The Ultimate Omega-3 Guide for Vegans & Vegetarians: Benefits, Comparisons, Dosages and more...

18 min read

This is our FULL guide to the world of Omega-3 for vegans and vegetarians, but also for flexitarians, reducatarians, pescatarians, omnivores and anyone who wants to learn about clean, sustainable sources of Omega-3... we've got you covered!

The aim of this guide to help you answer any questions you might have about Omega-3, learn about the role it plays in your health, compare the different sources and learn how much you really need to take. 

Contents

1. What are Omega-3 fatty acids and why should I care?

2. The Benefits of Omega-3

3. Sources of Omega-3: the good and bad?

4. How much Omega-3 do we really need for optimum health?

5. Our Conclusion on Omega-3

 


What are Omega-3 fatty acids and why should I care?

Omega-3 fatty acids are an essential nutrient, which means that they can’t be made by the human body (1). 

(If you’d like to know more about ‘The Science’ behind Omega-3, then read this blog)

Omega-3 is a long chain fatty acid. This chemical structure is what gives Omega-3 its unique properties that can help to play a role in:

  • Cardiovascular health
  • Brain function and development
  • Development of healthy eyes
  • Foetal development
  • Reducing inflammation (6)

The Three Main Types of Omega-3 Fatty Acid

There are several different types of Omega-3 fatty acids, but we’re only concerned with the three main ones…

  1. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
  2. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
  3. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

 We'll go into some more detail about these below. 

 

Are you nuts (and seeds) about Omega-3?

It’s important to understand that most plant-based sources of Omega-3 such as walnuts, flax seeds and soybeans come in the form of ALA (7). 

ALA is considered to be the least useful of the Omega-3 fatty acids because it can't actually be used by the body. It needs to be converted into the more useful forms of DHA and EPA. Any ALA that isn’t converted into DHA or EPA will be stored as triglyceride fats or used for energy - similar to dietary fats you’d find in an avocado or a serving of olive oil. 

More importantly, ALA won't provide the benefits we've outlined in this article or that you may have heard about when you've heard about the amazing benefits of Omega-3.

DHA and EPA (particularly DHA) are what we should be most concerned with as they're awesome and responsible for the benefits of Omega-3!

While it is true that our human body can convert Omega-3 ALA into DHA and EPA, the truth is that it does a pretty terrible job at this (to learn more about the hidden facts about Omega-3 ALA vs DHA and how this all works, you can click here).

 

DHA (and EPA) - The Power House of Omega-3 

DHA and EPA fatty acids (sometimes called marine fatty acids) are a different story altogether. These Omega-3s are "long-chain" fatty acids and much more bioavailable, which means that they’re easier for your body to absorb and use

DHA has been studied more rigorously, which is why we know so much about its anti-inflammatory benefits; its role in supporting cell membranes and its ability to support proper brain and eye function (11 12).

EPA is important too. In fact, EPA may be slightly better at reducing inflammation (13) and better at aiding recovery from brain trauma (14) but it’s probably best to avoid getting too caught up in the differences between DHA and EPA.

Your body can convert DHA to EPA when needed and they both fulfil very similar functions once they’ve been digested.

DHA and EPA have commonly been sourced from fatty fish like salmon or tuna, but they’re actually produced by certain species of marine algae (to read more about how Omega-3 gets into the food chain, check out this blog).  

SUMMARY: DHA and EPA are the Omega-3s that your body actually needs. They are usually found in oily fish but the natural and original source is from specific types of marine algae that the fish eat. This algae is 100% vegan and cruelty free.

What about Omega-6? 

Omega-6 fatty acids are commonly found in almost all of your food sources if you eat a balanced healthy diet. 

It's important to know that Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids compete for the same digestive enzymes, so having too much Omega-6 in your diet (very easy to do) could be counter productive. 

Omega-3 deficiencies have been linked to a number of poor health conditions so we feel that Omega-3 is the essential nutrient that we need focus on more. 

If you would like to learn more, we have written a blog called 'Are Omega-6 fatty acids actually important?' which you can read by clicking here.

The Benefits of Omega-3?

