glasses of kiwi and chia seed pudding with blueberries

By now, omega 3 fats are a household term…but how much do you really know about them? And, if you’re on a vegan or plant-based diet, how do you get more vegan sources of omega 3 onto your plate? Read on for literally EVERYTHING you need to know about omega 3 fatty acids: what are omega 3s, how much omega 3 per day you need and whether you need a supplement.

As a dietitian with a focus on plant-based nutrition and anti-inflammatory diets, talking about omega 3 fatty acids is an important part of my practice. I probably get asked about omega 3s as much as I do about calcium, iron and fiber. I go into depth about plant-based approaches to inflammation in Eat More Plants Cookbook, so if you want to learn more be sure to pick that up!

This post will give you a really solid understanding about omega 3 fatty acids and their role in the body. There is a lot of information here, so use the table of contents to jump ahead if you’re in a rush.

blue chia seeds in spoon on glasswork

What is an Omega 3 fat?

There are three different types of fatty acids: monounsaturated fatty acids, or MUFAs, polyunsaturated fatty acids, or PUFAs, and saturated fatty acids. We don’t have a nickname for that one! Saturated fatty acids are called saturated because fatty acid structure is saturated with hydrogen molecules and therefore, has no double bonds. This makes saturated fatty acids solid at room temperature – think butter and coconut oil. We want to eat fewer of those.

MUFAs and PUFAs have double bonds that cause crinkles in their structure that don’t allow the molecules to line up tight, so they are liquid at room temperature instead of solid. Monounsaturated fatty acids have just one double bond and polyunsaturated fatty acids – you guessed it – have more than one. Omega 3 fatty acids (FA) are a polyunsaturated fatty acid. The Omega 3 comes from the placement of the first double bond in the structure – it comes at the 3rd position. SCIENCE!

Omega 3’s are considered an essential nutrient, essential means that the human body can’t make them, so you have to eat them.

The three most common types of omega-3’s are:

  • alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
  • eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
  • docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

ALA is the most common form of omega 3 found in plant food. ALA can be converted into its biologically active cousins EPA and DHA, however for some this conversion is not efficient enough. However, EPA and DHA can also be obtained from food and supplements.

How much Omega 3 Fat do I need in a Day?

We know that we absolutely need to eat omega 3 fats, so how much do we actually need? The official recommendation is that adult men require 1.6 g/day of ALA, while women require slightly less at 1.1 g/day. Technically, only plant-based ALA is considered an essential nutrient as ALA can be converted into EPA and DHA. However, as I mentioned, this conversion sometimes isn’t the most efficient.

It’s worth noting that pregnant people require more ALA at 1.4 g/day. What’s more, the American Pregnancy Association recommends that pregnant people consume a supplement containing at least 300 mg of DHA. While most pregnant women know about their prenatal vitamin requirements, not everyone is aware that they need omega 3 fatty acids!

Some research shows that men convert only 8% of ALA to EPA and 0-4% to DHA, while women may be able to convert 21% of ALA to EPA and 9% to DHA. This difference between men and women, is thought to be due to the effects of estrogen on the body.

Is there any way to boost your conversion rate? Well, consuming more omega 6 FA may hinder the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA. Omega 6 FA compete with ALA, as they use the same pathway in metabolism. So, more omega-6 may mean less conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA. On the other hand, consuming more omega-3 FA may increase the production of EPA and DHA. Which means you definitely want to get more plant-based omega 3 sources on your plate!

Vegan Sources of Omega 3 (list)

Most people know that fatty fish is a source of omega 3 fatty acids. Wild salmon, herring and mackerel all provide pre-formed DHA and EPA.

However, you may not realize that there are vegan sources of omega 3 fatty acids that easily cover your baseline omega 3 requirements! The following is a list of foods that are plant-based omega-3 sources:

  • Flax seeds (1 tbsp/15ml ground): 1.6 g ALA
  • Flax seeds (1 tbsp/15ml whole): 2.4 g ALA
  • Flaxseed oil (1 tsp/15ml): 2.5 g ALA
  • Chia seeds (1 tbsp/15ml whole): 1.9 g ALA
  • Hemp seeds (1 tbsp/15ml): 0.85 g ALA
  • Walnuts (1/4 cup/60ml halves) 2.3 g ALA
  • Canola oil (1 tbsp/15ml) 1.28 g ALA

If you’re doing the math, you’ll see that all of these plant foods will easily meet your needs with just a small serving. You simply need to get them on your plate and to help with that, I’ve got a ton of recipes that help you eat more omega 3 fatty acids. And, if you’re noticing canola oil on that list, you might want to read my advice on cooking oils.

Benefits of Omega 3 polyunsaturated fats

Omega-3 FA have many roles in the body, but one important function includes membrane structure. Each cell has a membrane, like we have skin. The membrane holds everything in place and acts as a barrier between the inside and outside of the cell. Once integrated in the membrane, omega-3 FA can affect the fluidity, permeability, flexibility and signaling pathways of the cell.

In fact, DHA is important in the cell membranes of the retina and brain. DHA is high in the retina of the eye and even protected when levels of omega-3 decrease in the body, suggesting that DHA is important for the function of the retina and our eyesight.

