Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids are essential for good health. The most famous omega-3 source is fish oil. Is it the best option, though? Is flaxseed oil the best vegan alternative? What about EPA and DHA supplements from algae?
Omega-3 types: ALA, DHA, EPA
There are 3 types of dietary fat:
- polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). Omega-3s and omega-6s belong here. These are the “good” fats.
- monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs).
- saturated fatty acids.
Moreover, there are 3 main types of omega-3 fatty acids:
- ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), mainly found in plant-based foods.
- DHA, mainly found in seafood and algae.
- EPA, mainly found in seafood and algae.
The ALA and omega-6 fatty acids (linoleic acid) are essential fatty acids.
The human body can’t synthesize them. So, we have to take them from food.
On the other hand, ALA can be converted into EPA and then to DHA. Unfortunately, this conversion isn’t efficient. So, better consume DHA and EPA from food, as well.
The most well-known source of DHA and EPA is seafood and fish oil. But, nowadays there are vegan sources too.
Health benefits of omega-3s
Omega-3s have gained popularity, as they are important for good health.
Moreover, omega-3s may protect against:
- cardiovascular disease,
- high blood pressure,
- cancer prevention;
- Alzheimer’s disease,
- age-related macular degeneration,
- dry eye disease,
- rheumatoid arthritis.
Furthermore, DHA is especially high in the retina, brain, and sperm.
Also, omega-3s, along with omega-6s provide energy to the body.
Additionally, omega-3s may boost immune system, as they have anti-inflammatory properties.
How much omega-3 should I take daily?
What are the recommended daily omega-3 needs?
Can we consume adequate amounts of ALA, DHA, and EPA from food? Or do we need omega-3 supplements?
How much ALA is enough?
The ALA is the only essential omega-3. We must consume it. The human body can’t synthesize it.
The recommended ALA intake is approximately 1.1 to 1.6 grams per day.
Vegetable oils, such as flaxseed, soybean, and canola oils are especially high in ALA.
Flaxseed is by far, the richest source of ALA.
For instance, just a tablespoon of flaxseed oil contains 7.2 gr of ALA. Flaxseed oil is 53% ALA fatty acids.
Moreover, a tablespoon of whole flaxseeds contains 2.3 gr of ALA. Whole flaxseeds are 23% ALA fatty acids.
Can vegan foods provide all the omega-3s we need?
Flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and walnuts are rich in ALA, but they don’t contain any DHA or EPA.
The ALA can be converted into EPA and then to DHA, though.
But we shouldn’t depend only on vegan foods for omega-3 intake. Less than 15% of ALA is converted to EPA and DHA.
What’s the preferred daily DHA & EPA doses?
There isn’t any standard DHA and EPA doses.
Why? Because the data from many studies are so controversial.
Naturally, seafood is rich in DHA and EPA. Fish, fish oil, and algae are the only good sources of DHA and EPA.
Moreover, fish don’t produce omega-3s. DHA and EPA are synthesized only by microalgae.
Fish are high in DHA and EPA because they eat microalgae.
Therefore, why not take DHA and EPA supplements made from algae?
As a bonus, you haven’t to worry about ocean pollutants, such as mercury. Commercial algae is grown in tanks, away from the ocean.
How much DHA and EPA do we need per day?
There isn’t a standard dose of combined EPA and DHA. Better consulting your physician.
As a rule of thumb, a total dose of up to 1000 mg of EPA and DHA seems pretty safe.
According to the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a dose of about 250 mg of EPA and DHA per day, seems to have great health benefits. That is the equivalent of eating seafood twice a week.
The FDA recommends no more than a total of 3 grams of EPA and DHA per day. Furthermore, the FDA recommends no more than 2 grams of EPA and DHA from supplements per day.
Moreover, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding women to consume about 200–300 mg DHA per day.
Finally, the European Food Safety Authority says that larger doses of EPA and DHA seems to be safe. Seems like that doses of EPA and DHA up to 5 grams per day are safe.
Is fish oil good for you?
Fish, shellfish and fish oil are contaminated. Better avoid them, whatsoever.
Seafood or fish oil is a better source of omega-3s?
Fish oil seems a better omega-3 source than seafood.
