Get Your Omega-3s the Plant-Based Way

How can you get omega-3s on a plant-based, vegan, or vegetarian diet? This guide from nutrition expert Sharon Palmer provides you with everything you need to know.

You’ve probably heard a lot about how omega-3 fatty acids are important for health. Indeed, these healthy fatty acids are linked with all sorts of health benefits, including heart health, brain function, and beyond. We usually think of fish when it comes to providing omega-3 fatty acids in the diet, but did you know you can get plant sources of these heart-heathy fats, too? If you’re wondering how to ensure you’re getting enough omega-3s while eating a plant-based diet, vegan, or vegetarian diet, it’s really quite simple. Lucky for us, there are plenty of delicious omega-3-rich plant foods and even algae sources from which to choose.

Easy Chocolate Chia Pudding with Strawberries is filled with omega-3 rich chia seeds.  

What are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat that provide many health benefits. These essential fatty acids play an important role in heart health, brain health, kidney function, cellular function, fighting inflammation, and eye and skin health. Types of omega-3 fatty acids include alpha linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is found in plants, while EPA and DHA are found in fatty fish, like salmon and tuna, algae, and other seafood.

ALAs are plant-based omega-3s, the only essential omega-3 fatty acid. Since our bodies can’t synthesize ALA, we must consume it through diet. Our bodies convert these short-chain omega-3s into the long-chain omega-3s EPA and DHA. Although less than 15% of ALA is converted into EPA and DHA, research has shown that most people following well planned plant-based and vegan diets can get adequate intake of omega-3s. The likelihood of having lower EPA and DHA levels tends to be higher compared to nonvegans, so it’s important to eat plenty of ALA-rich plant foods for good conversion to EPA and DHA to ensure you meet your omega-3 needs. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for ALA is 1600 milligrams for adult men and 1100 milligrams for adult women. The RDA increases for pregnant and lactating women. Some plant-based experts recommend at least 2000 milligrams of ALA per day to help ensure good conversion levels to EPA and DHA.

Turmeric Roasted Cauliflower with Hemp Seeds is a delicious dish filled with ALA.  

Plant-Based Omega-3 Food Sources

There are many sources of ALA-rich plant foods to choose, shown in the table below. Some common foods that are high in ALA are flax seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and soyfoods.

Plant-Based Sources of ALA
Food Item Serving Size ALA content (mg)
Flax Seed Oil 1 Tbsp 7,258
Flax Seeds 1 oz 4,614
Hemp Seeds 1 oz 1,567
Chia Seeds 1 oz 4,596
Uncle Sam’s Original cereal 1 cup 3,300
Walnuts 1 oz 2,570
Canola Oil 1 oz 1,279
Tofu, firm ½ cup 733
Soy oil 1 oz 933
Soybeans, cooked ½ cup 820
Pumpkin seeds 1 oz 31
Wheat germ 1 oz 108
Brussels Sprouts ½ cup 80
Cauliflower, cooked ½ cup 104
Seaweed, spirulina, dried 2 Tbsp 116
 
 
 
 
Golden Turmeric Hemp Granola, filled with seeds and nuts, is a delicious way to get your omega-3s.

Algae Supplements

Another source of plant-based, long-chain omega 3’s is algae—where fish get their omega-3s in the food chain to begin with. Algae supplements are an option for both vegetarian- and vegan- friendly sources of EPA and DHA. Getting your omega-3s this way benefits you as well as the planet, because it reduces the practice of over-fishing, destroying coral reefs, and climate change associated with fish consumption and fish oil production. This supplement may be especially appropriate for pregnant and lactating women, as well as children. As with all dietary supplements, discuss them with your health care professional before starting a new regimen. High-quality brands of algae supplements include Deva Vegan, Ovega-3, Nordic Naturals Algae Omega, and Testa Omega-3.

Add omega-3 rich toppings on salads, such as in this recipe for Tofu Kale Power Bowl with Tahini Dressing.

Tips for Boosting EPA/DHA Levels

One way to boost omega-3s in your diet is by reducing your intake of omega-6s. Studies have shown that the ALA conversion rate to EPA and DHA improves when less dietary omega-6s are consumed. Omega-6s are found in soy, canola, cotton, sunflower, and safflower oils. Swap these out for other plant oils, such as olive oil, avocado oil, or walnut oil more often. Another way to boost higher conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA is by consuming higher levels of ALA—about 2000 milligrams of ALA per day. 

Enjoy omega-3s in dessert with walnuts in this Toasted Walnut Nice Cream.

Consuming enough omega-3s each day may help promote optimal health. Give the many plant-rich sources of ALA more space on your plate, and consider an algae supplement to help you hit the mark each day. For more information on meeting plant-based nutrients of concern, check out this blog, and download my FREE Go Vegan Toolkit.

Written by Michelle Naragon, Dietetic Intern with Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN

References:

Higdon, J.  & Pauling, L.  (2003).  Essential Fatty Acids.  Oregon State University. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/other-nutrients/essential-fatty-acids

Lane, K., Derbyshire, E., Li, W., & Brennan, C.  (2014).  Bioavailability and Potential Uses of Vegetarian Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids: A Review of Literature.  National Library of Medicine. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24261532/

Link, R.  (2017).  The 7 Best Plant Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids.  Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/7-plant-sources-of-omega-3s

Levy, J.  (2019).  Omega-3 Deficiency Symptoms + 3 Steps to Overcome Them.  Dr. Axe. https://draxe.com/nutrition/omega-3-deficiency/

N.A.  (2019).  Aquatic Food Webs.  National Ocean and Atmosphere Administration. https://www.noaa.gov/education/resource-collections/marine-life/aquatic-food-webs

N.A.  (2020).  Omega-3 Fatty Acids.  National Institutes of Health.  https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-Consumer/

N.A.  (n.d.).  Omega-3 Fatty Acids: An Essential Contribution.  Harvard School of Public Health. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/fats-and-cholesterol/types-of-fat/omega-3-fats/

Turner, H.  (n.d.).  Comparing Algae-Based DHA+EPA Supplements.  Today’s Dietitian. https://www.todaysdietitian.com/enewsletter/enews_0917_01.shtml

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