Omega-3’s are called “essential” fatty acids because the body requires them for the vital role they play in the health of all bodily cells. Although essential for optimal health, the body cannot manufacture these polyunsaturated fats and they must be obtained through dietary sources. Cold water oily fish and fish oil supplements are the main dietary sources of omega-3 eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) essential fatty acids. For decades, science has shown that the omega-3’s found in fish oils have numerous positive health benefits.
In addition to favorable cardiovascular protective effects, mounting scientific evidence shows that a diet rich in omega-3’s supports healthy brain function, promotes healthy eyes and vision, supports a healthy immune response and protects nerve and brain cells from oxidative stress and damage. Omega-3’s also promote healthy triglyceride levels, support joint mobility and flexibility, support digestive and gastrointestinal health, promote the metabolism of dietary fat and cholesterol and encourage a healthy inflammatory response. Whew! If you are not eating fish several times each week or taking fish oil supplements, the question is why not?
If the answer is simply that you follow a vegetarian diet or that you really don’t care for fish, be sure that you include plant-sourced alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) omega-3 in your daily meals. ALA can be found in palm, flaxseed, coconut and olive oils, in raw nuts such as cashews, pecans and walnuts, some seeds like chia and flaxseed and in some green vegetables such as kale, spinach and Brussels sprouts. Other dietary options include omega-3 enriched foods, including eggs and fortified dairy foods. As ALA is actually a precursor to EPA and DHA, a vegetarian’s challenge is the reliance on favorable circumstances for bodily processes to convert dietary ALA to the biologically active forms of EPA and DHA. Unfortunately, this conversion is often inefficient and may be negatively affected by age, genetics, health status and poorly designed diets.
Although conversion can be slow or incomplete, sufficient ALA intake may be enough to supply adequate levels to avoid deficiency but may not be enough for optimal health. Evidence shows that vegetarians’ blood and tissue levels of EPA and DHA are about one half that of non-vegetarians. Our body’s abilities to make EPA and DHA from ALA partly depends on the other types of fats we eat. High consumption of omega-6 fats, found in corn, safflower and other blended vegetables oils, can interfere with ALA conversion. Getting enough DHA is particularly troublesome, as possibly excessive amounts of ALA are required to produce more optimal DHA levels.
Ideally, we need a ratio of about 3:1 omega-6 fats to omega-3 fats. Our modern diet is skewed heavily in the direction of omega-6, which is pro-inflammatory and aids blood clotting, and seriously lacking in omega-3, which is anti-inflammatory and an anti-coagulant. Many of us, especially vegans and vegetarians, need to take a closer look at our diets to ensure not only a more balanced ratio, but that we are getting the omega-3’s we require for good health. Adding more plant based omega-3 fatty acids to our diets is a good idea for all us, as these foods also contain vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytonutrients. The amount of omega-3’s contained in fish is closely related to what the fish eat. Fish that eat algae and sea plants that are rich in omega-3’s contain the highest amounts of omega-3’s. Supplementing is a way for those who don’t eat fish to ensure they are getting optimal amounts of these healthy essential fats.
Because there are limited options for vegans and vegetarians to ensure sufficient amounts of DHA through diet, supplementing can reduce the risk of dietary deficiency and provide the numerous health benefits of omega-3’s, especially for those over 60 years of age. Minimizing oils high in omega-6 and cutting back on fried foods will also aid ALA conversion to EPA and DHA. In order to convert ALA, the body needs other nutrients including vitamins B3, B6 and C and the minerals zinc and magnesium. In addition to providing an excellent source of soluble and insoluble fibers, flax seeds is the richest source of ALA for everyone and especially suitable for vegetarians.
Professional Supplement Center offers these and other high quality omega-3 and multi-nutrient supplements for vegans and vegetarians:
Vegan Omega-3 DHA-EPA 300 mg by Deva Nutrition – This 100% vegan product contains high potency omega-3’s derived from microalgae grown in a controlled environment in an FDA inspected facility. Free of gluten, dairy or animal products.
Organic Cold Pressed Flax Seed Oil by Ortho Molecular – Two softgels provide 2,000 mg of organic flax seed oil, known to have the highest amount of omega-3 ALA and LA essential fatty acids. Gluten and soy free.
Vegan 1-a-Day Multivitamin by Deva Nutrition – This formula, enriched with whole green foods, vegetable powders and special herbs, provides high potency, balanced multiple vitamins and minerals especially formulated to meet the unique nutritional needs of vegans and vegetarians. Free of wheat, gluten, dairy and animal products. 100% Certified Vegan.
MediPro Vegan All-in-One Shake by Thorne Research – Ideal for vegans, vegetarians and dairy-sensitive individuals, this non-whey, vegetable based, multi-nutrient protein powder provides 27 grams of protein per serving. This formula contains a proprietary blends of pea, potato and chlorella proteins, fibers, fruits, vegetables, digestive enzymes and probiotics. Gluten and dairy free, Non-GMO vegan/vegetarian formula.
Vegetarian’s Challenge – Optimizing Essential Fatty Acid Status. http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/020810p22.shtml
Omega-3 Fatty Acid Recommendations for Vegetarians. http://www.veganhealth.org/articles/omega3
Plant Sources of Omega 3s. http://my.clevelandclinic.org/services/heart/prevention/nutrition/food-choices/plant-sources-of-omega-3s