Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for our health, with the most common source from fish oils. But what are your options as a vegan or vegetarian?
Omega-3 plays a role in a broad range of cellular and bodily functions – they’re called essential fatty acids for a reason! However, if you follow a plant-based diet, or simply don’t enjoy eating oily fish, it’s important to know where you can find your best sources of omega-3.
What is omega-3?
Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of polyunsaturated fats that fight inflammation and help keep our hearts, brains, guts, joints and eyes healthy. They’re essential to human health, but the body can’t make them itself so it has to rely on attaining sufficient amounts from dietary sources.
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Plant omega-3 vs animal omega-3
Omega-3 comes in several different forms, including both animal and plant-based sources. As each one has a slightly different structure, omega-3 will be broken down differently in the body depending on the source.
The three main types of omega-3 utilised by the human body include EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). Both EPA and DHA have been found to support the body in a number of ways including contributing to joint, heart and eye health. Furthermore, DHA has been highlighted for its role in foetal and infant brain development, while ALA may support the maintenance of healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Nuts and seeds, especially walnuts, flaxseeds and chia seeds are rich in ALA, while algae such as spirulina and chlorella contain EPA and DHA.
Although our bodies convert ALA naturally, the process isn’t very efficient. Various studies suggest that most people convert less than 10-20% of the ALA they eat into EPA or DHA. Consuming too much omega-6 from vegetable oils or having deficiencies in certain nutrients such as zinc, can also hinder the conversion process.
Algae: the original source of omega-3
Seed oils are reasonably good at raising EPA, but not DHA. The good news is the DHA found in oily fish comes from algae eaten by the fish, so why not go straight to the source?
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.
Flaxseed and heart health
Flaxseed is one of the best sources of ALA. A daily dose of ALA from flaxseeds has been found to reduce inflammation in the blood, while some studies suggest that flaxseed oil could support the maintenance of healthy blood pressure.
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The benefits of chia seeds
Chia seeds are another good source of ALA. American researchers discovered that eating ground chia seeds every day for seven weeks increased levels of EPA in the blood by 30%. In another trial published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, eating bread baked with chia seeds helped to reduce blood sugar levels.
About echium seed oil
Echium seed oil is unusual because it contains high levels of GLA (gamma-linolenic acid) and SDA (stearidonic acid), as well as ALA. GLA is an omega-6 fatty acid with anti-inflammatory properties. It works with omega-3 to balance the inflammatory effects of other omega-6s, mainly found in vegetable oils, that we eat.
SDA is another omega-3 fatty acid. Before ALA can be converted into EPA or DHA, it has to be converted into SDA. However, SDA doesn’t need to be converted, so echium seed oil is better than flaxseed oil at boosting levels of EPA in the body. This makes it great alternative to fish oil for vegetarians or vegans.
Echium seed oil also contains an omega-9 acid called oleic acid (not found in fish oil), which may help lower ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol, and improve insulin sensitivity and circulation.
Last updated: 13 April 2021