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Vegan Omega 3 Supplements & Sources: What Vegans Need to Know

Vegans and vegetarians also must consider whether their diet provides enough of these Omega 3, DHA and EPA fatty acids, and if not, whether their supplement is both effective and in alignment with a plant-based lifestyle.
Vegan Omega 3 Supplements & Sources: What Vegans Need to Know

Over the last few decades, there's been a lot of discussion about the health benefits of Omega 3's, and for good reason! These powerful fatty acids have gained mainstream recognition for offering up an array of wellness-boosting effects, ranging from improving our mental health to protecting against cancer.

With these stats, it's no wonder many of us have hopped on board the Omega 3 train and have made a conscious effort to add this nutrient to our diet and supplement routine. But while many of us have added these fatty acids into our daily nutrition routine, it's not uncommon to find an avid Omega 3 consumer who might not know much about them other than the fact that they're good for our health.

What are the different types of Omega 3 fatty acids? Where do we typically find them in foods? And are all Omega 3 supplements created equal? These are just a few questions that come to mind when considering this nutrient powerhouse, but those happen to be just the tip of the iceberg for those who follow a plant-based diet. Vegans and vegetarians also must consider whether their diet provides enough of these fatty acids, and if not, whether their supplement is both effective and in alignment with a plant-based lifestyle.

Today, we'll dive into some details about Omega 3's and then address the common questions and concerns plant-based eaters will have when it comes to their healthy fatty acid intake while following a vegan or vegetarian diet. Finally, we'll highlight some important factors plant-based dieters should look for when choosing an Omega 3 supplement and introduce an exciting and innovating vegan multivitamin that offers an excellent source of Omega 3's, in addition to a complete micronutrient profile to fill the common gaps that can plague a plant-based diet.

Breaking Down Omega 3 Fatty Acids

To understand the importance of getting enough Omega 3's in our diet, we first have to understand that there are eleven types of Omega 3 fatty acids, but we are only going to cover the four common types that are most vital to our health:

(1) Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)

(2) Stearidonic acid (SDA)

(3) Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)

(4) Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

Diving into the details of each of these nutrients is particularly important for vegan dieters since finding plant-based sources for three of these fatty acids is difficult. Due to the nature of a plant-based diet, some of these nutrients can be more difficult to come by, so it's imperative that vegans and vegetarians alike cover their bases to ensure they are meeting all of their omega 3 nutritional needs.

Alpha-Linoleic Acid (ALA)

ALA is an essential short-chain fatty acid that our bodies can't produce on its own, so we must get it through our diet (food or supplements). All the other omega 3 fatty acids are made in the human body from the conversion of ALA, meaning our body uses it as a "building block" to synthesize the four other types of Omega 3 fatty acids. Fortunately for plant-based eaters, most sources of ALA are found in plants. Vegan sources of Omega 3 rich in concentrated ALA include the following:

  • Flaxseed and flaxseed oil
  • Chia seeds
  • Ahiflower® (Buglossoides arvensis) AKA Gromwell or Stoneseed.
  • Walnuts
  • Soybean oil
  • Edamame
  • Navy beans
  • Brussel sprouts
  • Cauliflower
  • Spinach

While ALA is the most easily accessible Omega 3 fatty acid, it alone is not sufficient for optimal health. Although ALA can be converted to EPA and eventually DHA (which are two other types of Omega 3 fatty acids), the conversion rate is extremely inefficient and ultimately not very effective. [1] Only 3-6% of the ALA we consume gets converted into the other important omega 3 fatty acids. Another caveat is that this already limited conversion rate is even further impaired by a diet rich in Omega-6 fatty acids, which is the norm with the typical eating patterns for the majority of Americans.  [2,3]

Although ALA does have some nutritional short-comings, the essential omega 3 fatty acid does offer some impressive health benefits in its own right. Some of these highlights include improved cardiovascular health, reduced inflammation, and improved central nervous system function. [4]

Stearidonic acid (SDA)

All the ALA we consume gets converted into SDA. From there, it eventually gets converted into other important omega 3s. Ahiflower® is the richest source of SDA, at a concentration of 18-20%. Getting SDA from Ahiflower® is the most efficient way to use plant sources to increase your overall omega 3 levels. As opposed to ALA, about 30-40% of SDA is converted into other important omega 3s, like EPA and DHA.

Other common vegan sources rich in SDA include:

  • Hemp
  • Evening primrose
  • Blackcurrant
  • Echium seed oils

Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)

If you consume enough SDA, and to a lesser degree, ALA, your body can use these building blocks to make all other important omega 3s, including EPA. EPA is a long-chain fatty acid that plays a pivotal role in many important health functions, including its part in combating the inflammatory response that results from a diet saturated with high levels of Omega-6. [5] EPA has also been shown to reduce the level of circulating triglycerides by limiting their production and increasing the clearance of these blood lipids, which helps minimize the amount of fatty acids delivered and stored in the liver. [6]

With an impressive list of health-boosting effects, which also include improved heart health and mental function, it's important to make sure this Omega 3 fatty acid makes its way into our diet and supplement routine.[7,8,9] Unfortunately, this is a bit trickier for plant-based eaters as nearly all concentrated sources of EPA come from non-vegetarian foods. The list of vegan-friendly EPA sources is extremely limited, with the main plant-friendly option coming from algae. Here are highly concentrated extracts from algae that can be effective at boosting EPA levels for vegans and vegetarians. In the typical American diet, rich sources of EPA include:

  • Salmon
  • Mackerel
  • Sardines
  • Fish eggs (caviar)
  • Grass-fed meats
  • Grass-fed dairy
  • Pasture-raised eggs
  • Algae

 

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

Another type of Omega 3 is DHA, and it offers its own unique set of health benefits that make it a key nutrient to have in our diet. DHA plays a huge role in cell membrane brain formation and function, which is first seen in the accumulation of the fatty acid during the third trimester of pregnancy when proper fetal development of tissue is crucial. [10] 

Another health boost provided by DHA is this fatty acid's ability to convert to types of powerful antioxidants known as neuroprotectants. These compounds help fight the biological damage caused by oxidative stress, boost our cell health, and protect our body tissues. [11,12]

To round out some of the main health-boosting highlights of DHA, it's important to mention the nutrient's triglyceride-lowering properties, which match that of EPA. However, just as was the case with EPA, plant-based sources of DHA are rare, with the main vegan-friendly source also coming from algae.

Like EPA, the best sources of DHA are found in the typical American diet in seafood and other non-plant foods including:

  • Anchovies
  • Salmon
  • Herring
  • Mackerel
  • Tuna
  • Halibut
  • Eggs (although the amount of naturally occurring DHA is limited)

Dangers of Deficiency

With ample plant-friendly sources available, most vegan and vegetarian diets have no trouble getting enough ALA in their diets. However, when it comes to the other two Omega 3 fatty acids, many plant-based eaters fall short. [13] All three Omega 3 fatty acids are vital for keeping us feeling our best, and a deficiency in any or all could lead to impaired health and general wellness.

With benefits like reduced inflammation, improved cognitive function, and lowered levels of circulating triglycerides, it's clear why an inadequate intake of Omega 3's can make us susceptible to compromised health. [14] A deficiency in these powerful fatty acids puts us at a far greater risk for developing certain chronic health conditions or could worsen the symptoms of pre-existing ailments. Some of the most common health effects that pop up with an Omega 3 deficiency include:

If you suspect you might not be getting enough Omega 3's in your diet, there are some rather unpleasant tell-tale signs to look out for. These include dry and brittle skin, peeling nails, thinning hair, stiff joints, and poor concentration. Not exactly the picture of health most of us strive for.

With the dietary roadblocks that come into play for plant-based eaters when it comes to getting enough DHA and EPA, supplementation is the clear path to ensure this group meets their Omega 3 fatty acid needs. However, because many Omega 3 supplements come in the form of fish oil capsules or krill capsules, this provides another hurdle for vegan and vegetarian dieters to overcome.

Choosing the Best Vegan Omega 3 Supplement

When picking a plant-friendly Omega 3 supplement, there are a few important factors to keep in mind. First and foremost, it's pertinent to find a supplement that contains all Omega 3 fatty acids, or high-enough in SDA (the main building block of EPA and DHA). Next, plant-based dieters should check to make sure their supplement is indeed vegan and vegetarian Omega 3 friendly. When scanning the supplement label, keep an eye out for non-vegan ingredients like gelatin (which is sourced from various animal byproducts) or magnesium-stearate (which comes from pork).

