Vegans face an uphill battle when it comes to getting their essential fatty acids.
But let me go back a bit. Define a few terms and set the stage because fatty acids can get a little confusing.
There are two different types of essential fatty acids you need – omega-3 and omega-6. They’re called “essential” because your body can’t produce them. You’ve got to get them from an external source (either through your diet or a supplement).
We’re not as concerned with omega-6s because they’re all too plentiful. In fact, Americans generally get 14-25 times as much omega-6 fatty acids as they need. If only we got 14-25 times as much money as we needed!
There’s another issue with getting that much omega-6, but we’ll get to that later. For now, let’s visit ##the sources of omega-3s.
Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
This requires a small primer.
There are three different omega-3s: ALA, DHA, and EPA. But the two that we care the most about are EPA and DHA. Note: you still need ALA (alpha linoleic acid).
EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) is what is generally believed to be beneficial for heart health and joint health. DHA (Docosahexanoic acid) is primarily associated with cognitive benefits.
The best sources of EPA and DHA are fatty fish like tuna, salmon, sardines, cod, and mackerel. Now, of those to mentioned, I’m most comfortable eating sardines. Why? Because they’re smaller fish and so they’re more likely to have lower amounts of mercury (Mercury bioaccumulates. The more fish a fish eats, the more mercury they accumulate). Krill have even less mercury since they’re so much smaller, but they’re incredibly hard to find in the states in their un-encapsulated form. That’s for you non-vegans that somehow wound up on this article.
The vegan choices for omega-3s are pretty well known. At least, they should be (though, I can almost guarantee there’s one you haven’t heard of yet).
- Chia seeds: 2,457 mg per Tablespoon
- Flaxseeds (ground): 1,597 mg per Tablespoon
- Hemp seeds: 1,000 mg per Tablespoon
- Spirulina: 880 mg per Tablespoon
- Walnuts: 666 mg ALA per Tablespoon
- Tofu: 600 mg per 4 ounces
- Avocado: 190 mg per cup (raw)
There are obviously more omega-3s in the oil forms of the sources mentioned above. In the case of flax, it’s about 5x as much.
Of course, you can also eat what fish and krill eat to get omega-3s, algae. Of the ones tested, red and brown algae were found to carry the hard-to-convert DHA, so look to those for help with DHA. Green algae, for whatever reason, only seems to have EPA.
The Problem Vegans Have with Omega-3s
So what’s the big deal? It seems like vegans can just eat plenty of flax or hemp and be perfectly happy.
The issue is that ALA is converted to EPA at a very low rate. We’re talking 5-15%. DHA has a conversion rate as low as 1%. It’s recommended you get somewhere around 250 mg of DHA each day. So that’d be 25 grams of ALA. That’s about 3.5 tablespoons of flaxseed oil (it’s almost a quarter cup).
I’d say, “Drink up”, but that just doesn’t seem fun at all. Or tasty.
Below you’ll find a few recipes that can help you hit your goal. It’s much more delicious to get your essential omegas this way rather than forcing yourself to consume tablespoon after tablespoon of oil (assuming you’re not supplementing).
On the other hand, there is an omega-3 fatty acid I’ve left out.
Stearidonic Acid (SDA)
When you eat flaxseeds, it’s not as if the omega-3 train goes straight from ALA to EPA. There’s a stop in the middle – SDA.
Sources of SDA are relatively rare compared to ALA. There are really only a few sources and they all come from seed oils: hemp, corn gromwell, blackcurrant, and echium.
A recent study on Ahiflower (a plant related to corn gromwell) has revealed that SDA is converted to EPA 3-4 times better than flaxseed oil. In case you’re counting tablespoons, that’d be only one pour (if it was available in liquid form).
Unfortunately, though, the rate of conversion to EPA and DHA isn’t the only challenge vegans have.
Why You Should Watch Your Omega-6 Intake
I’m finally coming back around to omega-6s and the issue they present everyone – not just vegans.
You still need omega-6s in your diet, so don’t hate on them too much. It’s the ratio that’s the issue. Everything needs to be in balance.
The proper ratio of omega 6:3 is somewhere in the 1:1 to 4:1 range. The reason is simple: having too much omega-6 can adversely affect your omega-3s. They compete for the same set of enzymes, but they have opposite signals when used.
So if you’re taking down tablespoon after tablespoon of flaxseed oil and you’re not optimizing your ratio, you may have to take more. Ugh. Honestly though, it’s easier (and better) for you to reduce your omega-6s.
It’s time for the tastiest part of the article. You should really do your best to get your required nutrients from your diet if you can. And with these recipes, you’ll have every reason to – especially the vegan chia pudding.
The four recipes below are some of my favorite ways to get my omega-3s.