Have you recently switched to a vegan diet and are wondering if there’s enough Omega 3 in your new diet? Or maybe you’ve been vegan for a little while now and want to see what other sources of Omega 3 there are out there for you to tap into?
It’s good to hear you’re thinking this way because Omega 3, which is an essential fat that the human body doesn’t make itself, helps keep our immune system, brain, nerves and eyes functioning properly and fit and healthy.1
Types of Omega 3 fatty acids
- Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA)
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA
ALA – is mainly found in vegetable oils, seeds and nuts.
EPA and DHA – is made from the ALA we consume and oily fish, such as mackerel and salmon.2 Meanwhile, EPA and DHA are the most useful forms of Omega 3. You’ll find them in algae, as well as fatty fish.
How much Omega 3 do we need?
Generally speaking, the recommended daily allowance of EPA and DHA for adults is 250 to 500mg. For ALA, it’s 1.6g for women and 1.1g for men.3
However, research has shown that vegans and vegetarians are more prone to having lower levels of EPA and DHA in their bodies compared to meat eaters. Vegans tend to have an Omega 3 ratio of 10:1 to 15:1, compared to a ratio of 6:1 to 10:1 for omnivores.4
Why is Omega 3 important?
Our bodies can be relied upon to make the vast majority of the fats it needs to function from other fats or raw materials. But (yes, there’s a but) that isn’t the case when it comes to Omega 3. You see these fatty acids, as people also call them, are essential fats that the body simple can’t make.
This leaves us with just one other option – to get Omega 3 from our food. And if you’re now wondering why Omega 3 is so essential, it’s because it’s found in the body’s cell membranes.
These fatty acids impact how the cell receptors within the membranes work. To put it more simply, they help our hormones to regulate blood clotting and our artery walls to relax. They also help reduce inflammation too. They do a great deal of fundamentally important work within the body, which also includes binding to receptors in the cells that are responsible for regulating genetic function.
Common side effects of Omega 3 deficiency
If you happen to be deficient in Omega 3, then your body will tell you about it. And it’ll let you know in many different ways. Omega 3 deficiency symptoms, which people can experience one or more of, include:5
- Dry skin, brittle hair and thin and cracking nails – as we’ve just mentioned, Omega 3 builds up our cell walls, so if our levels are depleted, then it may start to show in our skin, hair and nails. It’s also possible for people to develop skin rashes and dandruff if they’re low on Omega 3 too
- Difficulties sleeping – multiple things may lead to sleep-related issues, and Omega 3 has been cited as possibly being one of them. It may not be the main culprit, but it may potentially be making the situation worse, so it’s worth bearing this in mind if you are finding it difficult to get to sleep or get a decent night’s sleep. (For more sleep insight read. ‘5 tips for deeper and longer sleep.’
- Poor concentration – it’s not uncommon for people with low Omega 3 levels to struggle to remember things and to maintain their focus and concentration. It can also potentially contribute to irritability and anxiety too
- Joint pain and leg cramps – Omega 3 is renowned for its anti-inflammatory properties and its ability to help naturally reduce swelling throughout the body
- Too much ear wax – a bit of an unusual one, but it has been linked to not having enough Omega 3 in our system although the exact reason as to why this is the case isn’t fully clear. What has been proven though, is Omega 3’s ability to help protect hearing. One study showed a 14% reduction in the risk of hearing loss for those who added sufficient fatty acid supplements into their self-care routine.
How do vegans get Omega 3?
Vegans obviously can’t eat Omega 3 that comes from fish, but they can turn to many other alternatives that are now out there for them.
We aren’t going to go into too much detail about the vegan Omega 3 sources right now, because we happen to have listed 10 vegan Omega 3 sources below, but what we can say, is that vegans can get their Omega 3 from seed oils and veggies and legumes, as well as Omega 3 vegan supplements.
Can vegans get enough Omega 3?
Well, that’s the thing, because taking Omega 3 derived from fish isn’t an option for vegans, most people think maintaining vegan Omega 3 levels is a bit of an impossible feat. But it really isn’t, as you’ll see from the list of vegan Omega 3 food sources we’ve shared below (it’s a real comprehensive starter for ten, and that’s without even starting to think about vegan Omega 3 supplements!)
Is Vegan Omega 3 as good as fish oil?
Is vegan Omega 3 as good as fish oil?…. Well, that’s a very good question. In a nutshell, All vegan/vegetarian DHA and EPA supplements happen to come from algae instead of fish or krill.6
And yes, while research on vegan Omega 3 supplementation is limited, studies so far have suggested that the bioavailability and health benefits of one vegan Omega 3 source in particular, algal oil, are comparable to that of fish or krill-based DHA and EPA sources.