So which type of vegan-friendly source of Omega 3 is most beneficial? Research has shown that the two leading plant-friendly sources come down to an oil derived from the ahiflower plant, and the oil extracted from algae. While both provide a unique set of benefits, one has been shown to offer a more complete dose of all Omega 3 fatty acid types.

Like it's plant-based fatty acid counterparts, ahiflower oil offers a hefty amount of ALA. However, it also provides a dose of a lesser-known Omega 3 called stearidonic acid (SDA), which is able to more efficiently convert to EPA compared to ALA. This boost in SDA is especially useful since it converts to EPA and DHA more efficiently than ALA alone.

Algae oil sets itself apart as the most direct source of vegan-friendly EPA and DHA along with ALA. However, if you can't stand fishy burps, this may not be the right choice for you. Despite claiming to be taste-free, all algae-based omega 3 supplements have a slightly fishy smell, taste, and aftertaste. For this reason, ahiflower is the go-to for vegans looking for a reliable vegan DHA EPA supplement source by boosting overall Omega 3-6-9, ALA, SDA and GLA levels from a fully traceable and sustainable plant-based source.[21,22]

As a final note when selecting an Omega 3 supplement, plant-based dieters should look for a vegan DHA supplement that provides about 200-250 mg of both EPA and DHA (or enough ALA and SDA to convert to that amount of EPA and DHA) while not exceeding too far above that range. [23] In the case of Omega 3's, too much of a good thing becomes anything but, with research showing that too much of the fatty acids can lead to immune dysfunction and a reduced capacity to fight bacterial or viral infection, in addition to blood thinning and excessive bleeding. [24] Aim to meet your daily Omega 3 target without going overboard to optimize both your health and safety.

With so many factors to keep in mind when choosing a vegan-friendly option, it's fair for plant-based dieters to find themselves perplexed when browsing the vitamin and supplement aisle. It begs the question, is there a supplement available that checks all these boxes and then some?

Healthycell's Vegan Essentials: The Most Complete Supplement for a Plant-Based Diet Doesn't Come in a Pill

Filling in the nutritional gaps of a plant-based diet can be overwhelming when you consider just how many micronutrients we need to fuel our bodies and feed our cells. Not unlike the standard "meat and potatoes" diet, even the most well-planned vegan diet can fall short of certain key nutrients. In addition to Omega 3 fatty acids, deficiencies in vitamin B12, iodine, iron, zinc, and specific vegan amino acids (L-carnitine, L-carnosine, L-creatine, L-lysine and L-taurine) are rampant amongst the plant-based population.

If a plant-based eater was to set out to supplement each of these micronutrients, they'd spend a lifetime weeding through pills and capsules that ultimately provide a subpar version of these vitamins and minerals in the end. As such, the clear choice is to find a complete, vegan-friendly multivitamin that provides each of these necessary nutrients in a highly bioavailable form which is why Healthycell set out to create just the supplement.

Vegan Essentials by Healthycell has taken all of the micronutrients required to fuel a healthy and sustainable plant-based lifestyle and formulated a superior and complete supplement. Using advanced MICROGEL™ technology, Vegan Essentials allows for maximum absorption so these nutrients are delivered efficiently and effectively. By taking the hassle and headache out of vegan supplementation, Vegan Essentials offers the perfect solution to thriving while living a plant-powered lifestyle.

About The Author


Born and raised in San Diego, California, Jamie is a true Southern Californian. After attending the University of California, Los Angeles, where she earned her undergraduate degree in Psychology, she went on to study nutrition and marketing, two topics she is extremely passionate about. Learn more about Jamie.

References


[1] Essential Fatty Acids. (2019, September 6). Retrieved from https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/other-nutrients/essential-fatty-acids.

[2] Gerster H. Can adults adequately convert alpha-linolenic acid (18:3n-3) to eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5n-3) and docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3)?. Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 1998;68(3):159-73.

[3] Patterson E, Wall R, Fitzgerald GF, Ross RP, Stanton C. Health implications of high dietary omega-6 polyunsaturated Fatty acids. J Nutr Metab. 2012;2012:539426.

[4] Stark AH, Crawford MA, Reifen R. Update on alpha-linolenic acid. Nutr Rev. 2008;66(6):326-32.

[5] Calder PC. Omega-3 fatty acids and inflammatory processes. Nutrients. 2010;2(3):355-74.

[6] Shearer GC, Savinova OV, Harris WS. Fish oil -- how does it reduce plasma triglycerides?. Biochim Biophys Acta. 2012;1821(5):843-51.

[7] Innes JK, Calder PC. The Differential Effects of Eicosapentaenoic Acid and Docosahexaenoic Acid on Cardiometabolic Risk Factors: A Systematic Review. Int J Mol Sci. 2018;19(2)

[8] Milte CM, Parletta N, Buckley JD, Coates AM, Young RM, Howe PR. Increased Erythrocyte Eicosapentaenoic Acid and Docosahexaenoic Acid Are Associated With Improved Attention and Behavior in Children With ADHD in a Randomized Controlled Three-Way Crossover Trial. J Atten Disord. 2015;19(11):954-64.

[9] Sublette ME, Ellis SP, Geant AL, Mann JJ. Meta-analysis of the effects of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in clinical trials in depression. J Clin Psychiatry. 2011;72(12):1577-84.

[10] Swanson D, Block R, Mousa SA. Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA: health benefits throughout life. Adv Nutr. 2012;3(1):1-7.

[11] Mukherjee PK, Marcheselli VL, Serhan CN, Bazan NG. Neuroprotectin D1: a docosahexaenoic acid-derived docosatriene protects human retinal pigment epithelial cells from oxidative stress. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2004;101(22):8491-6.

[12] Bazan NG. Neuroprotectin D1 (NPD1): a DHA-derived mediator that protects brain and retina against cell injury-induced oxidative stress. Brain Pathol. 2005;15(2):159-66.

[13] Saunders AV, Davis BC, Garg ML. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and vegetarian diets. Med J Aust. 2013;199(S4):S22-6.

[14] Kiecolt-glaser JK, Belury MA, Andridge R, Malarkey WB, Glaser R. Omega-3 supplementation lowers inflammation and anxiety in medical students: a randomized controlled trial. Brain Behav Immun. 2011;25(8):1725-34.

[15] Souza PR, Norling LV. Implications for eicosapentaenoic acid- and docosahexaenoic acid-derived resolvins as therapeutics for arthritis. Eur J Pharmacol. 2016;785:165-173.

[16] Mozaffari-khosravi H, Yassini-ardakani M, Karamati M, Shariati-bafghi SE. Eicosapentaenoic acid versus docosahexaenoic acid in mild-to-moderate depression: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2013;23(7):636-44.

[17] Mori TA. Marine OMEGA-3 fatty acids in the prevention of cardiovascular disease. Fitoterapia. 2017;123:51-58.

[18] Robinson LE, Mazurak VC. N-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids: relationship to inflammation in healthy adults and adults exhibiting features of metabolic syndrome. Lipids. 2013;48(4):319-32.

[19] Fotuhi M, Mohassel P, Yaffe K. Fish consumption, long-chain omega 3 fatty acids and risk of cognitive decline or Alzheimer disease: a complex association. Nat Clin Pract Neurol. 2009;5(3):140-52.

[20] Jiao Y, Hannafon BN, Zhang RR, Fung KM, Ding WQ. Combination meds act in concert to kill cancer cells: a mutual enhancement of their anticancer actions. Oncotarget. 2017;8(11):17908-17920.

[21] Dietary Buglossoides Arvensis Oil Increases Circulating n-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in a Dose-Dependent Manner and Enhances Lipopolysaccharide-Stimulated Whole Blood Interleukin-10—A Randomized Placebo-Controlled Trial https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5372924/

[22] Ahiflower Found to Have Similar Effects as Fish Oil Supplements. Retrieved from https://wholefoodsmagazine.com/news/research/ahiflower-found-similar-effects-fish-oil/

[23] Summary, Conclusions and Recommendations. (2008). doi: 10.14217/9781848590168-10-en

[24] Excess omega 3 fatty acids could lead to negative health effects. (2017, October 5). Retrieved from https://today.oregonstate.edu/archives/2013/oct/excess-omega 3-fatty-acids-could-lead-negative-health-effects.

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