Omega-3 Fats in Vegan Diets: A Quick Primer

Omega-3 Fats in Vegan Diets: A Quick Primer

By | 2012-01-19T14:10:58+00:00 January 19th, 2012|Tags: , , |53 Comments

I’ve written about omega-3s before, as recently as a year ago, but there continues to be much confusion about these compounds and lots of misinformation about them on the internet. The confusion focuses largely on the difference between the two types of omega-3s. If you take supplements of DHA (or DHA and EPA), do you still need flaxseed? And if you are eating flaxseed, do you need those DHA supplements?

The short answer is that you definitely need the flaxseed (or some equivalent food) and you may need the DHA supplements.

Flaxseeds and a handful of other plant foods provide an omega-3 fat called alpha-linolenic acid or ALA which is an essential nutrient. This means it is absolutely necessary in your diet. Best sources for vegans are flaxseed and flax oil, chia seeds, hempseed oil, walnuts or walnut oil, canola oil, and full fat soyfoods. You can check the vegan food guide to see how much of these foods to eat. (The information is in the bottom right section of the guide.)

The other omega-3 fats are DHA and EPA, two closely-related fats typically found in fatty fish, and to a lesser extent in some sea vegetables. They are not considered essential nutrients because humans can synthesize these fats from ALA. Whether we can make enough for optimal health is a big question, though. Vegans have lower blood levels of these fats than people who eat fish, but how much this matters remains unclear. The jury is still out on the health benefits of DHA and EPA intake. These fats may protect against heart disease as well as dementia and depression, but the findings are conflicting. The good news is that if you choose to take supplements of DHA and EPA (and I do), there are vegan sources derived from algae.

The important thing to remember, though, is that the two types of omega-3 fats are not interchangeable. Whether or not you’re taking  supplements of DHA and EPA, you still need a source of ALA, like flaxseeds. And, even with a good source of ALA in your diet, you may benefit from supplements of DHA and EPA, especially if you’re at risk for heart disease or depression.

53 Comments

  1. salixantheia January 19, 2012 at 2:16 pm - Reply

    Thank you for laying that out clearly. I had all those acronyms kind of floating around in my head, and I was vaguely worried about my flaxseed-only supplementing, but this made me feel a lot better, and better informed.

  2. Jessica January 19, 2012 at 2:44 pm - Reply

    “The good news is that if you choose to take supplements of DHA and EPA (and I do), there are vegan sources derived from algae.”

    Can you recommend a brand?

    • Misanthropope January 19, 2012 at 2:52 pm - Reply

      DEVA is a good one.

    • Ginny Messina January 19, 2012 at 2:55 pm - Reply

      Yes, I’m using DEVA brand, also. It’s Vegan Omega-3 DHA-EPA. It’s available from most of the online vegan stores.

    • Marshall Hinsley January 19, 2012 at 8:20 pm - Reply

      Ovega-3 is a great value. It has much more EPA than other brands, and it’s about half the cost. $16.99 on Amazon for 60 capsules. I called the comapny to ensure that it’s vegan; the glycerin is from palm fruit.

    • Ginny Messina January 20, 2012 at 11:30 am - Reply

      Jessica, look for ones made by DEVA or Ovega; I posted a couple of links below in response to another question.

  3. Audrey January 19, 2012 at 3:23 pm - Reply

    Thank you for the clarification. For some reason I found all of this information to be rather confusing when covered in your book (which I do think is great!), but now it makes more sense to me. I take a DHA supplement daily (I think it is around 300 mg.) because of depression. Is that okay, or too much?

    • Ginny Messina January 20, 2012 at 12:17 pm - Reply

      Audrey, I think the 300 mg is probably enough. There is no established recommendation for how much to take for depression, and I’m sure there is a lot of individual variation, though.

      • Audrey January 20, 2012 at 2:17 pm - Reply

        Thank you very much! I just wanted to be sure that taking that amount daily would not be unsafe.

  4. Midge January 19, 2012 at 4:16 pm - Reply

    Hi, Ginny. I use NutraVege made by Ascenta:

    http://www.ascentahealth.com/products/human/nutravege-200-ml

    I do eat flaxseed, chia seeds and hemp seeds but not as regularly as I realized. If I have one serving of one of these seeds daily based on the guide, will I be okay?

    • Ginny Messina January 24, 2012 at 8:38 am - Reply

      Sure, if you have the amount specified in the guide as one daily serving, that’s fine.

  5. Charlotte January 20, 2012 at 9:08 am - Reply

    Hey. I take 2 tablespoons of Udo’s Oil DHA 369 Blend everyday… the first ingredient is flaxseed oil, along with sunflower oil, sesame seed oil… and on and on. It provides 200mg of algae DHA and 6 mg of EPA. Anyway this seems to cover all the bases, so I’d recommend it.