Omega-3 and Inflammation

Have you heard of eicosanoids? If not then it’s important to pay attention to this bit if you are concerned about inflammation or want to know more. 

Omega-3 fatty acids can be oxidised (literally reacted with oxygen) to form beneficial eicosanoids. They plan a crucial role in controlling inflammation and immune function throughout our body (19).

Eicosanoids function a little bit like hormones, but on a much smaller scale. When they work their way into a cell, they can switch on genes that help to regulate your blood pressure, constrict your blood vessels or encourage your body to manufacture more white blood cells (good news!)

Omega-3 fatty acids are one of the only chemical compounds that can be used to produce a type of eicosanoids called resolvins (20) that are thought to decrease the inflammation associated with conditions like metabolic syndrome (21), kidney failure (22) and atherosclerosis (23 24).

Just to be clear, we’re not saying that Omega-3 is a miracle cure-all - or that it’s capable of single-handedly reversing heart disease - but there is a definite link between these chronic diseases and cellular inflammation, and we do also know that Omega-3 fatty acids can help to reduce inflammation throughout the body.

If you would like to know about Omega-3 & Inflammation, we’ve written a special blog about this! Click here to learn more...

SUMMARY: Many common diseases today are caused by inflammation within the body. Omega-3 helps to create compounds which reduce inflammation. A study found that most of the western world has inadequate levels of Omega-3. These same countries are also struggling with rising rates of inflammatory disease. 

  

Omega-3 for Pregnancy, Babies and Young Infants

When it comes to pregnancy, evidence suggests that eating a diet high in Omega-3 fatty acids may be directly correlated to better outcomes

A recent meta-analysis of over 70 different studies found that Omega-3 supplementation could reduce the risk of premature birth (32) and several research papers also point out that Omega-3 fatty acids are also critical for the development of your baby’s brain (33 34).

Our brains are approximately 60% fat and Omega-3 DHA is one of the main structural components. 

It’s important to know that your baby's brain matures rapidly from conception until the age of two (the first 1,000 days of life) and that this process is supported by the accumulation of Omega-3 DHA in the brain.

Since all of this Omega-3 is transferred from the mother via the placenta during pregnancy and through breast milk once the baby starts feeding, it’s critically important that mothers get enough Omega-3 from a clean and bioavailable source like algae. 

We've written a more detailed blog post about 'Omega-3 & Pregnancy' so click here if you'd like to read more.  

SUMMARY: The most rapid development of a baby's brain occurs from conception until 24 months so it is important that the mother gets enough Omega-3 DHA during this time.

 

Omega-3 and Young Children

In young children, Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to aid concentration, focus and recall by nourishing the brain as it develops (35).

There’s also some suggestion that Omega-3 fatty acids may help to combat the development of type 1 diabetes in children, with a study published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation (JCI) showing that constant, low dose supplementation with Omega-3 fatty acids “significantly reduces blood glucose concentrations” (36).

Now, we can’t draw definitive conclusions until we’ve seen more studies on this matter but it does stand to reason that Omega-3 fatty acids could help to suppress type 1 diabetes. Particularly when you consider the anti-inflammatory benefits that we also discussed in this blog. 

Type 1 diabetes occurs when the body’s immune system attacks insulin-producing cells in the pancreas (37), so it stands to reason that substances known to help to prevent or control conditions like type 1 diabetes should:

  • regulate (or control) immune response 
  • reduce inflammation
  • improve various cell-signalling mechanisms

It’s also interesting to note that Omega-3 fatty acids are thought to help regulate mood, and reduce depression in young children

SUMMARY: Several studies have shown a correlation between Omega-3 levels in children and reduced risk of type 1 diabetes, reduced depression, mood regulation and increased concentration.

 

Omega-3 and the Adult Brain

Unsurprisingly, research also suggests that the eicosanoids produced by Omega-3 fatty acids may help to protect the adult brain from a range of degenerative conditions, including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and dementia.

Research into the relationship between brain function and the intake of Omega-3 fatty acids is limited, and it’s important to note that more studies are needed before we can draw any strong conclusions, but it makes sense when you consider the vital role that Omega-3 fatty acids play in brain and nervous function. 

SUMMARY: Although more research is required, studies suggest that intake of Omega-3 DHA may result in reduced risk of degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and dementia. 