Firstly, the amount of omega-3s in fish varies greatly. It depends on the fish variety.
For instance, cold-water fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines, or herring contain higher amounts of omega-3s.
Contrary, other fish varieties and shellfish contain much lower levels of omega-3s.
On the other hand, seafood is contaminated with dangerous compounds, such as (3):
- heavy metal, such as mercury and lead,
- industrial chemicals, such as PCBs, and
- pesticides, such as DDT.
Don’t underestimate the dangers of these contaminates. Studies have shown that women may need up to 5 years to get rid of PCBs from their bodies. Moreover, we may need more than a year to significantly reduce the mercury levels of our bodies.
If you insist on consuming fish, at least prefer small fish. They are lower on the food chain, so they are less contaminated.
Why fish oil is bad for you?
As seafood is contaminated, fish oil seems a better solution, for obtaining EPA and DHA.
Moreover, fish oil is said to be purified from contaminants. That may not be true, though.
Certainly, the amounts of toxins in fish oil are negligible, compare to fish.
But studies have shown that even a small amount of toxin in fish oil may compromise health. Especially, after consuming it for a long time.
Therefore, fish oil may not be good for our health.
Is flaxseed oil the richest vegan food in omega-3s?
Flaxseed oil is indeed the richest vegan food of omega-3s.
It’s approximately 53% ALA, the plant type of omega-3.
Why flaxseed is good for you?
Certainly, we need omega-3s. Flaxseed is the best vegan source. By far…
But you shouldn’t worry only about the omega-3 content.
The omega-6 to omega-3 ratio
What’s more important than adequate amounts of omega-3s?
Above all, we shouldn’t consume large amounts of omega-6s.
Although, both omega-3s and omega-6s are important for the human body, we shouldn’t consume too much of omega-6s.
Above all, the omega-6/omega-3 ratio shouldn’t be greater than 2.5.
Much greater ratio may promote chronic inflammation, and chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer (1,2).
A Western diet has a ratio of approximately 16.
Furthermore, our ancestors used to follow a diet with a ratio of omega-6/omega-3 of 1.
Research has shown that a ration of 4 may help decreasing total mortality by 70% (2).
Certainly, flaxseed oil increases omega-3s in diet. But that’s not enough.
We should consume fewer foods high in omega-6s, as well.
What vegan foods are bad for you?
So many foods are high in omega-6s. Avoid big amounts of these foods.
According to the USDA:
As a rule of thumb, avoid vegetable oils that are high in omega-6s. For instance, avoid sunflower oil, corn oil, walnut oil, and soybean oil.
Prefer foods that are either low in total grams of omega-6s, or they contain many omega-3s, as well.
Certainly, whole seeds and nuts aren’t a problem.
We should avoid all vegetable oils, as they lack nutrients and fiber. Moreover, they are the most calorie-dense food in the planet.
Furthermore, pay attention to processed foods. They tend to contain cheap vegetable oils, high in omega-6s. Always look the nutrition facts label.
Canola oil has a perfect ratio of omega-6/omega-3 of 2.1. If you can find organic non-GMO canola oil, prefer it.
Moreover, olive oil is good for you, as it’s rich in polyphenols.
Remember… Reasonable amounts of omega-6s are good for you. Huge amounts are bad.
Other vegan foods rich in omega-3
Besides flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds, canola oil, and soybean oil are high in ALA, the omega-3 type found mainly in plants.
Nowadays, there are fortified foods with omega-3s, as well. Always look nutrition facts.
Do vegans need omega-3 supplements?
Everyone needs omega-3 supplements. Vegans as well.
There is no need to buy fish oil supplements.
There are vegan EPA and DHA supplements, from plant-based sources.
Most commonly, you’ll find vegan EPA and DHA supplements from algae.
Furthermore, the bioavailability of DHA from algae is equivalent to that from fish oil (1).
Most noteworthy, omega-3 supplements from algae don’t have contaminants or toxins. Algae are grown in tanks, away from the ocean.
Moreover, preferring omega-3 supplements from algae, you protect the ocean life.
- National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements: Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- The Center for Genetics: The importance of the omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid ratio in cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases.
- Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) Seafood Selector