  6. Patricia Hynds January 20, 2012 at 9:14 am - Reply

    Thanks for this! I take DHA oil everyday as well as chia seeds and I’m pregnant. My question is how much chia seeds do I need daily to meet the LNA requirement? Is it the same serving size as ground flax seeds? Thanks muchly!!

    • Ginny Messina January 20, 2012 at 12:24 pm - Reply

      Patricia, yes, it’s about the same amount as ground flaxseeds.

  7. Kahe January 20, 2012 at 9:38 am - Reply

    Hi,

    I’ve read there’s some controversy over the use of DHA/EPA supplements, partly in relation to the risk of taking these during flu seasons, but particularly, over whether they are at all beneficial. Any thoughts?

    • Ginny Messina January 20, 2012 at 12:27 pm - Reply

      Kahe, my article does state that the benefits of taking these supplements aren’t known. But what would be the risks of taking them during flu season?

  8. Amber January 20, 2012 at 9:11 pm - Reply

    Thanks for this post. I just shared a recipe for Omega-3 pancakes and needed a good place to send my readers to learn more about Omega 3s. I love these super healthy pancakes http://www.thrivequickdish.com/2012/01/20/whole-wheat-blender-pancakes-aka-delicious-and-healthy-omega-3-pancakes/

  9. Tiffany January 22, 2012 at 5:15 pm - Reply

    Do you know of any children’s chewable DHA/EPA that you would recommend?

  10. Anne January 23, 2012 at 6:44 am - Reply

    Thanks for such a clear and concise explanation. I’ve fallen off the bandwagon, but will get back on starting today. Do you have any recommendations for my 5 year old and 13 month old? Do they need supplementation as well? Both take a high quality vegan multi and the little one is still nursing and drinking soy milk. Thanks again.

    • Ginny Messina January 24, 2012 at 8:42 am - Reply

      Tiffany and Anne, we recommended a small amount of DHA/EPA for children–around 100 milligrams per day. It’s possible, though, that children raised vegan from birth are much better at making their own DHA/EPA. We just don’t know.

      A nursing baby should get enough from his/her mom’s milk, though, as long as the mother’s diet is sufficient.

      And unfortunately, I don’t know of any chewables. One idea might be to cut the capsule open and mix a little bit of the contents into food.

  11. Madeleine January 23, 2012 at 5:10 pm - Reply

    Ginny, can you explain why one also needs ALA (chai seed, flax etc) if one is taking DHA/EPA supplements. Isn’t the whole purpose of the ALA the end product i.e. DHA/EPA metabolites?

    I realise that chia seeds etc have other good qualities & benefits besides the fact that they contain omega 3’s but just wondered about this specific point.

    So in my situation I take vegan EPA/DHA daily but only have chia/flax/walnuts about twice a week.

    Thanks

    • Ginny Messina January 24, 2012 at 8:44 am - Reply

      Madeleine, alpha-linolenic acid is an essential nutrient. Besides being a precursor to DHA and EPA, it has its own functions that are necessary for health–related to both skin and neurological health.

  12. Madeleine January 23, 2012 at 5:11 pm - Reply

    chia not “chai’ 🙂

  13. Paul B January 25, 2012 at 2:18 pm - Reply

    Ginny,

    I’m taking Joel Furhman’s DHA Purity which is vegan and comes in a dark blue eyedropper bottle. http://www.drfuhrman.com/shop/pdf_product_factsheets/DrFuhrmans_DHA_Purity_factsheet.pdf A little more expensive. The claim is that it is fresher (must be refrigerated after opening) than pill form. Not sure if it is more fresh. but no fishy smell.

    Paul

  14. jayoung kim January 31, 2012 at 1:47 pm - Reply

    i heard it is necessary to eat vitaminE when you take omega3. (“if you take 1000mg omega : need 50IU vitaminE at least”<–i heard that from expert of omega)

    "Deva, Vegan Omega-3 DHA"from algae,,is it necessary to eat vitaminE, too???????

  15. Emily February 3, 2012 at 4:46 am - Reply

    Its hard to get sufficient Omega3 from vegetarian and I am 100% vegetarian. I am using supplement called V-MEGA3 which give me great results. for more info you can log on to http://www.v-mega3.com

  16. […] healthy add ins: Flax seed, pumpkin seeds, […]

  17. grumpy_vegan February 15, 2012 at 12:05 pm - Reply

    “my article does state that the benefits of taking these supplements aren’t know”

    Then maybe you should not recommend these supplements. There is no evidence that vegans require EPA/DHA supplementation. I also know that you are aware of recent work suggesting that intake of ALA omega 3s may be sufficient. The track record of clinical studies investigating health benefits of supplements has been dismal (e.g. batting ZERO).

    • Ginny Messina February 16, 2012 at 8:12 am - Reply

      Yes, you’re right that there is no evidence that vegans require dietary sources of these fats, but given that vegans do have lower blood levels and that they may have health benefits, it seems prudent to add a small supplement as insurance. At least until we have evidence that the lower levels in vegans don’t matter.

