since no exact daily maximum is known or agreed upon, you should be careful when you use supplements. Always pay attention to the recommended intake instructions stated on the label and consult your doctor.
How can vegans prevent an omega-3 deficiency?
Getting enough ALA is usually not a problem. You can meet the need, for example, by consuming 1 TBSP flax seeds or eating a handful of walnuts.
Additionally, you must supplement EPA and DHA if you have an increased demand (f.e. pregnancy).
However, as mentioned above, many plant-based physicians recommend that all vegans take microalgae oil as a supplement. Usually, you consume about 1/2 tsp a day.
If microalgae oil is unavailable to you, capsules are a suitable alternative.
In addition to getting enough ALA and taking an EPA and DHA supplement, vegans should also aim for a balanced omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio.