Essential Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Vegan and Vegetarians
Got omega-3s? You’d think by my happy little breakfast bowl full of pumpkin flax granola, hemp hearts, and raw pumpkin seeds (all known to be “high in omegas”) plus few homegrown passionfruit, the resounding answer would be “yes”! But the sad truth is: NO. Not nearly enough. Or not the right kind at least.
We all need omegas for optimal health, but unfortunately, not all omega-3 fatty acids are created equal. Most plant-based sources of omega-3’s like nuts and seeds don’t include the types that are most important. If you are vegetarian, vegan, or otherwise follow a mostly plant-based diet, you need algae in your life! This post will discuss the types of omega-3’s, their health benefits, and how to incorporate them into your diet.
The Role of Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Health
Omega-3 fatty acids play an essential role in living a healthy, happy, and hopefully disease-free life, naturally. An adequate steady intake of omega 3’s has been scientifically proven to help with the following:
- Reduce inflammation and associated discomfort
- Fight depression, brain fog, and improve memory
- Decrease risk for heart disease
- Lessen arthritis symptoms
- Prevent Alzheimer’s disease
- Reduce cancer risk
- Lessen asthma occurrence and symptoms
- Increases overall eye, bone, and joint health
- Improves brain function and focus, and reduces ADHD symptoms
- Improves skin health by fighting sun damage, reducing inflammation, keeping it hydrated, helping with wrinkles, acne, eczema, and psoriasis
- Improve sleep
Seriously though, what DON’T they help with? Apparently, omega 3’s are little miracle workers! Unfortunately though, most people are not getting enough. Depending on your diet, even if you are not vegan or vegetarian, omegas may be lacking in your life.
Foods That Are High in Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- Fish, fish oil, and shellfish – especially mackerel, salmon, cod liver, oysters, sardines, and anchovies
- Flax seed
- Chia Seed
- Soy Beans
- Hemp Seeds
- Some leafy greens, like kale and spinach
- Eggs, from hens that are fed flaxseed as part of their diet
I see this list and I’m like, “Sweet! I eat a TON of nuts, seeds, hemp hearts, and leafy greens! I’m good. Totally set.” Right?…
But wait. There’s a catch…
Types of Omega 3 Fatty Acids
There are three kinds of omega-3s: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). EPA has a stronger link with inflammation. DHA has a closer tie to mental health. ALA can help to reduce cholesterol and blood pressure.
Many people who avoid consuming meat, fish, or other animal products instead attempt to get their omega fix (and protein) through nuts and seeds, but the problem is: nuts and seeds only contain ALA, while most of those health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids I described have been primarily linked to sufficient EPA and DHA consumption (found naturally in seafood)! Bummer.
Our bodies can convert some of the plant-based ALA into EPA and DHA, but not very efficiently, says the National Institutes of Health. It’s estimated that only 5 to 10% of ALA is converted to EPA, and only 2 to 5% to DHA. To make matters worse, a high omega-6 intake (which the average American has, coming largely from processed seed and vegetable oils) can make it even harder to convert ALA to EPA and DHA, inhibiting and reducing that already low conversion rate by an additional fifty percent.
That isn’t to say there aren’t numerous other benefits to eating nuts and seeds – they’re loaded with vitamins, minerals, protein, and healthy fats! – and their content of ALA omega-3s is still an important building block in the essential fatty acid group, but you shouldn’t count on them as your only omega-3 source.
Do not fret. There is a solution!
Algae: A Plant-Based Source of Omega-3s
Algae is the only plant source of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids. This is the same seaweed that fish consume that makes them so rich in EPA and DHA in the first place! Therefore, the best plant-based or vegan omega-3 supplements are made from algae.
When I first learned all of this, I contemplated my achy joints and brain fog, and immediately went on the hunt for a good algae-based omega-3 supplement. To my dismay, every single one I came across contained carrageenan – an additive that is known to cause gastro-intestinal issues, and even cancer! Lovely. I have to give a huge shout out and thanks to my mom, a label-reading Registered Dietician, for catching that important discovery for us.
I continued my search until I finally came across this vegan Omega 3 supplement: a carrageenan-free, gelatin-free, sustainably-harvested algae, for the win!
So, what do you think? Have YOU been getting enough essential omegas in your diet?
All said and done, we take one vegan Omega 3 supplement every evening with dinner now. And let me tell you, I could tell the difference within a couple weeks. I sleep deeper, have clearer thoughts, and am feeling generally less creaky and cranky, which means I have even more energy and motivation to put towards the homestead and garden passions, and towards sharing it all with you!
In addition to nourishing ourselves with algae, we also feed our garden with it! All of the same amazing benefits apply to plant care. Omegas aside, the plants thrive on the dozens of vitamins, minerals, and enzymes that are found in kelp. Seaweed extract, made from kelp, is a gentle, sustainable, effective organic fertilizer. To read about how we use seaweed extract to feed young seedlings, check out this post.
Disclaimer: This is information I compiled based on research and personal experience intended to provide information and provoke thought. It should not take the place of medical advice. You’re encouraged to talk to your healthcare providers (doctor, registered dietitian, pharmacist, etc.) about your interest in, questions about, or use of dietary supplements and what may be best for your overall health.
Wow, here I was thinking I was doing things right by eating beans, seeds and nuts but no meat. Thank you for the info. I’m off to find myself some algae!