Omega 3 for Brain Health

DHA is also involved in the development of the brain. This is why it is important that pregnant women ensure they are getting enough omega 3. Most of the accumulation of DHA occurs in the last trimester of pregnancy, making this period critical for DHA intake. Maternal intakes of omega-3 FA are thought to determine a newborn’s DHA status and development of the brain and retinal functions.

Omega 3 and Inflammation

Another interesting area that omega 3 FA play a role in is inflammation. Omega 3 FA have an anti-inflammatory role in decreasing eicosanoids, cytokines and reactive oxygen species, all of which can have a pro-inflammatory effect on the body. Eicosanoids and cytokines are both signaling molecules of the immune system; eicosanoids are produced from omega-6 FA, while cytokines come from proteins. Reactive oxygen species are free radicals that contain oxygen that can wreak havoc on DNA, and even cause cell death. Normal metabolism, along with stress, pollution and poor diet can increase the reactive oxygen species produced in our cells.

So how do omega 3s decrease all these pro-inflammatory molecules? Omega-3 FA can have a direct effect by competing with omega 6 FA on their pathway to becoming eicosanoids, or an indirect effect by altering the expression of inflammatory genes.  Some research has shown that the body may also produce anti-inflammatory mediators called resolvins, from the omega 3 fatty acid, EPA.

One observational study found that young adults who took an omega-3 FA supplement during a stressful period had reduced inflammation and anxiety. Supplementation with omega-3 FA was also shown to improve participants’ omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. But the research on omega 3 supplements and inflammation is a bit spotty so I focus on food first, creating a more anti-inflammatory diet pattern rich in omega 3 fats, adding a supplement only if it fits the budget to see if there is an improvement.

Other health benefits of omega 3 fatty acids

Omega-3 FA are being researched in many different areas of health including heart disease, depression and ADHD. Some studies have shown that a higher consumption of omega-3 FA was associated with a reduced risk of developing breast cancer although we still need to learn more.

Is the Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratio important?

Typically, we don’t talk about omega 3 fatty acids without also talking about omega 6 fatty acids, which are another polyunsaturated fatty acid. Omega 6 fatty acids are also essential, but in large amounts, may have a pro-inflammatory effect, or even counteract the anti-inflammatory action of omega-3 FA. As a matter of fact, a diet high in omega-6 FA has been thought to contribute to increased inflammation in the body but newer research is questioning this assumption.

This is where the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio comes in. As previously mentioned above, omega 6 fatty acids compete for the same pathways with omega 3 fatty acids – so more of one can block the conversion of the other.

The so-called western diet tends to range somewhere between 15:1 and 20:1 in omega-6 to omega-3 FA. These high ratios may be linked to cardiovascular disease, cancer and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. There is disagreement as to the ‘optimal ratio’; however, studies have shown a decrease in total mortality with an improved ratio of 4:1 omega-6 to omega-3 FA.

What does all of this mean? At the end of the day, both omega-3 and omega-6 FA are essential nutrients that must be included in the diet. But if you are currently following a standard North American diet, high in animal products and hyper-processed foods, making some switches to lower the ratio could have some long-term health benefits.

This can be done by switching the type of oil you use from corn to olive oil, and by including some omega-3 fat rich foods every single day. Additionally, reducing the intake of meat and soy or seed-based oils, such as safflower and sunflower, can reduce omega-6 FA in your diet.

Do you need an omega 3 supplement?

In my practice, many of my clients take an omega 3 fatty acid supplement…but that doesn’t mean everyone needs one! If you are healthy, and regularly eat omega 3 fat rich foods such as fish or seeds, then a supplement is most likely not necessary to obtain enough omega-3 FA. It’s also worth noting that you do not need to eat fish to get omega 3 fatty acids…omega 3-rich seeds will do you just fine!

If you have chronic inflammation such as eczema, psoriasis, arthritis or heart disease, you may benefit from trialling a high quality omega 3 supplement in addition to – not in place of – high omega 3 foods in your diet. As with any supplement, I recommend trialling it for 12 weeks and see if an improvement in symptoms or lab data occurs. If not, it’s probably not worth continuing.

The exception: all people who are pregnant or looking to become pregnant, including plant-based folks should consider supplementing with DHA, to aid in the development of their babies’ brain. If you eat fish, it is very important during pregnancy that you choose low mercury fish to protect your baby’s development.

What about vegan omega 3 supplements?

I typically avoid recommending fish oil supplements, as algal oil is a good, sustainable option for omega 3 FA supplementation. As previously mentioned, EPA and DHA can be obtained from algae. Algal oil is produced from microalgae and is therefore a great plant-based source of EPA and DHA!

Look for a product with 200-300mg of vegan DHA in addition to getting your daily dose of omega 3 rich seeds and see how you feel!

There you have it! Everything you need to know about omega-3 FA. If you are unsure whether you need to incorporate more omega-3 FA into your diet, ask a dietitian! We have an amazing team that can help you in determining your needs.

A BIG thank you to Melanie Newman, Year 5 Dietetic Student, who researched and drafted the first draft of this article for me.