Omega 3s for plant based diets

Dylan Bowe | Last Updated – 30/12/2023 | 4 Minute Read

A plant based diet consists of minimally processed vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and minimises animal products such as dairy, eggs, red meat, poultry and fish. For the sake of this article, we will discuss some concerns of a plant based vegan diet with regards to omega 3 consumption, as fish, which is a great source of omega 3s, is not consumed in this diet. Eating a plant based diet offers many health benefits, and often as people do not consume meat, they focus much more on unprocessed fruit, vegetables and grains, all of which contribute to improved gut health, lower cholesterol and disease the risk to chronic disease such as diabetes and heart disease. However, it is important to properly set up your nutrition parameters when excluding food groups such as meat, as animal products are strong sources of protein, healthy fats and nutrients such as vitamin B12.

What are omega 3s, and why are they important?

Omega 3 fatty acids are considered essential fatty acids – meaning they are required for human health but our body cannot produce them, therefore we must consume them through our diet with food or by supplementation. Omega 3s are polyunsaturated fats and there are three main omega 3 fats: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) & docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The specific functions of these three fats will be discussed, but overall, omega 3s provide a wide array of benefits to our health. Firstly, they promote our heart health through lowering triglyceride levels, improve function of our arteries in the heart, blood flow and blood pressure. They are an integral part of cell membranes throughout our bodies and affect the function of cell receptors in these membranes. These fats also provide the starting point for making hormones that regulate blood clotting, relaxation and contraction of artery walls, and Inflammation. 

These fats can reduce inflammation within the body (Ishihara et al., 2019), and one potential reason for this is that omega 3s compete with more inflammatory molecules to be digested, and break down into antioxidants and inflammation fighting particles. Omega 3s play a role in eye health, and often are recommended by optometrists to help alleviate dry eye disease symptoms. People with higher blood levels of omega 3s were significantly more protected from age related macular degeneration, but it is not certain if this id due from the fats themselves (Souied et al., 2015). Lastly, a very important role these fats play is cognitive function and protection of cell membranes in the brain. Omega 3s are constantly tied to cognitive functioning and may decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

ALA is the most common, and is a precursor to EPA and DHA – this means it is converted to these fatty acids when consumed, however this process is extremely inefficient and roughly only 1-10% is converted into EPA and 0.5-5% into DHA. ALA is also simply stored or used as energy like other fats, and is may reduce blood clots along with decreasing the risk of heart disease by helping to maintain normal heart rhythm and pumping. 

EPA is used in the body to produce signalling molecules called eicosanoids, which modulate the intensity and duration of immune and inflammatory responses in the body, amongst other things. 

DHA is essential for the growth and development of the brain infants, and for the maintenance of normal brain function in adults, and deficiency in DHA has been associated with learning deficits. Along with these benefits, it may also reduce blood triglycerides and LDL (the unhealthy cholesterol), which will improve heart health. So clearly, these omega 3 fatty acids are essential and provide outstanding benefits to our bodies, now we will look at the consequences of low omega 3 intakes and how to consume an adequate amount on a plant based diet. 

What are the health impacts of an omega 3 deficiency?

Chronically low intakes of omega 3s can create quite significant health issues. 

  • Skin, hair and nail issues: as omega 3s help build cell walls, a deficiency can cause dry skin, brittle hair or thin nails, as well as skin rashes and dandruff.
  • Fatigue and insomnia: many studies have shown an association between high levels of omega 3s with better sleep, less bedtime resistance and sleep disturbance, compared to those with a deficiency. 
  • Brain fog and difficulty concentrating: as previously discussed, omega 3s help form cell membranes including brain cells, therefore a lack of these may cause brain fog and poor memory and concentration.
  • Joint pain: as omega 3s provide an anti-inflammatory response in the body, a deficiency will obviously decrease this response and allow inflammation to take more control in the knees, shoulders or other joints. 

How can I get my omega 3s on a plant based diet?

ALA is found mostly in flaxseed, walnuts and vegetable oils, and our body needs roughly 1-2g/day. Flaxseed has 2.2g ALA per tbsp, while walnuts have 0.7g per tbsp, therefore ALA consumption should not be much of an issue on a plant based diet. On the other hand, DHA and EPA is found mostly fatty fish such as salmon and tuna, and as described previously, the conversion of ALA to EPA/DHA is inefficient, therefore it is important to consume these nutrients within the diet. Most EPA/DHA supplements are made from fish oil, and fish actually get these fatty acids from consuming algae, and now there are many vegan EPA/DHA supplements that are algae derived. The recommended minimum intake for a combined amount of EPA and DHA is 500mg/day, with many algae based supplements providing this amount or more (towards 700-800mg per serving). 

Key points

Being a plant based individual can have many benefits, but be weary of any potential nutritional deficiencies that can occur. To cover your needs of omega 3s, consuming a tablespoon of either chia or flaxseed daily will provide more than enough ALA, and unless you are consuming large quantities of ALA, you may benefit from an algae based EPA/DHA supplement. Ideally, one containing a total omega 3 amount (EPA + DHA combined) of at least 500mg. In order to perform at your best, both physically and mentally, whether you are a weekend warrior or a professional athlete, it is critical to control the variables that are within your control. Our dietary habits play a huge factor in how we perform and how we feel on a daily basis, and it can be easy to put our diet on the back burner when life gets in the way. However, when we can control what we eat and supplement with, and provide our body and mind with quality nutrition, they will thank us for it; and hopefully if you are a plant based individual reading this article, you have walked away with some useful information that can be implemented into your diet. 

References and further reading:

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