There are two groups of essential fatty acids, meaning our bodies cannot make them, we have to get them from diet.
They are linoleic acid (omega-6) and alpha-linolenic acid or ALA (omega-3).
We tend to talk about omega-3 fats the most – why?
Because most of us are consuming an excess of omega-6 fats and not enough omega-3’s!
Where do we get most of our omega-6 fats?
Things like safflower oil, sunflower oil, soybean oils, corn oils – AKA highly processed foods!
You have likely heard people talk about omega-3 fats before — the heart healthy fats synonymous with fish oils.
Omega-3 fats do a lot more than protect your heart health – they are crucial for the proper brain, nerve and eye development in babies, they can fight inflammation, protect your immune system and MAY help lower the risk of heart disease.
There are many different types of omega-3 fats, but most of the research revolves around the following:
- ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) – essential fatty acid
- EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid)
- DHA (docoshexaenoic acid)
As mentioned above, ALA is an essential fatty acid. This means that your body cannot make it and you must get it through your diet.
EPA and DHA are the most biologically active forms of omega-3, meaning that they give you the greatest health benefit.
Your body can make EPA and DHA from ALA, but how efficient our bodies are at doing this depends on a lot of factors like, too many omega-6 fats in the diet (overly processed foods and vegetable oils), your age, if you have chronic disease, whether you’re male or female, whether you smoke or not etc.
What are the signs and symptoms you may not be getting enough omega-3 fats?
Dry, rough, scaly skin. Dry or dull hair.
What are the best sources of EPA and DHA?
Fish, fish oil and microalgea!
Fun Fact: Fish get their EPA and DHA fatty acids through feeding in microalgae (plants)!
How much omega-3 do I need?
It is important to note that there are no recommended intakes for EPA and DHA. The recommended intakes reflect overall omega-3 fatty acids (ALA).
There are recommendations out there that “healthy” people should consume 500 mg EPA + DHA combined daily, while those with known heart disease should aim for 800-1000 mg EPA + DHA combined daily.
There is often debate when talking about “optimal” intake of omega-3 fats!
Health Canada recommends 1.1 g ALA per day for women and 1.6 g ALA per day for men BUT, these recommended intakes are assuming that you are eating your two servings of fish per week for adequate EPA and DHA intake …
How much ALA should a plant-based eater aim for per day?
2-4 grams of ALA seems to be adequate for most vegetarians/vegans. Remember that as a vegetarian/vegan, you are relying on your body’s ability to convert dietary ALA into the more active EPA and DHA — therefore you need MORE substrate (ALA) than non-vegetarians.
What can decrease your ability to convert ALA to EPA and DHA?
- Poor overall nutrition
- To convert ALA to EPA + DHA, your body needs adequate protein and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).
- If you have diabetes, metabolic syndrome or high blood pressure, you may be a poorer converter of ALA.
- Eating the standard American diet (SAD), diets high in omega-6 fat.
- Turns out, omega-6 and omega-3 fats use the same enzymes to break down (aka metabolize)! If you have too much of one, it decreases the conversion rate of the other.
- Our diets are already predominantly omega-6, in fact, most of use consume 10-20 times more omega-6 than omega-3 fats! Foods/oils high in omega-6 include sunflower oil, safflower oil, corn oil, walnuts, soybeans/soybean oil … found in many ultra-processed foods (salad dressing, baking, crackers etc.)
- Many of these foods have both omega-6 and omega-3 fats! The easiest way to decrease your omega-6 fat intake is to decrease your intake of omega-6 rich oils (as mentioned above) and stick with the whole foods!
So what are some plant-based sources of Omega-3’s (ALA)?
- 1 tbsp flaxseed oil, 7.3 grams
- 1 tbsp ground flaxseed, 2.4 grams
- 1 tbsp chia seeds, 1.7 gram
- 1 tbsp hemp hearts, 0.9 grams
- 1/4 cup walnuts, 2.3 grams
- 1 tbsp canola oil, 1.3 gram
Note about flaxseeds — to get the full omega-3 benefit from flaxseeds, I recommend using ground flax! Whole seeds are much harder to digest and often move through your entire digestive tract unchanged. Have whole flaxseed at home? No problem, use a small blender or coffee grinder to grind as you go. Keep ground flax in the refrigerator to help protect the omega-3 fats!
EPA + DHA Supplements
It can be a good idea to supplement with EPA + DHA in addition to consuming omega-3 (ALA) rich foods. As with most supplements, this should be done in consultation with your dietitian or primary care provider.
There are many vegan friendly omega-3 supplements out there! You can find straight EPA or DHA or a combination of the two.
I recommend that you look for supplements that have both EPA + DHA — 200-300 mg per day or 2-3 times per week is the baseline recommendation. You may need more depending on your diet, lifestyle and overall health. Most algae based supplements that I have seen on the market have 500-1000 mg combined EPA + DHA.
Top tips for increasing your omega-3 intake!
- Add 1-2 tbsp of ground flaxseed, chia seed, hemp hearts or walnuts to your smoothies, oatmeal, toast, yoghurt, salads or soups! Literally ANYTHING!
- Bake using flax egg (1 tbsp ground flax + 2.5 tbsp water)
- Blend 1/4 cup hemp hearts into 2 cups nut milk for a super creamy, protein and omega-3 rich beverage.
Some of my favourite omega-3 rich recipes …
- Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies (with ground flax)
- 5 Minute Peanut Butter Protein Balls
- Protein Packed Nut Milk
- Chia Pudding (5 Ways)