Omega-3 and Heart Health

Above, we mentioned that Omega-3 fatty acids can reduce inflammation, and it’s important to remember that reducing inflammation also helps to protect your heart and your blood vessels from disease.

Research also shows that the unique structure and makeup of Omega-3 fatty acids could help to:

  • Lower your blood pressure
  • Reduce blood clotting 
  • Reduce triglyceride (cholesterol) levels in your bloodstream (39)
  • Reduce the incidence of arrhythmia or irregular heartbeats

There’s even some evidence to suggest that increasing your Omega-3 intake could reduce the incidence of strokes and heart failure (40). However, it is difficult to draw definite conclusions partly because research is still in its infancy, but also because of the huge number of variables relating to our cardiovascular health.

All in all, it’s safe to say that Omega-3 fatty acids definitely play a role in the protection of your cardiovascular system, and that an increased Omega-3 intake would be a prudent step to promote a healthy heart.  

SUMMARY: The anti-inflammatory effects of Omega-3 may help to promote a healthy heart by helping to lower blood pressure and reduce cholesterol levels in the bloodstream. 

 

Omega-3 and Eye Health

When they’re not busy nourishing your brain and your heart, Omega-3 fatty acids also help to maintain healthy vision. In fact, Omega-3 DHA serves as a major structural component in your eyes’ retinas (41) - allowing your body to build the delicate photoreceptor cells that are responsible for turning light into nervous impulses that can be transmitted straight to the brain. 

If we don’t get enough Omega-3, our bodies may struggle to construct photoreceptor cells, and we may start to experience problems with our vision (42). Conversely, consuming more of the beneficial Omega-3 fatty acids has been shown to help 

  • Regulate eye pressure
  • Decrease the risk of glaucoma
  • Reduce your chances of developing conditions like macular degeneration or dry eye (43)

Not all Omega-3 fatty acids are created equal though. In fact, it’s DHA alone that is responsible for the benefits of Omega-3 for eye health.

SUMMARY: Omega-3 DHA is a major structural component of the retina. Consumption of DHA has been shown to help maintain healthy eyes and fight degenerative eye conditions.

 

Omega-3 and Ageing

Can you identify with stiff joints, fading memories and in some cases the mind not working quite as well as it used to? These are some of the most common experiences people have when ageing.  

Ageing also increases your chances of developing conditions like arthritis, but new evidence shows that Omega-3 fats may well be able to help with all of these problems and more.

Omega-3 fats are known to improve brain function by nourishing important cells (see above) but studies published in Current Neuropharmacology also show that DHA and EPA Omega-3s may also help to preserve brain plasticity, and prevent the neuron decay that’s normally associated with age-related memory loss (44). 

Omega-3 fatty acids are also known to reduce inflammation, which can help to ease swollen joints and may also help to reduce the symptoms of arthritis and other inflammatory illnesses. In fact, the benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids are so diverse that the British Medical Journal (BMJ) states that they are strongly linked to healthier ageing (45). Particularly when we focus on DHA and EPA. 

SUMMARY: Given the important role of Omega-3 in brain health and anti-inflammatory effects, the British Medical Journal states that higher levels of Omega-3 are associated with healthier ageing. Benefits include reduced joint pain and prevention of neuron decay associated with age-related memory loss.

  

Sources of Omega-3: The Good and the Bad

What are the vegan & vegetarian friendly sources of Omega-3?

There are only a few options... nuts, seeds or algae. 

But before you make a decision, it’s important to remind you about the differences. Earlier in this blog we mentioned the different types of Omega-3… ALA, DHA & EPA.

DHA is the real powerhouse that provides the major benefits offered by Omega-3. ALA converts poorly into DHA and our body can produce EPA if we have enough DHA.

So the real benefit comes from getting enough DHA, which as a vegan, vegetarian or someone who doesn't want to eat fish, you can only get from Algae oil. Supplements are the most cost-effective, easily available and reliable source of algae-based Omega-3. 

 

Alternatives to taking Omega-3 supplements?

If you’re against taking supplements, you could try to eat the huge quantities of ALA needed to create 250 mg of Omega-3 DHA.

