The Lowdown On Omega-3s — How Important Are They For Plant-Based Eaters?
We’ve all seen the giant jugs of omega-3 supplements at Costco or heard of (for some, maybe even experienced) the aquatic aftertaste and the 24 hours worth of briny burps that accompany them.
But as droves of people are paying to put themselves through these not-so-pleasant symptoms, one must wonder, are omega 3s really so important? And if so, are there any reliable, non-fishy sources that meet the needs of plant-based folks?
The short answers are yes and yes, and we’ll address both in a bit.
But first, let’s get into the nitty gritty science of omega 3s.
What are omega-3 fatty acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that our bodies need to function. Most of the other fats our bodies require can be produced internally in sufficient quantities, but omega-3s must be obtained through diet, supplementation, or a combination of both.
There are 3 main types of omega-3 fatty acids:
- ALA (Alpha-linolenic acid) is the most common of omega-3s found in our typically rich and fatty, Western diet. It is crucial in helping our bodies digest, absorb nutrients, and create energy. The two other main omega-3s, EPA and DHA, can be synthesized by ALA, but only in very small quantities. It has been shown that only 0.5%-10% of ALA is converted into “physiologically effective levels” of DHA and EPA.
- EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) prevents the blood in our bodies from clotting easily, reduces triglyceride levels in the blood, and has been shown to help reduce pain and swelling.*
- DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) plays a significant role in brain and eye development. It helps support mental health throughout early childhood and even into adulthood.*
Don’t confuse your 3s and 6s.
Omega-3 fatty acids are not to be confused with their omega-6 siblings. Both are essential and mainly acquired through diet. Omega-6 fats can be found in nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils — often consumed in the form of processed and fried foods.
Despite some of its more questionable and less than healthy sources, omega-6 fats still play a vital role in making sure your body is operating properly on a daily basis. Similarly to omega-3s, they help regulate growth, development, and energy conversion. Most Americans already take in far more omega-6 fats than they do omega-3 (some research points to as much as 14 to 25 times more), making it much less sought after as a supplement.
What are the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids?
Omega-3s are indeed crucial to your overall health and wellbeing, tirelessly working to assist every cell in your body. Regular intake of these essential fatty acids is critical for optimal functioning — from regulating our cholesterol levels to powering our nervous systems.* Thousands of studies have been conducted on the various effects and benefits of omega-3s, and we are still continuing to discover even more to this day.
Here are some of the major benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, as outlined through the latest research:
Supports Metabolic Function
Consuming too few omega-3s can leave us feeling physically and mentally sluggish. Now this doesn’t necessarily mean that taking extra amounts of omega-3s will provide some kind of espresso-like boost, but getting an adequate amount is absolutely essential in keeping energy production steady and metabolic health functioning at a high level.*
In a 2013 study, omega-3s were given to a group of 24 women between the ages of 60-76, who were experiencing a decline in their metabolic efficiency, with an increase in fat mass and decrease in muscle mass (a natural process that, unfortunately for all of us, occurs with aging).
Over a period of 12 weeks, they were given 3 grams of omega-3 supplement per day. Various physical and metabolic measurements were taken at the beginning and the end of the trial for a final comparison.
The results were extremely promising, with the following measurements recorded:
- Resting metabolic rate increased by 14%
- Energy during exercise increased by 10%
- Fat oxidation increased during rest by 19%
- Fat oxidation increased while active by 27%
- Lean body mass increase by 4%
While this study was conducted on a small sample size, the researchers concluded that upping your intake of omega-3s could potentially (and significantly) improve age-related metabolic changes.
Supports Heart Health
This may be the most widely shared and researched benefit that omega-3 fatty acids (specifically EPA and DHA) bring to the health table. Increased intake has been recommended by the American Heart Association for the past 20 years to help reduce cardiovascular events, like heart attacks or strokes, and doctors and scientists have been researching the short and long-term effects that these essential fats have on our bodies.
So what exactly makes them “heart healthy”?
