Eating Vegan

Can You Get Enough Omega-3s Through Plant-Based Foods? Here’s What Dietitians Have To Say

Photo: Stocksy/Jose Coello
When it comes to eating for optimal health and longevity, doctors and dietitians regularly preach about the importance of getting your fill of both plant-based foods and fish. This makes sense: While plants are a goldmine of nutritional value, there is one nutrient that's hard to get from them: omega-3 fatty acids, which many reap from fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and anchovies (among other ingredients).

It goes without saying that eating omega-3s is incredibly important. A recent study actually found that eating omega-3s is directly linked to a longer lifespan, thanks to their ability to fight inflammation and boost both heart and cognitive health. Unfortunately, many of us—pescatarians and vegans alike—still aren't eating enough of them.

Omega-3s are considered essential because the body can’t manufacture them, which is why it’s so important to get them from dietary sources and/or supplements like fish oil,” says Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND, senior director of worldwide nutrition education and training at Herbalife Nutrition. “They play a major structural role in cell membranes, and are used to form signaling molecules known as eicosanoids, which affect the function of the cardiovascular, pulmonary, immune, and endocrine systems. Omega-3 fatty acids also support eye and brain health, help your nervous system function, and help stave off chronic illnesses thanks to their anti-inflammatory properties,” Bowerman says.

Bowerman goes on to explain that there are several types of omega-3s, but most of the research focuses on three of them:

  1. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is found in plant fats include flaxseed oil, soybean oil, canola oil, chia seeds, and walnuts
  2. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), found in fish, fish oil, and krill oil
  3. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), also found in fish, fish oil, and krill oil

Can plant-based eaters meet their needs by solely consuming vegan omega-3 sources (ALA)?

“According to the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Medicine, the adequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids for healthy adults is 1.6 grams per day for males ages 19 years and older, and 1.1 grams per day for females ages 19 years and older,” says Kathy Siegel, MS, RDN, CDN, author of The 30-Minute Clean Eating Cookbook and Eating Clean Vegetarian Cookbook. “During pregnancy, an adequate intake of omega-3s is 1.4 grams per day. During lactation, an adequate intake is 1.3 grams per day.”

That said, the most important omega-3s are DHA and EPA, says Siegel, which are found mostly in fish and marine plants. “ALA is still the most common omega-3, however, and it's found mostly in plant foods. While our bodies can convert it to DHA and EPA, only a small percentage of ALA from plant sources is converted,” Siegel says. “Therefore, relying on plant sources of omega-3s may still leave one deficient in DHA and EPA. In this case, it's super important to eat plenty of sea greens or check with your physician about taking an algae oil supplement, as this may be recommended to help you meet your adequate daily intake.”

Bottom line: You can get all your omega-3s from plant sources, but you’ll have to make more of an effort to consume enough of them to ensure you’re getting a balance of ALA, EPA, and DHA. For instance, if you are a vegan or plant-based eater that avoids eating fish, be sure to pile your plate with seaweed, kelp, and other sea greens whenever possible, as these are some of the only plant foods that serve as a strong source of EPA and DHA.

Below are the some of the top vegan ALA omega-3 sources, according to Bowerman:

  • Flaxseed oil: 7.3 grams of ALA per tablespoon
  • Chia seeds: 5.1 grams of ALA per ounce
  • English walnuts: 2.6 grams of ALA per ounce
  • Canola oil: 1.3 grams of ALA per tablespoon
  • Soybean oil: 1 gram of ALA per tablespoon

“In men, about eight percent of ALA is converted to EPA, and four percent or less is converted to DHA. In women, about 21 percent of ALA is converted to EPA and nine percent to DHA,” says Bowerman.

For an idea of how much EPA and DHA you are getting from seafood sources, she highlights the following top sources:

  • Cooked salmon: 3 ounces has 1.2 grams of DHA; 0.4-0.6 grams of EPA
  • Sardines: 3 ounces has 0.7 grams of DHA; 0.5 grams of EPA
  • Trout: 3 ounces has 0.4 grams of DHA; 0.4 grams of EPA
  • Oysters: 3 ounces has 0.2 grams of DHA; 0.3 grams of EPA

Another option? A supplement. “Supplements with omega-3s from both plant and animal sources can be found in the form of fish oil and krill oil—both of which provide EPA and DHA—as well as vegetarian products with algal oil which may provide some DHA and EPA,” says Bowerman. “Since many people do not consume fish on a regular basis or may not be consuming adequate plant sources of omega-3s to meet the adequate intake, supplements may help to meet needs.” Again, before starting on any new supplements, be sure to check with a physician and/or a registered dietitian.

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