Unfortunately, at an average conversion rate of roughly 4%, that means consuming approximately 6250 mg of Omega-3 ALA... Let us explain what that looks like in a real life scenario...

To manage this herculean challenge, you’d need to eat at least one of the following per day:

  • 5 tablespoons of canola oil (65)
  • 70 walnuts (66)
  • 11 cups of edamame
  • 28 avocados (67)
  • 148 cups of oatmeal (and no, that’s not a typo!)

Compared to swallowing two small capsules per day, trying to get vegan-friendly DHA from your diet is both costly and time consuming, not to mention unhealthy.

The vast amount of calories that you consume would offset many of the health benefits and you’d likely be forced to eat a very restrictive diet just to maintain your daily intake.

In our humble opinion, algae-based supplements are the better option. Particularly if you’re committed to a vegan or sustainable lifestyle, and want to get the full benefits of marine-based Omega-3 DHA. 

SUMMARY: If you don't want to take a DHA supplement, you can try and eat enough ALA to allow your body to convert the required 250 mg of DHA. This would be a huge challenge and probably do more harm than good. Taking two small capsules of algae oil is a far more convenient and healthy way of getting the right type of Omega-3.

 

Algae: The Best Source of Omega-3?

We strongly believe that algae are the best possible source of Omega-3 fatty acids

The DHA found in algae is clean, easy to digest and very bioavailable. It’s nature's original source of Omega-3!

It’s also bundled with a number of other, beneficial compounds like the phytosterol compounds campesterol and sitosterol, which have been shown to reduce serum cholesterol levels (52).

Algae-based supplements are also environmentally friendly, ethical and 100% sustainable, which means that you don’t have to worry about them having a devastating environmental impact to our planet unlike fish oils.

Best of all, algae are grown in controlled environments, which means there’s no risk of accidental pollution from mercury, dioxins, PCBs or other pollutants commonly found in our oceans.

(To read more about Algae vs Fish Oils check out this blog)

SUMMARY: Algae is the best source of Omega-3. Not only does it contain DHA and EPA (rather than ALA), but it's 100% vegan, sustainable and contaminant free.

 

Comparison of Omega-3 Sources

Here is a comparison of the three most common sources of Omega-3... 

algae oil vs fish oil vs flaxseedFish Oil

algae oil vs fish oil vs flaxseedFlaxseed Oil

algae oil vs fish oil vs flaxseedAlgae Oil

Source of Omega 3 DHA & EPA
Suitable for vegetarians and vegans
No fishy burps or aftertaste
Contaminant and toxin free
Heavy metal free
Allergen free
Sustainable & environmentally-friendly
Suitable for pregnant women

 

As we can see, Algae ticks all the boxes for the ideal source of Omega-3. All the benefits of marine Omega-3, from a plant-based source with no contaminants!

   

How much Omega-3 do we really need for optimum health? 

How often do you hear advice like “up your intake”?

There is an issue with generic advice like this, which is that we can easily skip the crucial knowledge about how to determine, measure or regulate our intake of Omega-3 and Omega-6

To help you make your own informed decisions about the amount of Omega-3 fatty acids you should be consuming, it’s important to first understand a little aboutOmega-3 and Omega-6 ratios.

 

The Importance of Omega-3 to 6 Ratios

Ratios are a rough guide to the way Omega fats should be balanced in your diet. They’re not supposed to be precise and it would be a waste of time to get too hung up on trying to perfectly calibrate your omega intake.

That said, ratios provide a rough guide on the amount of Omega-3 and 6 fatty acids that you should be ingesting, so it’s always worth considering what your dietary ratio might look like.

According to experts, humans evolved on a diet with a 1:1 ratio of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats. Unfortunately, our modern diets are more likely to contain a 1:16 or 1:20 ratio of these essential nutrients, which means that many of us are consuming up to twenty times more the amount of Omega-6 fatty acids compared to Omega-3 fatty acids... this is a problem!

Or to put it another way, we could be consuming just 5% of the Omega-3 fatty acids that we actually need to balance our internal biochemistry and regulate inflammation in our cells.

This imbalance is often implicated in the rising rate of cardiovascular disease, inflammatory conditions and autoimmune disorders (53 54).

