Vegan Omega-3: Everything You Need To Know About The Benefits, Sources and Dosages

24 min read

Omega-3: “The Need to Know”

      Benefits of Omega-3 for:

        Sources of Omega-3: The Good and the Bad

          Dosages, Ratios, RDAs and Daily Guidelines: A Full Breakdown

            Conclusion

             


             

            Introduction

            Most people know that Omega-3 fatty acids are important, but when it comes to identifying a good source of vegan Omega-3, it can sometimes feel like you’re fighting an uphill battle.

            The internet has largely become overwhelmed with conflicting and poor information making it really challenging to find the right information about the world of Omega-3 fatty acids and how they’re connected to your health.  

            Particularly if you’re vegan, and don’t want to wade through a never-ending sea of advice that seems hell-bent on promoting the virtues of eating oily fish, eggs and seafood.

            You’ll be happy to know that there are ways to get Omega-3 fatty acids without compromising on your beliefs and values.

            Whether you're vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian or just trying to avoid fish for environmental reasons, you'll need to cut through the noise and find some quality information that goes beyond simply "eat more nuts and leafy greens".

            To help you out, we’ve put together this in-depth and comprehensive guide to Omega-3 (and a little on Omega 6 & 9 too) which will explain:

            • The importance of these vital nutrients
            • Explore important details like the correct ratios of dietary fats
            • Shed light on the best possible sources of vegan Omega-3

            To get started, let's jump in and learn some of what you “need to know” about Omega-3.

              

            Omega-3: “The Need to Know”

            What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids and What Do They Do?

            Omega-3 fatty acids are an essential nutrient, which means that they can’t be made by the human body(1). We don’t want to turn this guide into chemistry lesson, so let’s just say that they are a type of polyunsaturated fat that’s made from a long chain of carbon atoms.

             

            Omega-3_Chemical_Structure

            All Omega-3 fatty acids have a special carbon-carbon double bond that’s located three carbon atoms from the "Omega end" of the chain(2) (hence the “3” in Omega-3!).

            The location of this bond allows the chain to be longer, and it's the length of the chain which gives Omega-3 its unique properties, allowing it to play a role in:

            • Building cell membranes
            • Producing energy for your cells
            • Synthesising important cell-signalling molecules(3)

            Now, it’s important to note that the human body can only place these special double bonds after the ninth carbon in a fatty acid chain (not the third as required). 

            The reason why this is significant is that it means that the body can’t produce its own Omega-3

            In other words, we have to get Omega-3 fatty acids from our diet. We use the word “have” deliberately here, because the unique chemical structure of Omega-3s allow them to perform vital functions that cannot be replicated by other nutrients.

            The small intestine is where the Omega-3 fatty acids are broken down, which contributes to the formation of healthy cell membranes(4) and help to form some of the hormones that regulate cardiovascular health(5).

            Omega-3 fatty acids also play an important role in:

            • Brain function and development
            • Foetal development
            • Reducing inflammation(6)
            • Encouraging the development of healthy eyes

            Research suggests there’s plenty more! 

            SUMMARY: Omega-3 is a fatty acid which is unique because of its chemical structure. This allows it perform important functions throughout the body that can't be done by other nutrients. The human body can't create this special structure and so Omega-3 needs to come from the diet.

             

            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, which are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

            Not all Omega-3s are created equal. In fact, medical literature often distinguishes between the benefits derived from ALA and its’ marine cousins: DHA and EPA.

            A Note on ALA: The Plant-based Omega-3

            ALA comes from walnuts, flax seeds and soybeans(7). The reason these three foodstuffs may be familiar is because they are some of the commonly recommended sources of plant-based Omega-3.

            Although ALA is beneficial, and it does help to nourish your body, it’s only because your body can convert it into longer, more useful fatty acids - like DHA and EPA.

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

            Although the human body can convert ALA into DHA and EPA, it does a pretty terrible job. Experts estimate that just 5-20% of dietary ALA ends up being successfully turned into longer EPA chains(8 9), and the picture is even more bleak when we consider ALA to DHA conversion. 

            One study, conducted in 2002, found that just 0.5-4% of ALA could be successfully turned into DHA fatty acids(10), which means that people who prioritise ALA Omega-3s are highly unlikely to be getting enough DHA fatty acids to support good health.