Several studies have shown that individuals who consumed some form of omega-3 a few times per week had almost one-half the risk of death from coronary heart disease and almost one-third the risk of death from a heart attack, in comparison with those who consumed a negligible amount. In only a 12 week period, increased omega-3 levels have been shown to reduce the amount of triglycerides in the bloodstream by a staggering 27%.*
High triglyceride levels contribute to hardening of the arteries or thickening of the artery walls and are associated with obesity and an increased risk of stroke, heart attack and heart disease.*
May Support Inflammation Reduction
When you think of inflammation, you might immediately think of a swollen joint or an angry looking cut. But inflammation can also be a major contributor to multiple diseases and life-altering conditions.
Inflammation, on a basic level, is simply the body’s natural defense mechanism to help prevent tissue damage and infection from viruses and bacteria. But sometimes the inflammation doesn’t go away, and this is when it can become dangerous, damaging healthy cells and tissues. There is a long laundry list of conditions that are associated with chronic inflammation:
- Heart Disease
- Type 2 Diabetes
- Chronic Kidney Disease
And that's just a handful.
Higher intake of both EPA and DHA has been linked to reduced inflammation (including the chronic-kind), by directly affecting the function of cells and actively decreasing the production of molecules and substances that cause inflammation.*
Supports Fetal & Infant Development
For pregnant women, omega-3 fatty acids play a major role in childhood development, specifically the fetal brain and retina.* However, recent surveys indicate that pregnant women, both in the United States and in other countries, aren’t getting enough omega-3s in their diet. This comes as no surprise, with fish being the most commonly recommended source, and many pregnant women avoiding this due to concern over the mercury and other contaminants present in fish.
Various animal studies have demonstrated that not getting enough omega-3 fatty acids during pregnancy can cause irreversible visual and behavioral effects. Guidelines have recommended that women consume at least 200 mg of DHA per day when pregnant.*
What about kids?
Many parents are unsure of the role omega-3s play in the lives of their children and if supplementation is a safe option for them. Just like with the fetus in the womb, omega-3s play an important role in maintaining a child's overall brain health and may also aid sleep quality. Providing plenty of sources, be it food or an appropriate supplement, of omega-3s can help ensure that children are meeting their daily needs and thriving.
Supports Brain Health
We already know that omega-3s are important for the development of young brains, but what about our older and slightly more weathered adult brains?
Omega-3s are also important to adult brain health.
As we age, our brains go through many physical and biological changes that include shrinking (that’s right!) and a decrease in omega-3 levels. This can vary from person to person, contributing to various degrees of overall cognitive deterioration.
Omega-3s have been shown to help reduce neuroinflammation and oxidative damage, while simultaneously improving proper blood flow to the brain.* These all may contribute to slowing the effects of age-related memory decline and lowering risks in both the development and progression of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.*
Recently, there’s also been a lot of insight in regards to the effects that omega-3s have with conditions such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. While there are lots of various factors that could be contributing to the situation, an imbalance in serotonin and dopamine are linked to these disorders. Increasing omega-3 intake could be beneficial in the treatment of depression and anxiety, due to its potential in improving the transmission of serotonin and dopamine.*
May Support Bone Health
It’s not a widely known fact that omega-3s also play a part in bone health.
One of the biggest exacerbators of bone deterioration is chronic inflammation. It can cause our bodies to send signals to bone-removing cells called osteoclasts. They are only supposed to remove old and brittle or damaged bone, but with chronic inflammation in the mix, these cells go into overdrive. Since building new bone takes much longer than breaking down old bone, too much osteoclast cell activity can result in bone thinning.
As mentioned before, omega-3s have shown to to be very effective anti-inflammatory agents. Studies show that EPA and DHA tone down the inflammatory signaling that causes the osteoclast cells to activate. This effectively sends the osteoclasts away and prevents excessive bone loss. What’s more, EPA and DHA increase the production of the bone-building cells, osteoblasts, helping counteract the effects of their bone-removing counterparts.
This all sounds great…
So how much omega-3 fatty acids do I need?