Of course there is some debate about the exact ratio (55) and it’s important to note that there is no universally accepted measure for the correct balance of Omega-6 and 3 fats. That said, we think it’s important to think about shifting the balance. Particularly if you’re eating a vegan diet that’s rich in plant-based oils, seeds or nuts (basically lots of Omega-6).

You can do this by adding more sources of Omega-3, then slowly cutting back on some of the foods that contain a lot of Omega-6 fatty acids. Some studies suggest that achieving a 1:4 ratio can significantly decrease your chances of developing a chronic illness too (56) so it’s not like you have to jump straight to the 1:1 ratio mentioned above.

In general, people find it easier to add more Omega-3, and we think this is a sensible approach. Adding more Omega-3 will naturally decrease the creation of inflammatory eicosanoids, whilst also ensuring that your body has enough of the DHA and EPA it needs to nourish your cells.

It’s also a good idea to cut back on processed foods, which are usually very high in Omega-6 due to the vegetable oils they use.

SUMMARY: The ideal ratio of Omega-3 to 6 is 1:1, but in reality, most people have a ratio of 1:20 (that's 20 times the ideal amount of Omega-6!). This imbalance of Omega-3 and 6 has negative implications. We should aim to get as close to the 1:1 ratio as possible by adding a good quality source of Omega-3 DHA/EPA and reducing our intake of Omega-6. 

 

How Much Omega-3 Do You Need Per Day?

Exact guidelines for Omega-3 intake vary by country, so there isn’t a universally accepted RDA (recommended daily allowance) or NRV (nutrient reference value). That said, we can form a fairly robust picture by looking at the recommendations published by various bodies.

The American-based ‘Office of Dietary Supplements’ recommends that adult males consume approximately 1.6 grams of Omega-3 ALA per day, while adult females need to consume approximately 1.1 grams (57).

The European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) guidelines are similar; recommending that you eat approximately 250 mg per day of long-chain Omega-3 fatty acids like DHA and EPA as follows (58 59). 

Daily Adequate Intake Ranges for Omega-3 Fatty Acids (EFSA Guidelines):

Age (years)

ALA

DHA/EPA

0 - 1

0.5% of energy intake

100 mg

2 - 3

0.5% of energy intake

250 mg

4 - 6

0.5% of energy intake

250 mg

7 - 10

0.5% of energy intake

250 mg

11 - 14

0.5% of energy intake

250 mg

15 - 17

0.5% of energy intake

250 mg

18+

0.5% of energy intake

250 mg

 

The Canadian-based Winnipeg Regional Health Authority on the other hand, recommends 300-500 mg of DHA and EPA per day for anyone that’s interested in preserving cardiovascular function, rising to 2-4 g of DHA and EPA per day if treating a chronic heart condition like Hypertriglycemia (60).

Meanwhile the World Health Organisation recommend that you get 0.5–2% of energy from Omega-3 fatty acids (61).

Unfortunately, very few people manage to meet these requirements. Various studies show that the average western male consumes less than 0.05mg of DHA per day (62), and the rate may be even lower for women. A report published in “Progress in Lipid Research” also suggests that only 2% of the population actually obtain enough DHA and EPA from their diet (63), which is a worrying statistic indeed!

The picture may be worse for vegans too. According to a large study with over 14,222 participants, non fish-eaters (including vegans and people who just don’t like oily fish) tend to consume 52-80% less DHA and EPA than their omnivorous (or pescatarian) counterparts, probably because they’re not sure where else to obtain these vital nutrients, or how much they’re supposed to get (64).

Based on various recommendations, every adult (and child over 24 months) should be consuming at least 250 mg of Omega-3 per day, although in our opinion, 400 mg of DHA is probably a safer bet. Particularly if you are keen to safeguard your body’s biochemistry, and protect against inflammatory conditions.

Pregnant or lactating women are recommended to take an additional 200 mg of DHA on top of the normal amount for the health of their growing baby.

It’s also interesting to note that studies have shown no downside to taking more (up to 5g daily).

We’d strongly recommend that you look for healthy sources of these valuable Omega-3 fatty acids though (Plug: customers love our Omega-3 DHA and DHA+EPA supplements...click here for more info). 

