Omega-3’s and Plant-based Diets

Written by
Sherri Isaak MS,RD,CDE,BC-ADM, DipACLM
Jessica Grzybowski and Julianne Calhoun, Dietetic Interns

Omega-3 fatty acids are a polyunsaturated fat that is often referred to as a “healthy fat”. Consuming an adequate amount is important as they play a valuable role in cardiovascular health, growth and development,  immune health and possibly other disease states. 1

There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids, the first being alpha linoleic acid or ALA. This is the only essential omega-3 fatty acid because it cannot be produced in the body, and must be found in food. You can consume ALA from plant based foods like flaxseed, soybeans, chia seeds, walnuts, canola oil as well as other sources (see chart below). The other two types of omega-3 fatty acids are eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA, and docosahexaenoic acid or DHA. The body is able to convert ALA to EPA and DHA from the liver, however, this conversion is often quite low. EPA and DHA is primarily found in animal sources such as salmon, trout, herring, etc. EPA and DHA can also be found in certain types of fortified foods like eggs, yogurt, milk, and infant formulas.  Algae-based supplements are another source of DHA/EPA and may also be a good choice for vegan diets. 2,3

These three omega-3 fatty acids contribute to the body as components of the phospholipids that form the structure of cell membranes. Deficiency in these fats can cause changes in the skin making them inflamed, rough, dry, and or flaky. DHA specifically, is vital in retina, brain, and sperm processes. In addition, omega-3’s provide energy for the body in the form of eicosanoids, which are signaling molecules that hold numerous functions in the body for systems such as cardiovascular, immune, and endocrine.1

Omega-3 fatty acids have been found to be beneficial for disease prevention, particularly cardiovascularly. Overall, research presents benefits from consuming omega-3 fatty acids to lower triglyceride levels, and may reduce heart risk in those especially with low levels. Although further research is needed, other areas of potential benefit include management of cystic fibrosis, insulin sensitivity, arthritis, cognitive function, Crohn’s disease and more. 

The recommended adequate intake for omega-3 fatty acids vary by age, for those aged 19-50 years old it is about 1.6 grams for men and 1.1 grams for females a day.* (see table below for food sources) If you were to eat 1 ounce of walnuts, this would be equal to 2.35 grams of ALA. Vegans may want to increase their intake  of ALA by an additional 2-4 grams per day, to help make up for low levels of ALA to EPA/ DHA conversion. EPA/DHA supplements made from microalgae are part of the generally recognized as safe list (GRAS) by the FDA, and may also be a good option for those consuming a vegan diet.*  If you are interested in using algae-based supplements, check out this article from Today’s Dietitian for more information, https://www.todaysdietitian.com/enewsletter/enews_0917_01.shtml  

Overall, omega-3 fatty acids play a vital role in maintaining our health and can be obtained in many different sources of foods as well as supplements. Find what works best for you and your diet, and don’t hesitate to reach out to your health care provider for more information. 

 

Plant Based Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids ALA
Flaxseed oil, 1 tbsp 7.26g
Chia seeds, 2 tbsp 4.02g
English walnuts, 1 tbsp 2.35g
Flaxseed, whole, 1 tbsp 2.35g
Canola, oil, 1 tbsp 1.28g
Ground flaxseed, 2 tbsp (flax is best absorbed ground vs whole) 1.06g
Soybean oil, 1 tbsp 0.92g
Black Walnuts, 1 ounce 0.76g
Edamame, ½ cup 0.28g
Refried beans, canned, vegetarian, ½ cup 0.21g
Kidney beans, ½ cup 0.10g
Baked beans, vegetarian, ½ cup 0.07g

 

Bread, whole wheat, 1 slice 0.04g

1Office of dietary supplements – omega-3 fatty acids. (2020, October). Retrieved 2021, from 

https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/

* Please consult your health care provider for your specific recommendations       

References 

  1. Office of dietary supplements – omega-3 fatty acids. (2020, October). Retrieved 2021, from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/
  2. Raposo MFDJ, Alcina Maria Miranda Bernardo De Morais. (2015). Microalgae for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease and Stroke. Life Sciences. 2015;125:32-41. doi:10.1016/j.lfs.2014.09.018 
  3. Barkia I, Saari N, Manning SR. (2019). Microalgae for High-Value Products Towards Human Health and Nutrition. Marine Drugs. 2019;17(5):304. doi:10.3390/md17050304

Burns-Whitmore, Froyen, Heskey, Parker, & San Pablo. (2019). Alpha-Linolenic and Linoleic fatty acids in the Vegan diet: Do they Require Dietary reference Intake/adequate INTAKE SPECIAL Consideration? Nutrients, 11(10), 2365. doi:10.3390/nu11102365