Do Vegans Need Supplements of Omega-3 Fats?

New data from the EPIC-Norfolk Study in the U.K. revealed some surprises about blood levels of DHA in vegans.  DHA is one of the long-chain fatty acids found primarily in fish oils. Vegans don’t consume any, but in this study, vegan women (although not men) had the highest levels of plasma DHA of all the groups.  

Since DHA can be synthesized from another omega-3 fat, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), one theory is that vegans are more efficient at converting ALA to DHA. And in fact, this study did find that those who don’t eat fish are better converters than those who do, and that women are better converters than men.

That might suggest that vegans—or at least vegan women—don’t need to worry about DHA. But the truth is that these particular results are probably an anomaly. Of the 4,902 subjects in the study, there were only 5 vegan women. And among those 5 subjects, there was a pretty wide range of DHA levels which means that some of the women had very low levels.  

Since other research has shown that vegans have lower levels of DHA, it’s important to put these results into perspective. I certainly wouldn’t want to make recommendations regarding DHA supplements for vegans based on this tiny bit of data that isn’t quite in sync with other findings.

The whole story about DHA remains complicated and poorly understood. No one knows for certain whether or not vegans would benefit from having a source of DHA in their diet.  And algae-derived supplements—the only DHA source for vegans—are expensive. But I take 200 milligrams of vegan DHA per day myself, and the EPIC-Norfolk study hasn’t changed my mind about doing so.  

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21 Responses to Do Vegans Need Supplements of Omega-3 Fats?

  1. Scott November 17, 2010 at 11:31 am #

    So, I guess ALA is what we get from flax, hemp, chia, walnuts, etc.?

    • Ginny Messina November 17, 2010 at 11:50 am #

      Right. It's in just a handful of foods so vegans need to pay a little bit of attention to getting enough.

  2. Diane Thomas November 17, 2010 at 12:38 pm #

    Ginny, I take flax in my oatmeal each day, but I keep hearing that if it's not the right kind of flax, it goes right through you w/o giving you the nutrients.  I buy Organic Cold Milled Ground Golden Flax.  What is your opinion?

    • Ginny Messina November 17, 2010 at 12:42 pm #

      Diane, as long as it's ground into a pretty fine meal, it's okay. Whole flaxseeds don't get digested very well so are the ones that go right through you. Keep in mind, though, that the flaxseed is good for you, but is not necessarily a replacement for DHA.

  3. Linda November 17, 2010 at 2:10 pm #

    So, I'm wondering if you take a DHA supplement, whether you should still eat walnuts, chia, flaxseed, hemp and canola oil.  Is there such a thing as over-consuming DHA from food sources?

    • Ginny Messina November 17, 2010 at 4:56 pm #

      The walnuts, flaxseed etc, provide alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is a different omega-3 from DHA. ALA has its own set of functions–aside from being a precursor to DHA–and it's an essential nutrient. So you should always have some ALA in your diet, whether or not you supplement with DHA. You don't need much, though. Just 1 tbsp of ground flaxseeds would give you all you need for the day.

  4. Mary Martin November 17, 2010 at 4:25 pm #

    Am I correct that O-Mega-Zen3 (200mcg DHA), once a day, for both Dave and I, is sufficient?
     

    • Ginny Messina November 17, 2010 at 4:52 pm #

      It's 200 mg (not mcg), right? That sounds fine to me.

  5. Mary Martin November 18, 2010 at 2:54 am #

    Sorry. Boy do I need to use my reading glasses. Been in denial about that. But it does say 300. Is there such a thing as too much?

    • Ginny Messina November 18, 2010 at 10:18 am #

      Yes, it's possible to get too much, I'm sure. But 300 mg is okay.

  6. Lisa S. November 18, 2010 at 10:11 am #

    I'm glad to hear that the ground flax I have every day (1 1/2 tbsp per day) is sufficient. I started doing that 3 years ago when I first went vegan someone suggested I add flax to my diet. Ground, of course.  I've seen what happens when you eat it whole!! LOL!!

  7. Hop Essick May 9, 2011 at 10:55 pm #

    I am quoting from Dr. Neal Barnard's blog of 4/27/11…"Omega-3 Fatty Acids Linked to Prostate Cancer Risk". "A  new study from Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, that looked at 3461 participants in the Prostate Cancer Prevention Trial, and found that men with the most DHA in their bloodstreams were two-and-a-half times more likely to have an aggressive form of prostate cancer. Similar results wre found in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition study." Has this changed your recommendation for DHA supplements? I have been taking an algal form daily for three years, but now have concerns. Your advice? 

    • Ginny Messina May 10, 2011 at 5:45 pm #

      I think those results suggest caution regarding high amounts of DHA supplements, but I'm still comfortable with small amounts like I recommended in this post. The study you referred to also found trans fats to be protective! So we need to use a little caution in interpreting the findings, I think.

  8. Rachel May 24, 2011 at 2:03 pm #

    Hello,

    I am so pleased to find a vegan dietitian!  I am pursuing a degree in dietetics at UT in Austin, TX.   My question is, do you recommend a specific vegan DHA supplement?  I am having a hard time finding a supplement that doesn't have carrageenan or sorbitol.

    Thanks,
     
    ~Rachel~

  9. Jennifer June 3, 2011 at 7:19 am #

    Hi,
    I consume two tbsp of ground flax every day. In addition, I want to take a DHA supplement. I was doing some research on DHA supplements and found out that different supplements contain different kinds of algae. They contain golden marine algae, Pacific red algae, or schizochytrium sp. Dr. Michael Greger discourages the consumption of blue/green algae, including spirulina. The article can be found here:
    http://www.drgreger.org/june2005.html
    His yearly DVDs called Latest in Clinical Nutrition, the latest from 2010, keep supporting this recommendation. This has me worried about which algae are safe and which are not. What is your opinion on this matter?

  10. Jennifer June 3, 2011 at 2:24 pm #

    Hello again,
    there's something I forgot to mention. I found a company that states that their DHA supplement is better than others because it contains the natural form of omega-3, which is TG, instead of the unnatural EE form. Is there any truth to this claim or is it just a scheme to boost sales? I'm grateful for any light you can shed on the situation.

    • Ginny Messina June 9, 2011 at 8:11 am #

      I don't think the evidence shows much difference between the TG and EE forms of omega-3s.

      And that's interesting about the spirulina. The supplements contain extracted oil from algae–not the whole algae itself, but I don't know whether this would affect content of toxins. I'll try to look into this.

  11. Jennifer June 14, 2011 at 9:36 am #

    How odd…It seems that I cannot reply to your comments directly, so I just posted a new entry. Thank you for your help. It's great to have a dietician that I can ask these questions, since there is no doctor or dietician who is knowledgeable about vegan nutrition in my area.

  12. Joe April 1, 2012 at 2:17 am #

    Martek Makes the algae DHA and it is GMO. Look at what cornicopiea institute is say… the brand “ovega 3 ” is martek too

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    […] Dietitian bloggers, each wrote this week about a new study concerning vegan woman and DHA. Here’s Ginny’s article and here’s […]

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