            Taking the example above, we can see that a tablespoon of flaxseed contains a total of 2.4 grams of Omega-3, which sounds like a lot until you consider the conversion rate. Those 2.4 grams of ALA will get converted to 120 - 480 mg of EPA and between 12 - 96 mg of DHA. 

            This means that if you rely on nuts and seeds for your Omega-3, you may not be getting as much as you think. You should be able to manage getting enough EPA, but you're highly unlikely to be getting enough DHA.

            It’s also important to note that the ALA found in seeds, beans and nuts is often bound up with insoluble dietary fibre, which means that it’s very difficult for your body to digest.

            Generally speaking, ALA is considered to be the least useful of the Omega-3 fatty acids. Also, any ALA that isn’t converted into DHA or EPA will be stored as triglycerides or used for energy - just like the normal 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 elsewhere when you've heard about Omega-3.

             

            SUMMARY: ALA is the most common plant-based Omega-3 and is what is usually recommended for those who don't want to eat fish. However it's a poor source, as the body can't use it and needs to convert it into DHA and EPA. The conversion process is very inefficient in humans, so only 0.5-4% actually gets converted into DHA. This means that if you rely on nuts and seeds for Omega-3, you're not getting as much as you may think.

             

            DHA (and EPA) to the Rescue

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

            When you consume foods containing DHA or EPA, these Omega-3 fatty acids are turned straight into eicosanoids (a type of signalling molecule) or else shunted into cell membranes where they provide immediate structure, stability and reinforcement.

            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 caught up in distinctions between DHA and EPA.

            This is because your body can convert DHA to EPA when needed and they 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

            Normally, the algae would synthesise the Omega-3 oils, tiny crustaceans called krill would eat the algae and then fish would gobble up the krill; concentrating the DHA in a nice, convenient, fishy package (assuming that we’re not concerned by the build up of heavy metals like mercury and other pollutants floating around in the world’s oceans!).

            Traditionally fish oil or cod liver oil supplements have been the go-to source of Omega-3 around the world. Even vegetarians and vegans would often have to compromise on their values and take these supplements to meet their Omega-3 requirements.

            Luckily, it is possible to side-step this entire process and obtain healthy vegan DHA straight from the algae, which can be grown in tanks and harvested once they’ve created a stockpile of healthy oil (more about this later!).

             

            SUMMARY: DHA and EPA are the Omega-3s that the body actually needs. They are usually found in oily fish but actually originate in specific types of marine algae that the fish feed on. This algae is 100% vegan.

              

            What About Omega-6?

            Omega-6 fatty acids are also an essential nutrient, but they’re considerably less useful than their Omega-3 cousins. They have a very similar chemical structure (the only difference being that their special carbon-carbon bond is located after the sixth carbon atom instead of the third) and they’re absorbed via very similar pathways.

            There’s evidence to suggest that some Omega-6 fatty acids might support cardiovascular function and joint health(15), but they don’t have the same anti-inflammatory properties as Omega-3s, like DHA(16).

            Some Omega-6 fatty acids (including arachidonic and docosadienoic acid) are actually converted into a class of eicosanoids that’s thought topromote inflammation in your tissues(17) which definitely isn’t a good thing!

            To make matters worse, Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids have to compete for the digestive enzymes that are used to convert eicosanoids(18) which means that consuming too many Omega-6 fatty acids could actually interfere with the metabolisation of Omega-3.

            Also Omega-6 fatty acids are absolutely everywhere. You’ll find them in nuts, seeds, grains and bread. As well as cereals, soy products and almost every type of vegetable oil, which means that most vegans are being bombarded with an overabundance of Omega-6 every single day.

            Now, we’re not saying that you should skip out on Omega-6 fatty acids completely. You do need a small amount to maintain the health of your joints, brain and heart. However, there’s a very good chance that your diet is already oversaturated with Omega-6 fatty acids, which means that you definitely want to focus on upping your Omega-3 intake.

            Some health professionals think that people in the Western world consume far too much Omega-6, and suggest that our ever-decreasing Omega-3 intake is one of the principle drivers of chronic diseases like:

            • Heart disease
            • Diabetes
            • Rheumatoid arthritis
            • Certain forms of cancer

            Which is why it's important to balance your Omega-3 and Omega-6 ratios correctly.