      I’m not sure what you mean about studies showing ALA to be sufficient. The studies have not shown adequate conversion of ALA to DHA/EPA.

      And yes, studies where people have taken supplements above and beyond actual physiological needs have not shown benefits for the most part (although some do show benefits). But that’s different from taking supplements to make up shortfalls in the diet.

  18. Helen March 5, 2012 at 12:58 am - Reply

    Thanks a lot for this article. I supplement my diet with flaxseed, but the last time I tried taking a EPA/DHA supplement (that was long before I became vegan, but I used to eat fish only once in a few months…) my skin got a lot worse and I stopped taking it. Any ideas why that might be? I am allergic to a lot of foods, including nuts, soy and many uncooked fruits. Could I have been allergic to these supplements?

  19. Sean May 31, 2012 at 10:53 pm - Reply

    Iam allergic to all seafoods and all nuts but really want to start EPA/dha supplements, is there a brand with high quantitys of both and also has the ALA in it too, I would love to swallow the least amount of pills possible, yet get the most supplementation.

  20. […] The Vegan RD:  Omega 3 Fats in Vegan Diets […]

  21. […] dietician Ginny Messina offers this advice about omega-3 sources: Flaxseeds and a handful of other plant foods provide an […]

  22. […] http://www.theveganrd.com/2012/01/omega-3-fats-in-vegan-diets-a-quick-primer.html Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in Nutrition, Uncategorized and tagged Nutrition by sparrow. Bookmark the permalink. […]

  23. Aimee Brooks February 26, 2013 at 3:54 am - Reply

    Hi,

    I find that Omega 3 (inc. Rapeseed) makes me restless and dificulty concentrating but Omega 6 (inc Sunflower/Evening Primrose) makes me calm and able to concentrate, why is this?

  24. […] Further information on the Omega Fats and links to the most recent research can be found at Dr. Furhman’s website and at TheVeganRD.com […]

  25. […] Further information on the Omega Fats and links to the most recent research can be found at Dr. Furhman’s website and at TheVeganRD.com […]

  26. […] I did some googling and realized that chia seeds are very rich in ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) but do not contain DHA or EPA. Our body can convert ALA in DHA but the rate is 0-8% depending on the individual. This means that […]

  27. […] Vegan For Life or more information about these and other common concerns, such as essential fatty acids and minerals such as iodine, zinc and selenium. The author’s website also has a handy guide […]

  28. […] DHA and EPA are the omega-3′s found in fish oil and sea vegetables; we make these long-chain omega-3′s from ALA, and they aren’t considered essential nutrients. The evidence so far is inconclusive as to whether vegans should supplement (sea-plant-derived) DHA and EPA, and many vegans do so just to be on the safe side — the conversion process from short to long-chain omega-3′s is somewhat inefficient, and vegans tend to have lower levels of DHA and EPA than omnivores; but the jury is still out on exactly whether or how much that matters, in actual health outcomes related to vegan diets with vs. without DHA/EPA supplementation. […]

  29. What’s for breakfast? | DearPete March 18, 2014 at 6:08 am - Reply

    […] Golden flaxseed (optional and for no other reason than it’s good for you) […]

  30. […] Read Ginny Messina’s take on whether you need it. […]

  31. […] seeds, hempseed oil, walnuts or walnut oil, canola oil, and full fat soyfoods. – See more at: http://www.theveganrd.com/2012/01/omega-3-fats-in-vegan-diets-a-quick-primer.html#sthash.mFxktGKo.dp… Flaxseeds and a handful of other plant foods provide an omega-3 fat called alpha-linolenic acid or […]

  32. Carla P May 2, 2015 at 3:20 pm - Reply

    I am looking for a VEGAN Omega 3 supplement that has NO FLAX and NO ALGAE due to serious food sensitivities. Does anyone know of a supplement like that?

  33. […] Get enough fat. Requirements for the essential omega-3 fat can fall short on very low-fat diets that eliminate all nuts and seeds, and eating too little fat […]

  34. […] and EPA are not considered essential nutrients because humans can synthesise these fats from ALA–and the best source of ALA comes from flaxseeds–whether each individual can make […]

  35. jeff July 26, 2016 at 2:03 am - Reply

    I would suspect that oils in capsules are going bad, even if air tight. Omega 3s are infamously sensitive to heat, light, and air degradation. I wouldn’t risk it. Just blend up some chia or flax fresh and eat it immediately. Cheaper and better.

  36. […] has some great information on DHA to check out. This is one of the best brain supplements to get your body […]

  37. nibblrrr July 13, 2017 at 8:42 pm - Reply

    Hey Ginny, have you considered adding a link to this article (omega-3) in the Vegan Nutrition Primers section?
    (Those are amazing, by the way!)

    • Ginny Messina July 13, 2017 at 10:58 pm - Reply

      I’m going to update that post and turn it into a primer. Had been thinking about that a little bit, so thank you for the suggestion!

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