How Do Vegans Get Omega-3?

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How Do Vegans Get Omega-3?

Omega 3 fatty acids (omega 3s, for short) are an essential nutrient. This means our bodies cannot produce them so they must be obtained from foods. 

Omega 3s are associated with many health benefits and are necessary for survival. Vegan diets are often lacking in this nutrient therefore it’s important for vegans to have knowledge on how to meet their plant-based omega 3 requirements.


What are omega-3s?

There are two essential fatty acids that humans require: linoleic acid (LA) and alpha-linoleic acid (ALA). From these, the body can then turn LA into fatty acids of the omega-6 family, and ALA gets turned into fatty acids of the omega 3 family. 

The body is unable to create the structure of omega 3 fats which is why omega 3s (and omega 6s) are essential to consume.

The types of omega 3s that are important for humans to consider are ALA, EPA, and DHA. Each of these omega 3s can have a unique role in the body and therefore impact health outcomes in different ways.


Benefits of omega 3s

Omega 3 fatty acids (ALA, EPA, and DHA) play important roles throughout the body. Some of these roles include the protection of cardiovascular health, brain function and development, development of healthy eyes, fetal development, and reduction of inflammation.

Overall, omega 3s are very important! Rest assured though – omega 3 needs can be met on a plant-based diet. There are just a few things to understand first.

The conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA

ALA is the omega 3 fat most abundant in our diets. Dietary ALA has many fates once it is absorbed into the bloodstream. Importantly, ALA can be converted into EPA and DHA. 


The body’s conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA is not perfect. 


It can be limited by many factors. Some are out of our control – like gender and genetics. However, other factors that adversely affect this conversion are smoking, advancing age, and chronic disease. 


Dietary factors like high intake of omega 6s (LA), excessive intake of alcohol or caffeine, and vitamin deficiencies can also slow this conversion.


So, to maximize omega 3 intake, it would make sense to eat EPA and DHA directly, right? 

Unfortunately, EPA and DHA are only really found in marine sources such as oily fish.

So, why is this so complicated and how do vegans ensure they get omega 3?

Omega 3 recommendations on a plant-based diet

There are no universal omega 3 recommendations for vegans or vegetarians. The following recommendations for omega 3 intake in vegans are informed suggestions based on a careful examination of the literature.


Daily recommended requirements

Males 14 years or older should aim for 1.6g/day of ALA plus 160mg DHA/EPA. Females 14 years or older should aim for 1.1g/day ALA plus 110mg DHA/EPA. 

These recommendations differ for children, athletes, pregnant women, and lactating women. Consult a dietitian for personalized recommended requirements and to discuss how exactly to meet these needs. 

The omega 3 to 6 ratio

There is debate in the nutrition world regarding the relevancy of the omega 3 to 6 ratio. However, awareness of this ratio is useful for vegans who don’t consume sufficient EPA and DHA directly from food sources, and who rely on the conversion from ALA. 

As mentioned above, conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA is adversely impacted by excessive omega 6 intake. Omega 6 is found in vegetable oils (olive, sunflower, safflower, corn, grapeseed, or sesame oil) and many processed foods (commercial salad dressings, margarines, and crackers).

According to experts, humans evolved on a diet with a 1:1: or 2:1 of omega 3 and 6 fats. Unfortunately, our modern diets are more likely to contain a 1:10 or 1:20 ratio of these essential nutrients. 


While it is important to have some omega 6 in the diet (it is essential, after all!), this ratio is out of balance, and we are generally eating far too much omega 6.


Based on the evidence to date, ratios ranging from 2:1 to 4:1 seem a reasonable target for vegans.


Omega 3 deficiency

Overt deficiency of essential fatty acids is quite rare. Infants and hospitalized patients are the most at-risk for developing a deficiency in omega 3s.

Signs of an omega 3 deficiency could include decreased central nervous system development and lower IQ in children and impacted vision. A deficiency may also cause rough, scaly skin. 

Typical diets provide enough omega 3s to prevent these severe clinical outcomes.

How do vegans get omega 3?

To improve essential fatty acid status, vegans should take the necessary steps to achieve an omega 3 to 6 ratio that maximizes conversion of ALA to DHA and EPA. You might also want to consider a direct source of DHA (and possibly EPA). 

Eating sufficient protein, vitamins, and minerals maximizes the body’s ability to convert ALA to EPA/DHA. Avoiding trans-fats, and excess alcohol and caffeine is important too, as these can reduce conversion efficiency. 

Vegan sources of omega 3

Many plant foods can offer ALA. The best vegan omega 3 sources are chia seeds, ground flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, hemp seeds, hempseed oil, and walnuts. Include at least one of these daily. 

I suggest sprinkling 2 tablespoons of chia on your oats, including 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed in your smoothies, making salad dressings with flaxseed oil, or including walnuts in your trail mix each day. 

Vegan omega 3 supplements

Although it’s not essential to use vegan omega 3 supplements or fortified foods that provide direct DHA (or EPA), it can boost omega-3 status. The only plant sources of DHA and EPA are microalgae and seaweed. 

Microalgae-based vegan supplements are your best bet. Look for supplements that say DHA and/or EPA when selecting an omega-3 supplement. An ALA supplement is not usually needed if you’re eating enough ALA in your diet. 

In any case, a dietitian can help you find an eating pattern that best meets your nutrition needs.

Vegan omega 3 supplements vs. fish oil

Fish oil contains both DHA and EPA, making it an easy option for someone looking to improve their omega 3 status. However, this is obviously not a vegan omega 3 supplement. Be sure to check the labels on your supplements to ensure they are vegan if this is important to you. 

Microalgae-based vegan DHA supplements are the best alternative to fish oil. Note, however, that vegan omega 3 supplements can be more expensive.


In summary: how do vegans get omega 3?

Omega 3s are essential and a nutrient that vegans should be cognizant of. 

Plant-based foods can provide adequate levels of ALA omega 3. However, EPA and DHA are also important. 

The body converts ALA into EPA and DHA. This conversion is not perfect, though. Vegans should be sure to eat vegan sources of omega 3 ALA daily and might consider taking a vegan omega 3 DHA/EPA supplement after speaking with their doctor or dietitian.