             

            SUMMARY: Omega-6 is an important nutrient, but it is very common in the western diet (including for vegans). Deficiency in Omega-6 is rare. Omega-3 and 6 compete for the same enzymes, so too much Omega-6 will interfere with the absorption of Omega-3. A combination of increasing your Omega-3 intake and decreasing Omega-6 is recommended.

              

            Benefits of Omega-3 

            Omega-3 and Inflammation

            Omega-3 fatty acids can be oxidised (literally reacted with oxygen) to form beneficial eicosanoids. These are a type of cell signalling molecule that can modulate the expression of genes responsible for controlling inflammation and immune function throughout the body(19).

            Eicosanoids float around in your bloodstream, and work to balance out your body’s biochemistry

            They 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 (which is great!).

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

            Research conducted in America, the United Kingdom and Germany has established that Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in maintaining our health, and protecting against inflammatory diseases(25 26 27). 

            If you think “inflammatory diseases” are a rare and unheard-of phenomenon, you’ll be surprised to learn that a large number of relatively common conditions have now been linked to cellular inflammation, including:

            • Heart disease
            • Stroke
            • Diabetes
            • Rheumatoid arthritis
            • Alzheimer's disease
            • Certain forms of cancer
            • Asthma
            • Various allergies(28)

            What’s more, low Omega-3 intake is often associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular issues, depression, cognitive impairment and other health issues(29).

            Now, 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.

            Unfortunately, we also know that most of the western world is Omega-3 deficient. Two years ago, a journal called Progress in Lipid Research published a large meta-analysis that examined studies focussing on measuring blood levels of Omega-3 fatty acids in various countries around the world. 

            This meta-analysis found evidence of widespread Omega-3 deficiencies in most of the developed world, including countries in North America, Central and South America, Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia(30).

            The only countries with adequate levels seemed to be those with coastal communities and a diet rich in fresh fish. 

            Now, it’s interesting to note that most (if not all) of the countries marked as “low” or “very low” are also struggling with a rising rates of chronic inflammatory diseases like ischemic heart disease, arthritis and diabetes(31).

            Just a coincidence or could all this be linked? We’ll leave that one up to you!

             

            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. In fact, Omega-3 DHA is the only long-chain fatty acid that can provide structure for important brain-cell membranes, and improve nervous function in the brain. It is especially important for the maturation of the brain during the early years of a baby’s life

            We’ll explain the ins and outs of DHA in a moment. For now, all you need to know is that a 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 then through breast milk once the baby starts feeding), it’s critically important that mothers get enough Omega-3, ideally from a clean and bioavailable source like algae.

            According to the American Pregnancy Association, all women should “consider taking a prenatal Omega-3 fatty acid supplement alongside their prenatal vitamins". The justification for this is that Western diets are known to be Omega-3 deficient, but also that Omega-3 fatty acids are “critically important to young infants” - and we’re inclined to agree.

             

            SUMMARY: The most rapid development of a baby's brain occurs from conception until 24 months (the first 1,000 days of life). Omega-3 DHA plays a crucial role during this process and is a major structural component of the brain. This DHA reaches the baby via the placenta during pregnancy and through breast milk once the baby starts feeding. For this reason, it is important that the mother gets enough Omega-3 DHA.

             

            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 mentioned before. 

            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 

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

            would help to prevent or control conditions like type 1 diabetes.

            It’s also interesting to note that Omega-3 fatty acids are thought to help regulate mood, and reduce depression in young children. Several studies are currently exploring the full extent of these benefits, but it’s already clear that taking Omega-3 supplements can help to boost mood, and there’s a definite correlation between the amount of Omega-3 fatty acids in someone’s blood, and their propensity for low mood/depression(38).

             

            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. This is not surprising considering the role played by DHA in the brain.

             

            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

            As we age, our joints stiffen, our memories start to fade and we often find that our minds don’t work quite as well as they used to. 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 if we can focus on DHA and EPA.

             

            SUMMARY: Given it's role 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

            Where to get Vegan Sources of Omega-3

            Having established that Omega-3 fatty acids (especially DHA and EPA) are:

            1. Important
            2. Lacking in the average western diet (vegan or otherwise)

            You’re probably wondering where you’re meant to find a healthy, vegan source of these essential nutrients (or if you’ve been paying attention, you may have worked it out!).

            Most people obtain their DHA and EPA by eating fish or seafood, but these options are off-limits to vegans and vegetarians.They're also unsustainably produced, have a negative environmental impact and support animal cruelty. 

