The vegan diet is a fully plant-based diet, excluding any animal product – including dairy and eggs. For some, this diet brings tremendous health benefits – however, due to the exclusion of a large number of food groups, vegans have to pay extra attention to certain nutrients that are normally abundant in the likes of meat and fish.
For example, fish provides fats needed by the body for normal functioning – such as Omega 6 and Omega 3. If you’re a vegan reading this, don’t panic. There are plenty of options for you that we’re going to run through in this article.
- What is Omega 3?
- What are the Benefits of Omega 3s for Vegans?
- Which Fats am I Missing?
- Vegan-friendly Omega 3 Sources
What is Omega 3?
Omega-3s are fatty acids that fall under the polyunsaturated fat category. These types of fatty acids are considered essential (we need to get them from our diet) because our bodies can’t produce them. Three major types of Omega-3s are alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is found primarily in plants, while EPA and DHA are primarily found in animal-based foods.
What are the Benefits of Omega 3s for Vegans?
Omega 3s offer many health benefits, primarily from their EPA and DHA components. Here are some of the main benefits from these powerful fats.
Omega 3 fatty acids (especially DHA from fish) are often recommended for women who are, or plan to become, pregnant because they are crucial for proper fetal development.
Research supports that Omega 3s support brain and immune system development during pregnancy.1
Omega 3 fatty acids may contribute to prevention of many chronic diseases such as heart-related diseases, plus other chronic illnesses that are caused by inflammation.1 This research was done specifically on animal-based Omega 3s (EPA/DHA).
Another use for animal-based Omega 3s has been shown in research related to the inflammatory markers often present in older adults with Alzheimer’s disease. While more research is needed in this area, it was shown that patients who had high intakes of EPA and DHA had a lower risk for developing Alzheimer’s than those who did not consume much Omega 3 in their diet.1
While these health benefits are very promising, it can be a challenge for vegans to get enough of the DHA/EPA sources if they’re not consuming animal products.
Which Fats Am I Missing?
All Omega 3 fatty acids play a role in health, but the majority of health benefits are linked to DHA and EPA, and less from ALA. ALA is a precursor for EPA and DHA, but the process of creating DHA or EPA from ALA is not very efficient – making it important to find excellent sources of ALA in the diet.
Dietary fat helps us to feel satiated, supports the structure of all of our cells, and is key for healthy metabolism. Fats are also responsible for helping to regulate bodily processes, in addition to enabling absorption of specific fat-soluble vitamins. These include:
Vitamin A – Read more on Vitamin A
Vitamin D – Read more on Vitamin D
Vitamin E – Read more on Vitamin E
Vitamin K – Read more on Vitamin K
Vegan-Friendly Omega 3 Sources
Flaxseed contains the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) – which, as mentioned above, is a plant based vegan alternative to EPA and DHA. Whole flaxseeds can be mixed with water as a vegan egg substitute in baking, and flaxseed oil is often used in salad dressings or, as a porridge topping.
Flaxseed must be ground prior to ingestion or it won’t be able to provide health benefits – it can be hard to digest. 1-2 tablespoons of flaxseed per day can provide 2 grams of vegan polyunsaturated fatty acids like ALA.
Walnuts are an excellent vegan source of Omega 3, with one ounce providing up to 2.5 grams of ALA.2 Walnuts may also contribute to an improved mood, due to each gram containing roughly 87 micrograms of serotonin (the happy hormone!).2
Keep in mind that walnuts and other nuts are healthiest in their raw state since high heat changes the fatty acid structure and added oils and salt take away some of the benefit. Walnuts also provide protein in a vegan diet. While other nuts provide heart healthy fats, walnuts are the greatest source of vegan Omega 3.
Toasting walnuts can enhance flavour but avoid roasted nuts that are often torched at high temperatures.
3. Chia Seeds
Chia seeds are the highest in omega 3 fats out of all the different seeds. Due to the omega 6 levels being higher in a vegan diet, (omega 3 is usually consumed via meat, fish and eggs) the intake of chia seeds may contribute to balancing out the ratio.
High in protein and fibre, chia seeds are a great staple in a vegan diet. The desired ratio of omega 3 and 6 is 1:1. Chia seeds are also classed as a superfood due to containing 20% Omega 3 ALA.3
4. Pumpkin Seeds
A nearly ‘perfect’ seed, pumpkin seeds are also a good vegan source of Omega 3 fats. They’re also packed with iron, which is hard to find in a vegan diet. Particularly alkalizing compared to other common nuts and seeds, and may provide blood-sugar and hormone-stabilizing benefits since they lower insulin and cortisol in the body.4
Try to choose raw and organic pumpkin seeds whenever possible as the healthiest option. Pumpkin seeds go great in oats; as a topper for smoothies, salads, soups, and make an excellent trail-mix or super-food bar ingredient.
Take Home Message
If you’re vegan, or simply would like to consume more plant-based Omega 3’s, try incorporating the above foods into your daily diet. Even if you still eat meat on occasion, these are all great foods to add to your kitchen.