Now that we’ve established all of the potentially amazing health benefits that are associated with omega-3s and the possible repercussions of not getting enough through diet, how does one reap said benefits?
Most mainstream health organizations recommend consuming 1.1–1.6 grams of ALA and a minimum of 250–500 mg combined EPA and DHA each day for healthy adults.
The American Heart Association suggests that patients with heart disease consume about 1 gram combined EPA and DHA each day, while those with elevated triglycerides should try to get 2 to 4 grams per day.
Where to get omega-3 fatty acids as a plant-based eater.
Those who live their lives as plant-based eaters will inevitably have a tougher time getting certain omega-3s into their diets. Knowing what options are available and where to find them can make it easier to come up with a solution.
ALA is found in foods such as flax seeds, flaxseed oil, canola oil, chia seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds, and soybeans. These are relatively easy sources for a plant-based eater to find and add into their diet, but what about the other two important omega-3s? As stated earlier on, ALA converts into EPA and DHA, but the process can be very inefficient. It’s most definitely not a sufficient amount to be relying solely on ALA as our source of Omega-3s.
DHA and EPA Sources
DHA and EPA are the more difficult omega-3s to obtain on a plant-based diet. The most widely accepted and accessible way to incorporate these two essential fatty acids are through fish and fish oil. But where does that leave plant-based folks? Luckily, these are not the only sources of DHA and EPA.
Fish consume micro-algae and other marine plants, and these species of seaweed are the root source of high-quality EPA and DHA. Those compounds are then deposited in the fish’s fat deposits. That’s why those looking for a supplemental source of Omega-3’s take fish oil capsules. It’s not that fish uniquely produce DHA or EPA; it’s that they eat the seaweed that’s rich in these Omega-3s.
So now you may be thinking, “I love sushi! I’ll just find ways to add a bunch of seaweed into my diet.” But because seaweeds are so low in fat, they provide relatively low amounts of EPA and DHA per gram. So you would have to eat a harrowingly large amount of seaweed every single day in order to reap any omega-3 benefits.
Practically speaking, most people can’t or won’t do that. That’s why it is strongly suggested that plant-based eaters consider ways to supplement their intake of DHA and EPA.
If you need an omega-3 supplement, here’s what to look for…
Luckily, there are now algae-derived omega-3 supplements available for those who follow a plant-based diet. We can cut out the “middle fish” entirely, do the planet a favor and go straight to the source.
When looking at your options, consider those with a wide variety of omega 3’s, rather than those with just one. While each omega-3 has its own set of unique benefits, they also support each other in keeping our bodies functioning smoothly on a daily basis. The more the merrier.
Always make sure you are getting a high quality product, it’ll be going into your body after all. Do your research and check to see if the product has been tested, and if so, that it was done in FDA registered facilities operating under cGMP standards. You want to make sure that what you’re buying has accurate potency and has passed inspection for unwanted contaminants such as heavy metals and bacteria.
Now that you’ve had the rundown of all things omega-3, you can decide whether or not it’s worth making the (not so strenuous) effort to include them into your diet, and how you do it. Don’t forget to take into consideration your personal lifestyle, dietary requirements, and health factors.
- The 3 Most Important Types of Omega-3 Fatty Acids. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/3-types-of-omega-3
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Cardiovascular Disease, 1 Feb 2003 Vol: 23, Number 2. https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/01.atv.0000057393.97337.ae
- Omega-3 fatty acids for breast cancer prevention and survivorship, 2015, Breast Cancer Research, Article 62. https://breast-cancer-research.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13058-015-0571-6
- A New Insight to Bone Turnover: Role of ω-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids, 4 Nov 2013.
- Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids: What is Their Role in Treatment of Psychiatric Disorders, 23 Oct 2019.
- The roles of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in pregnancy. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18184094/
- Omega‐3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and inflammatory processes, 5 Feb 2013.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation for 12 Weeks, 17 Dec 2015.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Pregnancy.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Heart Health, 1 Dec 2015, Vol 132, Number 22. https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.114.015176
- Complement Omega Complex. https://lovecomplement.com/products/omega-complex