Where do vegetarians and vegans and vegans get omega-3?
You may have heard that omega-3s are good for your brain, and that omega-3s are found in fish. So many people thinking about becoming vegetarian or vegan wonder where they will get their omega-3s. Luckily, there are plant-based ways to receive omega-3s.
Here are explanations of omega-3 fatty acids, frequently asked omega-3 questions, and practical suggestions for reaching your omega-3 needs, all backed up with quotes from registered dietitians. All the information in quotes comes from articles written by registered dietitian Jack Norris here and here, an article written by registered dietitian Reed Mangels, and the American Dietetic Association’s position paper on vegetarianism.
1. Omega-3s are a little complicated. If you don’t want to read the entire explanation, skip to question five for practical suggestions. For those of you who want to be experts, here’s what registered dietitian Jack Norris has to say about omega-3s:
“There are three important omega-3 fatty acids:
- ALA – alpha-linolenic acid; found in a wide range of foods
- EPA – eicosapentaenoic acid; found mainly in fish
- DHA – docosahexaenoic acid; found mainly in fish and seaweed
The body can convert ALA into EPA and DHA. ALA is efficiently converted to EPA, but it may require large amounts of ALA to produce optimal amounts of DHA”
According to Jack Norris, vegetarians and vegans must also minimize the amount of omega-6 fatty acids (corn oil, soy oil, safflower oil, etc) that they eat. As stated before, ALA must be converted by the body into EPA. Omega-6 fatty acids can interfere with the enzymes that convert ALA to EPA. He says that “if they [the enzymes] are saturated with omega-6s, they are not able to convert omega-3s.”
Overall, you need to receive ALA from food. Then, your body will convert ALA to EPA. You must also take a DHA supplement.
2. How much Omega-3 do I need?
There are separate requirements for ALA, EPA, and DHA. However, since some ALA can be converted into EPA, you only need to worry about getting ALA and DHA.
If you are a girl, you need about 1.1 grams per day of ALA, and 0.5-1.8 grams per day of DHA.
If you are a boy, you need about 1.6 grams per day of ALA, and 0.5-1.8 grams per day of DHA
To cover these requirements, follow the recommendations in questions four and five.
3. Is it possible to get enough Omega-3 fatty acids on a vegetarian or vegan diet?
Yes, you can receive enough Omega-3 fatty acids on a vegetarian or vegan diet, as you can receive enough of every nutrient. The American Dietetic Association states that “a [total] vegetarian diet can meet current recommendations for all of these nutrients [protein, n-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, iodine, calcium, and vitamins D and B-12]”
4. Are animals a better source of Omega-3s than plants?
As far as current science tells us, Omega-3 fatty acids in certain plant foods are just as nutritious as omega-3 fatty acids in animals. However, EPA and DHA are rare in plant-based foods (see explanation in question one), so you must eat enough ALA, so that ALA can be converted to EPA, and you must take a supplement for DHA.
5. How can I get enough Omega-3 fatty acids?
Here’s what registered dietitian Jack Norris has to say:
- “Take a DHA Supplement 200 – 300 mg every 2-3 days
- Do not prepare food with oils high in omega-6 such as corn, soy, safflower, sunflower, most vegetable oil blends (typically labeled “vegetable oil”) and sesame oil. Instead, use low omega-6 oils like olive, avocado, peanut, or canola.
- On average, vegetarians meet about 50 to 60% of the daily ALA recommendations without special diet planning and should add 0.5 g of uncooked ALA daily. This would be the equivalent of: 1/5 oz *English walnuts (3 halves)
1/4 tsp of flaxseed oil
1 tsp of canola oil
1 tsp ground flaxseeds”
6. What are some high ALA foods?
- Flaxseed (ground flaxseed and flaxseed oil)
- Canola Oil
- Chia Seeds
Disclaimer: Do not take this information as medical advice. I am not an expert in nutrition, but I cite many credentialed doctors and registered dietitians. Please see a qualified healthcare professional for advice.
Norris, Jack, RD. “Omega-3s in Vegetarian Diets.” Jack Norris RD. N.p., 7 June 2012. Web. 03 Aug. 2013. <http://jacknorrisrd.com/omega-3s-in-vegetarian-diets/>.
Norris, Jack, RD. “Omega-3 Fatty Acid Recommendations for Vegetarians.” Vegan Health. Vegan Outreach, May 2012. Web. 03 Aug. 2013. <http://www.veganhealth.org/articles/omega3>.
Mangels, Reed, PhD, RD. “Questions and Answers about Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Vegans.” Vegetarian Journal XXVI.1 (2007): 22-26. Vegetarian Resource Group. Web. 3 Aug. 2013. <http://www.vrg.org/journal/vj2007issue1/vj2007issue1.pdf>.
Craig, Winston J., PhD, MPH, RD, and Ann R. Mangels, PhD, RD, LDN, FADA. “Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 109.7 (2009): 1266-282. Print.