Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know eating oily fish comes with many health benefits. That’s because the omega 3 fatty acids DHA and EPA found in oily fish are essential nutrients for our body.
Our brain and retina are abundant in omega 3 fatty acids . They have many more benefits from improved cognitive function, healthy aging, weight management and potentially even more.
If you are a vegetarian or vegan however, fish is obviously off the menu.
Normally you’d be recommended to eat more of the plant based of omega 3 alpha-linolenic-acid(ALA), a precursor to DHA and EPA. The hope is we convert this into DHA and EPA in the body.
Meaning you get all the benefits of omega 3 fatty acids without eating any fish.
Are vegetarian sources of omega 3 the same?
Unfortunately although we can convert ALA into into DHA & EPA, the conversion is really poor. In-fact 1 study suggested that only ∼2 to 10% of ALA is converted to EPA or DHA, and other studies found even less: with 7% for EPA, but only 0.013% for DHA in one; and even less in another study finding an ALA conversion of only 0.3% for EPA and <0.01% for DHA.(2,3,4,5)
You may think, okay those numbers are low, but can’t I just eat loads of ALA to be safe?
In theory yes, but the problem is getting enough. The highest source of ALA is flaxseed oil at roughly 30-50% ALA.(1) The american heart association recommends 1g of EPA & DHA combined.
Doing a quick bit of math, this means you’d need to eat approximately 4000 grams (250 tablespoons) of flaxseed oil a day to get enough DHA at a conversion of 0.013%. Going on the very optimistic 10% instead conversion rates, things could be lowered to 15-20 grams per day (1 tablespoon).
Either way it’s a lot of flaxseed oil. With such poor conversion rates it’s highly unlikely any vegetarians or vegans are getting enough essential omega 3’s, unless they are part of the 1-10% with extremely high ability to convert ALA effectively.
What is the solution?
So what’s the solution? Do you either except deficiency and health risks associated with not getting enough omega 3? Or start eating fish/taking fish oil? Or maybe shellfish as there’s a strong argument for eating molluscs such as mussels and oysters, since they have no pain receptors, brain, or central processing unit for stimuli. (6)
Luckily there is another way, taking algae oil. Where do fish get DHA and EPA? Algae because its loaded with the omega 3 fatty acids DHA and EPA. Algae are now farmed and the oil made into vegan friendly omega 3 fatty acids just as effective as fish oil. (7)
So although up until this article I haven’t recommend taking supplements if you are a vegan or vegetarian. After researching the conversion rates of ALA and realising just how poor they are, i’d strongly recommend taking an algae oil supplement.
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