What’s more, the DHA that’s found in oily fish actually happens to comes from algae that’s been eaten by the fish, so if you’re eating algae or seaweed or using algae oil, then you’ve gone straight to the source, bypassing fish altogether.7
A 2014 review concluded that algae oil supplements led to ‘significant increases’ in blood DHA. Meanwhile, another study found that algae oil was even better than krill oil at raising levels of EPA. So seaweed could be the solution to upping your Omega 3 levels, whether you’re vegan or not.8
Vegan Omega 3 sources from food
Lots of seeds and nuts are rich in Omega 3. There are also a few other Omega 3-rich vegan foods, which we’ve listed below:
- Brussels sprouts – 44g of raw sprouts contains 44mg of ALA. Once cooked, the Omega 3 level triples; providing 135mg of Omega 3 for every 135mg serving.9
- Chia seeds – 28g of chia seeds can provide 4,915mg of Omega 3. Create a chia pudding or sprinkle chia seeds on top of salads, yoghurt and smoothies.10
- Edamame beans – a half cup of frozen edamame beans contains 0.28g of ALA. Boil or steam them and enjoy them on salads or as a side dish.11
- Hemp seeds – 28g of these seeds contains around 6,000mg of ALA. Like chia seeds, you can sprinkle them on top of your dishes or add them to homemade cereal snack bars.12
- Walnuts – a 28g serving of walnuts can provide 2,542mg of Omega 3 fatty acids.13
- Flaxseeds – there’s 6,388mg of ALA for every 28g serving of flaxseeds. Sprinkle them on your cereal, soups or salads.14
- Seaweed and algae – seaweed and algae (spirulina and chlorella) are important sources of Omega-3 for vegans, as they’re one of the few plant groups that contain both DHA and EPA.15
- Kidney beans – there’s 0.10g of ALA in every half cup of kidney beans. Add them to curries and stews or eat them as a side dish.16
- Echium seed oil – contains high levels of GLA (gamma-linolenic acid) and SDA (stearidonic acid), as well as ALA. It also contains an Omega-9 acid called oleic acid (not found in fish oil).
- Walnuts – 75% of walnuts are actually fat. One serving of walnuts will provide you with all you need for your daily Omega 3 intake. Around 28g of walnuts contains 2,542mg of Omega 3.17
- Perilla oil – is made from perilla seeds, is a cooking and condiment oil and is packed full of Omega 3 fatty acids. One tablespoon of perilla oil contains almost 9,000mg of ALA Omega 3 fatty acids.18
- Algal oil – Soybean oil – is made from algae and therefore provides excellent levels of EPA and DHA. It’s most common for people to take it as a soft gel tablet, with algal oil supplements typically providing between 400 and 500 mg of combined DHA and EPA.19
Vegan Omega 3 supplements
Sometimes, it’s possible for vegan diets to be lacking in certain vitamins and minerals, Omega 3 (ALA and DHA) included. If you find that you are below the daily recommended intake, then you may want to consider supplementing with these oils:
- Algae – is made from marine algae and contains DHA and EPA.20
- Sesame oil – contains high levels of Omega 3, Omega 6 and Omega 9.22
- Flaxseed oil – one of the oils with the highest source of ALA, alongside canola oil and cod liver oil.22
- Ahiflower – is rich in ALA and contains high levels of Steridonic Acid (SDA), which can also be found in hemp seed oil and spirulina.23
- Sea buckthorn oil – is reportedly one of the only plant foods that’s known to contain all four omega fatty acids – Omega 3, 6, 7 and 9.24
Why are some supplements not vegan friendly?
Mainly because some of them are made using animal-derived ingredients that aren’t always that easy to spot at first glance either.
There are two main things to consider here, the fact that supplements can come from animals or involve animals when they’re manufactured.25
In terms of what these non-vegan-friendly ingredients are, they include gelatine, magnesium stearate, lanolin, bee pollen, carmine, caprylic acid, and lipase. There are many more out there, but these are among the main ingredients to watch out for when checking vegan supplement labels.
Omega 3 plays a crucial role in making sure we stay healthy and enabling our bodies to function properly in so many key ways, e.g. supporting our immune system, brain and nerves. But it’s not something the human body can make, so we have to get it from our diet.
Fortunately, there are plenty of vegan Omega 3 sources out there. In fact, you’d be surprised at how many options there are now, especially when it comes to new vegan-approved supplements coming on to the market.
Hopefully, the food sources and supplements we’ve listed above will help you to maintain your Omega 3 levels on a daily basis. But be sure to check those labels closely to avoid getting caught out by ‘hidden’ animal-derived ingredients, and do your research on the production side of things too, as the manufacturing process may potentially involve animals too.
In the meantime, for more on the importance of Omega 3 read, ‘5 surprising reasons you need Omega 3.’
Last updated: 11 February 2021
Author: Donia Hilal, Nutritionist
Donia started her career as a freelance nutritionist, later she joined Nestle as their Market Nutritionist to help support their healthier product range, before joining the team at Holland & Barrett in January 2018. Donia has 6 years experience as a Nutritionist and also works with clients on a one to one basis to support their goals which include weight loss, prenatal and postnatal nutrition and children’s health.
Donia has a special interest in; weight management, plant-based nutrition, pregnancy nutrition, special diets and disease risk reduction. Donia’s LinkedIn profile