            The negative environmental impact of fishing is well-established in scientific literature, with studies conducted in the UK, Hawaii and Spain showing that fishing for salmon, tuna and other oily fish has significantly damaged the world’s marine ecosystems(46 47 48 49).

            Looking at these studies, we find that:

            • The global fishing fleet is approximately 2-3 times larger than what the oceans can realistically support
            • The world’s fishing stocks may collapse by the year 2048
            • About 27% of the fish thatare caught, end up being turned into fish meal or fish oil

            This means that responsible and environmentally-conscious individuals really should be hunting for a more sustainable source of Omega-3.

            We also know that fish and seafood can be quite harmful. Mercury and other contaminants build up in the flesh of fatty fish like tuna(50), and fish are also known to provide an overabundance of protein, which is often associated with a variety of serious health conditions(51).

            As a result, many vegans, vegetarians and people who care about the environment are looking for plant-based sources of Omega-3. Unfortunately, vegetables in general are quite low in Omega-3, but there are nuts and seeds (such as flaxseed, walnuts and soya) which are known to be high in essential fatty acids.

            Now on the surface, it may seem like nuts and seeds are the answer - after all, they’re rich in Omega-3. However, as we'e learned, they aren’t a particularly good source of Omega-3, as they mainly provide ALA which does not provide many of the benefits associated with DHA or EPA.

            Lucky for us, there is an alternative source of vegan Omega-3 which does contain DHA and EPA. Remember the fish we mentioned earlier? It turns out they don’t make their own Omega-3.

            Instead, they obtain them from eating krill who’ve feasted on special species of micro-algae that have evolved to synthesise their own DHA. Since these species of micro-algae are plants, we can use them to create healthy, vegan DHA supplements with minimal environmental impact.

             

            SUMMARY: Fish are the most common source of Omega-3. However the environmental impacts of the fishing industry and the risk of contamination make it a bad choice. However, DHA-rich algae can be farmed to produce clean, healthy Omega-3 with no damage to the oceans.

             

            Algae: The Best Source of Vegan 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% sustainablewhich means that you never have to worry about the long-term environmental impact of using them.

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

            As you can see from the diagram below, the contaminants found in the ocean are absorbed by oceanic algae and move up the food chain as krill feast on the algae which in turn are eaten by other fish. The heavy metals and contaminants accumulate in the bodies of the larger fish which are used to make fish oil supplements.  

            On the other hand, farmed algae is not taken from the oceans, but grown in controlled conditions where there is no risk of contamination.

             

            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!

               

            Dosages Ratios, RDAs and Daily Guidelines: Full Breakdown

            How many times have you heard advice like “up your intake”? There is an issue with generic advice like this, which is that we can easily skip the bit 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 about Omega-3 and Omega-6 ratios.

            The Importance of Omega-3 to 6 Ratios

            First things first, ratios are just 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 can allow you to get a quick fix 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 the amount of Omega-6 fatty acids compared to Omega-3 fatty acids!

            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, and 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, as well as 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 seed 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 Really 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 Organization 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).

            In our opinion, every adult (and child over 24 months) should be consuming at least 250 mg of Omega-3 per day, although 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. 

            A lot of vegans opt for readily-available Omega 3-6-9 supplements, but these supplements can be very 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. For more 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. 

            Are There 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 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, so a good source of DHA plus a diet containing ALA is all you really need to meet your daily requirements. 

             

            What Are the Alternatives to Vegan Omega-3 Supplements?

            If you’re dead-set on avoiding supplements altogether, 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!

            To manage that (frankly 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.

            You’d have to eat so many calories that you’d offset many of the health benefits, and you’d also be forced to eat a very restrictive diet just to maintain your daily intake.

            In our eyes, algae-based supplements are a much better option. Particularly if you’re committed to a vegan 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.

              

            Conclusion 

            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 to obtain

            Luckily, there is a solution: Species of marine micro-algae like Schizochytrium sp. are actually the world’s only source of DHA and EPA Omega-3s and they’re also 100% vegan friendly. 

            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.

             


             

            So we think that covers everything you need to know about Omega-3! Is there anything that surprised you or anything you think we've missed out? Let us know by leaving a comment below!

            Know someone who could benefit from this article (vegan or not)? Feel free to share this article with them! 


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