Eating Omega 3 on a Plant-based Diet

Regardless of whether you are a fully committed raw vegan, flexitarian or omnivore, one essential food you may want to consider is Omega 3. Foods such as walnuts and salmon are now advertised for supposedly being high in Omega 3’s. Omega 3’s are a form of fatty acids that are referred to as essential as the body can’t make them itself. Like omega 6 and 9, omega 3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated. This means that they often get touted as “good” fats by the media. The three most common types of omega 3s are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). EPA and DHA are found in animal products only, whilst ALA comes from vegetable sources.

How much Omega 3 we need is less about grams and more about it’s proportion compared to Omega 6. A typical western diet can see the ratio of Omega-3 to omega-6 being as low as 1:10 or even less. In comparison, pre-agricultural humans would be eating a ratio of 1:4 or less depending on geographic location and diet. On top of this, as DHA is a key compound that makes up our brain, we need to think about the variety of omega 3s that we consume. ALA can be converted into EPA and DHA, but isn’t particularly efficient. This makes omega 3 more of an issue for vegetarians and vegans.

I’m aware that this is starting to sound like an introduction to a paleo diet article, so lets back up and get some insight from registered nutritionist, Sarah Jackson:

Omega 3 and Omega 6 are essential fatty acids and must be obtained through food. The reason they are ‘essential’ is due to them being biologically active, contributing to growth and development, brain function and inflammation. Inflammation is vital for us as it helps to fight against infection. However, it can also cause damage to the body, but I explain more on this later.  

Omega 6 is found in processed oils such as sunflower oil and due to the Western world increasingly using processed oil (whether that be in the food industry or in your kitchen) it is causing a large difference in the Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratio.

So what actually is Omega 3?

As mentioned, Omega 3 comes in different forms; ALA, EPA and DHA. ALA must be included in our diet as it has a range of important functions. It is also compulsory for making Omega 3 fats but unfortunately our bodies cannot make it on its own. You can find ALA in rapeseed oil, nuts and green leafy vegetables. Once we have ALA in our bodies it then starts to produce long-chain fats, EPA and DHA. EPA and DHA are seen to have the most health benefits, however are only made in small amounts from ALA. To ensure you are getting enough of these fats it is important to consume foods rich in them. Oily fish is a great source of EPA and DHA. Whilst white fish does contain them it is at much lower levels. Government guidance is to aim to consume fish twice a week with one being oily fish (preferably MSC certified products)

Vegetarian and vegan sources of Omega 3

The BDA (British Dietetic Association) advise those who cannot get their Omega 3 EPA and DHA from fish sources should maximise conversion by avoiding high in saturated fat foods, focusing on plant foods that contains ALA. You can consider a supplement from algae derived DHA as well as including sea vegetables into your diet.  However, it is important to speak to a Registered Nutritionist or Dietitian before adding supplements into your diet.

Other vegetarian sources of Omega 3 are flaxseeds, walnuts, soy and leafy green vegetables. There are now Omega 3 enriched foods such as milks, yogurts and breads this may contribute to your Omega 3 intake. However, it is important to note that this is usually just small amounts.

How is Omega 6 different to Omega 3?

Omega 6 is largely found in processed foods within the Western world. Although it has benefits when it small amounts comes from plant foods it can contribute to health risks if we consume too much from vegetables oils. It is thought that our Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio has considerably increased over the past few decades. Diets that are high in Omega 6 compared to Omega 3 are more likely to produce inflammation, which can contribute to heart disease and obesity.

Omega 3 on a plant based diet

Sarah Jackson is a registered nutritionist and yoga teacher based in Manchester. She founded the consultancy NutriBloom, which focuses on helping her clients to learn about nutrition and health in an evidenced based way. You can find her online, and on social media.

Feeling inspired? Try my omega 3-rich warm jewelled kale salad -delicious with or without goat’s cheese. Pescitarian but still concerned about sourcing your seafood? You might like my sustainable seafood series.