Omega-3 fatty acids, most commonly found in fish oils, have been all the rage for several years now. As vegans, fish oils are obviously not an option, but just like vitamin B12 supplementation, we should seriously consider EPA and DHA supplementation.
Why are Omega-3 fatty acids so important? Well, our bodies are great at making most of the fatty acids we require to live long, healthy lives with the exception of two: linoleic acid (Omega-6) and linolenic acid (Omega-3). The two predominant long-chain omega-3s include eicosapentaeoic acid (EPA) and docosahecaenoic acid (DHA).1 According to Whitney and Rolfes, “These Omega-3 fatty acids are found in the eyes and brain and are essential for normal growth and cognitive development.”1 In addition, alphalinolenic acid (ALA), a short-chain Omega-3 fatty acid, can convert to EPA and DHA.2 Pretty convincing stuff, right?
As vegans, we get our ALAs from nuts and seeds such as walnuts, flax, hemp and chia seeds. Some leafy greens, such as kale, also contain Omega-3s. Even with abundant sources, two factors can still affect us getting sufficient levels of both EPA and DHA. Though ALA can covert to EPA and DHA, that conversion has become controversial. Studies have shown that even large amounts of ALA convert to only small amounts of EPA and DHA, nowhere near what we need daily.2 The other factor affecting Omega-3 intake relates to the intake of Omega-6s. Since we get more than enough Omega-6s from a variety of foods you don’t really hear much about them. In fact, we now get way too many Omega-6s, about a 15:1 ratio. By eating too many Omega-6 fats, we reduce our ability to convert ALA to EPA and DHA. Ideally, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 should fall around the 4:1 range.2
A recent study published in Clinical Nutrition focused exclusively on vegans and Omega-3 intake and levels. Although the study found that vegans indeed did have lower levels, so did many omnivores. The study also found that vegans react well to supplementation.3
So while we think eating lots of Omega-3 rich nuts and seeds will meet our EPA and DHA needs we may actually fall very short of our daily requirements. Does this mean we have to take fish oils to protect our precious brains? Absolutely not! We can cut out the middle man and get our Omega’3s the same way the fish do, from algae. Since we can get all of our ALA needs from food, the current recommendation is about 1.1 grams a day for women and 1.6 grams for men, all you need is 200 – 300 milligrams EPA and DHA supplemented every 2 – 3 days.2
With several algae-derived supplements on the market today, there’s no excuse not to supplement. Before you buy, however, ensure the quality of the product by sniffing for a fishy, off smell. A rancid supplement may be worse than no supplement at all. The best supplements generally have been used in studies. Keep them in the fridge and try not to buy them in bulk because the quicker you use them the fresher they will keep. Clearly, supplementing with algae Omega-3s is a no-brainer.
1: Whitney & Rolfes. Understanding Nutrition. 12 Ed. 2011.
2: Norris & Messina. Vegan for Life. 2011.
3: Sarter, Kelsey, Schwartz & Harris. Blood docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid in vegans: Associations with age and gender and effects of an algal-derived omega-3 fatty acid supplement. Clinical Nutrition. Published online March 13, 2014.