A lot of vegans opt for readily-available Omega 3-6-9 supplements, but these supplements can be problematic because:

  1. They also provide an abundance of Omega-6 fatty acids, which as we’ve discussed, may actually be quite harmful
  2. Most of these brands supply substandard (ALA) Omega-3 fatty acids from plant sources, which can’t really be used to offset the damage caused by an excess of Omega-6
  3. Omega 3-6-9 supplements also provide large amounts of Omega-9; a non-essential fatty acid that your body can easily synthesise itself (so why pay for it?)

That's why we believe that an algae-based Omega-3 supplement with no added Omega-6 or 9 offers the best value-for-money. (To read more about reasons to avoid Omega-3-6-9 supplements, click here

SUMMARY:The European Food Safety Authority recommend that adults and children over two consume at least 250 mg of DHA/EPA per day. An additional 200 mg of DHA is recommended for pregnant or lactating women. 

What are the Downsides to Algae-based Supplements?

So we’ve established that algae is an excellent source of clean, long-chain Omega-3, but we often hear people saying that supplements are a bad idea, or that taking a capsule is in some way inferior to obtaining Omega-3 from dietary sources. 

However, issues with bioavailability (and the inherent difficulty of obtaining an edible, algae based foodstuff) mean that a good supplement is almost always superior.

There is one downside - namely that the most common and stable strains of micro-algae can’t produce much EPA, which means that algae-based supplements tend to focus on DHA Omega-3.

The good news is that that isn't really a problem, as your body is actually pretty good at retro-converting DHA to make its own EPA (when required). 

Coupled with the fact that you'll get some EPA from the ALA in your diet anyway, a good DHA algae supplement plus eating enough nuts and seeds should provide you with all the Omega-3 that your body needs.

That said, there are some strains of micro-algae that can produce small amounts of EPA.

Since DHA is the star of the show, our main supplement focuses on providing your body with the recommended 250-400 mg of daily Omega-3 in DHA form, but for people that are looking for EPA, we also offer a DHA+EPA algae supplement that’s healthy, sustainable and 100% vegan: perfect for people that are looking for a clean and effective way to up their Omega-3 intake. 

SUMMARY: Most strains of algae don't produce EPA in high concentrations. However, the human body is actually quite good at converting DHA back into EPA when required, soa good source of DHA plus a diet containing ALA is all you really need to meet your daily requirements.  

Our Conclusion on Omega-3...

To round-up, DHA and EPA Omega-3s are absolutely essential

They’re needed to nourish your brain; maintain healthy eyes; regulate inflammation and keep your cells nice and healthy. Plus if you happen to be pregnant, DHA is an essential nutrient for your growing baby.

In addition, research shows that Omega-3 fatty acids may be able to produce the chemical messengers responsible for fighting a handful of increasingly-common diseases, like heart disease, which is now the number one cause of death worldwide.

Most of us struggle to get enough of the beneficial Omega-3 fatty acids and several research journals have found that modern populations are quickly becoming Omega-3 deficient.

The problem is worse for vegans, as they can’t access the DHA and EPA Omega-3s found in oily fish, and the plant-based alternatives are:

  • Ineffective
  • Hard to digest
  • Expensive 

Luckily, there is a solution and it’s a marine micro-algae called Schizochytrium sp. which is currently the world’s only source of DHA and EPA Omega-3s and they’re also 100% suitable for vegans and vegetarians. Even for non-vegans, it's the perfect choice for anyone that wants sustainable Omega-3 that doesn't damage the oceans. 

By using these micro-algae to make sustainable Omega-3 supplements, we can now easily supplement our diets to counter the deficiencies and provide our planet with an ethical, natural and sustainable source of the healthiest Omega-3 fatty acids in modern times.

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References

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Like most of the world, we are unsure of how events will unfold over the next few months. Covid-19 is teaching that we're all connected to each other and if we don't collectively looking after our planet, it won't be able look after us. 
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Omega-6 fatty acids are an essential nutrient, but they’re considerably less useful than their Omega-3 cousins. They have a very similar chemical structure and they’re absorbed via very similar pathways...
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