What is Omega-3?
“Fat” is such a demonized word, but despite its negative connotations, it’s not always a bad thing. Omega-3 is a fatty acid, which is a type of polyunsaturated fat. There are many different types, but there are 3 that are incredibly important:
ALA = alpha-linolenic acid (short-chain)
EPA = eicosapentaenoic acid (long-chain)
DHA = docosahexaenoic acid (long-chain)
What is an Essential Fatty Acid?
ALA is otherwise known as the parent fatty acid, because it can be used to create both EPA and DHA. It’s required by the body but humans are unable to synthesize it, so ALA is “essential”. In other words, we must acquire it from our diet. However, the conversion rate of ALA into EPA and DHA is quite low, so they are classed as “conditionally essential” and it is often advised that we find dietary sources of these as well.
Why do we Need Omega-3?
Omega-3 is an important component of cell membranes and is necessary for the effective functioning of the immune and nervous systems, brain development and cholesterol management. It also has an effect on our inflammatory responses; a deficiency of omega-3 has been linked to inflammatory diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes.
Are There Any Vegan Sources of Omega-3?
There are plenty of plant-based sources that contain ALA fatty acids, including walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, rapeseed oil and hemp seeds. However, the only vegan sources of EPA and DHA are seaweed and other types of algae, which makes it difficult to obtain adequate amounts. It is therefore recommended that vegans take omega-3 supplements and/or eat more foods with ALA omega-3 than those who don’t follow a plant-based diet.
What About Omega-6?
Omega-6s are also “essential” fatty acids that play important roles in bodily functions. There is a lot more omega-6 readily available in the Western diet compared to omega-3, including those who eat fish and meat. Subsequently, modern humans consume far more than our ancestors used to. Evidence suggests that omega-6 is pro-inflammatory, as opposed to omega-3 which is anti-inflammatory. Due to the changes in the Western diet, the balance of these two “essential” fatty acids has been greatly disturbed and links have been made to chronic inflammatory diseases. However, there is a lot of conflicting evidence and other studies have found that linoleic acid (LA), the most common omega-6 fatty acid, doesn’t increase levels of inflammatory markers and is not indicated in the cause of cardiovascular disease, or any other chronic lifestyle disease.
Balancing Omega-3 With Omega-6
Despite the contrasting studies, it is clear that omega-6 and omega-3 compete for the same enzymes and therefore, humans should obtain a balance of the two in their diets. Unfortunately, the recommended ratio keeps changing and some experts have done away with the ratio altogether. Confusing, right? So how can vegans balance their omega-3 and omega-6? Luckily, there have been plenty of research trials that have studied the positive effects of giving people omega-3 supplements and, so far, there has been no evidence to suggest that people are eating too much omega-3 (even the greediest of pescetarians). The advice to vegans would be to eat plenty of plant-based sources of omega-3 and reduce their consumption of processed foods that are high in omega-6. For example, switching a cheap processed vegetable oil to high-quality rapeseed oil.
Are There Vegan Omega-3 Supplements?
Yes! Herbaland makes delicious plant-based omega-3 gummies using Canadian flaxseed oil, which is the richest plant-source of ALA omega-3. Because they’re not made from fish or algae, they don’t have that horrible fishy flavor. The majority of omega-3 supplements are made using gelatin, glucose, palm tree wax, yellow beeswax and other unhealthy and unsustainable ingredients. However, Herbaland’s omega-3 supplements are sugar-free and made using 100% vegan pectin. Plus, they’re packed full of tasty vitamin C! See what kids have to say about the Herbaland omega-3 supplements There are also omega-3 supplements that are made using algae, but these tend to be much more expensive, harder to source locally and less palatable.
Do Vegans Need Omega-3 Supplements?
Vegans need to eat a lot of omega-3 to convert enough ALA to fulfil their dietary requirements and balance out the omega-6. Plant-based sources are limited, so omega-3 supplements are often recommended.
There’s a lot of information to process regarding omega-3 and omega-6 and hopefully, this article has given you some food for thought! To summarise, here are the take-home messages: Vegans need to be more conscious about their omega-3 consumption. There are 3 main types of omega-3: ALA, EPA and DHA fatty acids. Vegan sources of omega-3 mainly contain ALA fatty acids, although seaweed and other algae contain EPA and DHA. Vegans only need to eat food containing ALA, but need to eat a lot due to an inefficient conversion rate. It’s important to balance omega-3 and omega-6. Omega-6 is abundant in the modern Western diet, especially in processed foods. Everyone, including vegans, should try to eat more foods high in omega-3 and less processed foods high in omega-6. That means regularly eating foods rich in ALA fatty acids such as flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, rapeseed oil and hemp seeds.
For example, these healthy snacks are rich in vegan omega-3:
Nagi’s Chia & Goji Berry Protein Bars
Edible Ethic’s Breakfast Chia Pudding
Vegan Sister’s Rockin’ Raw Walnut Brownies
Taking vegan supplements is a much easier way of guaranteeing a regular and adequate supply of omega-3.