Mixture of walnuts with their shells on and some cut open

Health & Wellbeing

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5 best vegan omega 3 sources

Omega 3 can be a confusing topic. Plant-based sources of omega 3 are primarily in the form of alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) which is considered an essential nutrient as the body cannot produce this endogenously. 

Our bodies are able to convert ALA to what are referred to as long-chain polyunsaturated acids (PUFAs) in the form of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The effectiveness of this conversion varies and is still debated: it can be aided by having an 'optimal' omega 3 to omega 6 ratio of somewhere between 1:1 to 1:4.

Some individuals have a ratio as high as 1:20 which significantly increases the chances they will be unable to convert ALA to EPA and DHA. The reason the ratio is important is that some omega 6 fatty acids compete for the same enzymes needed for the elongation process of omega 3 fatty acids.

As plant-based sources tend to only contain ALA there are some that believe that vegans ought to take an algae supplement which contains preformed EPA and DHA, however, this is one of the most contested areas in plant-based nutrition.

Below is a list of some of the best vegan omega 3 sources.

Hemp (seeds & oil)

No, we aren’t encouraging you to get stoned! Hemp seeds and oil contain negligible amounts of psychoactive compounds. However, they are a nutritional powerhouse. Hemp oil and seeds contain what appears to be an ‘optimal’ omega 3 to omega 6 ratio of just under 1:4. Hemp oil is a straightforward way of boosting your omega 3 intake: 1 tbsp contains 2.35g of ALA, which covers the RDA of 1.6g ALA for men and 1.1g for women. It’s not recommended to cook with hemp oil, it’s most suitable for dressing and dips.

Hemp contains high levels of stearidonic acid (SDA) which is a type of omega 3 fatty acid which is easier to convert into the longer-chain EPA and DHA. This is an advantage that hemp has over the other suggestions; it is one of the few foodstuffs that contain SDA. 

Walnuts (nuts & oil)

Like hemp, walnuts have an ‘optimal’ ratio of omega 3 to omega 6. 2.5 tbsp of walnuts covers both men's and women’s RDA for ALA. They are also a great source of manganese and copper. Nuts and seeds are excellent to add to your plant-based diet as those that eat a daily serving of them appear to have a reduced risk of a variety of diseases.

Chia seeds (seeds & oil)

Chia seeds are an extremely concentrated source of ALA, 1 tbsp contains 1.78g. This study highlights that it may be best to mill chia seeds to increase absorption of omega 3; it is advisable to soak chia seeds if you won’t be milling them. They provide low levels of omega 6. However, this may be a positive as most individuals eat far too much omega 6; so depending on which foods you eat it could be a great way to restore an optimal omega 3 to omega 6 ratio.

Flaxseeds (seeds & oil)

Flaxseeds are so excellent to eat, partly due to their extremely high lignan content, that Dr Greger has 1 tbsp of them as a recommendation in his Daily Dozen app. 1 tbsp provides exactly the RDA of ALA for men. Flaxseeds are also referred to as linseeds and it is essential you buy milled/ground ones to be able to absorb the nutrients.

Algae supplement

Which brings us to the more hotly debated suggestion. The reason fish has high levels of EPA & DHA is because they eat algae and the fatty acids accumulate in them - taking an algae supplement is a way to cut out the ‘middle-fish’. Some highly respected doctors recommend that vegans take an algae-based EPA and DHA tablet, while others disagree. It may be advisable to do your own research and discuss this with your doctor as this article should not be considered as medical advice.

What do I do?

Based on this research, I aim to have 3-4 g of ALA daily and keep my omega 3 to omega 6 ratio around 1:4 where possible. This paper stated that they felt on the balance of evidence (in 2019) that they do not recommend all vegans take an EPA/DHA algal supplement, however, it may be prudent for those that are pregnant / lactating to take them.

If you are interested in plant-based nutrition you may like to read our article about plant-based diets and diabetes and the health benefits of mushrooms.

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