Omega 3 fatty acids play a role in every cell in the body. Omega 3 makes up cell membranes, keeps the nervous system functioning, keeps cholesterol levels in check, and staves off inflammation. There are so many health benefits associated with Omega 3 that it is no surprise how much hype the nutrient is now getting.
What Are Essential Fatty Acids?
Essential fatty acids are types of polyunsaturated fats. They are called “essential” because the body cannot produce them on its own. We must get essential fatty acids from food.
There are two types of Essential Fatty Acids:
- Alpha Linolenic Acid (Omega 3)
- Linoleic Acid (Omega 6)
Once consumed, the body is able to turn Omega 3 and Omega 6 into other types of fatty acids:
- Omega 3 -> eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
- Omega 6 -> arachidonic acid (AA)
Why Do We Need Omega 3?
The importance of essential fatty acids in our diets really can’t be underestimated. They are part of all cell membranes and are what make our cells flexible. They are also very important for the nervous system. Consider that 60% of the brain is made up of fats and you start to see how important they are. DHA is particularly abundant in the nervous system which is why it is considered a “brain food.” You also have high concentrations of essential fatty acids in the retina, so the fats are important for vision.
Essential fatty acids are also involved in regulating inflammation, but in very different ways. Omega 3 reduces inflammation whereas Omega 6 increases inflammation. Inflammation is the root cause of many health problems ranging from acne to arthritis, so getting these nutrients in the right balance is crucial.
Because of how important essential fatty acids are for health, they are linked to many health benefits. Note, however, that some of these benefits have been really exaggerated or hyped (especially by companies trying to sell you supplements). The studies on essential fatty acids can also be conflicting. For instance, one study showing that supplementing with essential fatty acid can drastically reduce risk of heart disease while another study shows that the benefits are negligible or nonexistent.
Some of the health benefits of essential fatty acid which are likely true (though often hyped-up) include:
- Better Skin, Hair and Nails: Supplementing with essential fatty acid can improve the appearance and strength of skin, hair and nails.
- Improved Mental Health: Various studies show that essential fatty acid (particularly Omega 3) are crucial for mental health and supplementing with them can reduce symptoms of depression, as well as other mood disorders like anxiety.
- Fetal Development: Studies have shown that the children of pregnant women who supplement with essential fatty acid (particularly DHA) are less likely to have developmental problems and the children may also have higher cognitive scores.
- Reduced Risk of Heart Disease: Essential fatty acid supplements are commonly touted for reducing the risk of heart disease. One of the ways that they do this is by reducing LDL (bad) cholesterol levels while increasing HDL (good) cholesterol levels. Omega 3 fatty acids in particular have shown to reduce risk of heart disease because they thin blood (reducing the risk of a clot), prevent inflammation (reducing blood pressure), and slow the buildup plaque in the arteries. By contrast, some studies have implied that Omega 6 can increase the risk of heart disease by causing inflammation in arteries. The American Heart Association contests this though, and instead says that people need to seek a better balance of Omega 6 and Omega 3 fatty acids.
- Reduced Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease: In particular, DHA has shown to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease as well as other old-age cognitive diseases such as dementia.
- Arthritis and Inflammation Disorders: Omega 3 fatty acids help block the immune system’s inflammation response, so they have shown effective as a natural treatment for many inflammation disorders such as arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and even (to some extent) asthma.
How Much Omega 3 Do We Need?
Omega 6 is found in many foods like the oils we use for cooking, seeds, nuts, and beans. So, Omega 6 deficiency isn’t a concern. However, the same can’t be said for Omega 3 deficiency. Many resources say that 60% of Americans are deficient in Omega 3 and others put the number at 90%. When Dr. Hyman appeared on the Dr. Oz show (who I wouldn’t exactly say is a credible source of nutrition information), he said that 99% of Americans are deficient in Omega 3. It is unclear where these stats are coming from since they don’t quote any scientific studies, but it is pretty clear that people on the Western diet do need more Omega 3.
The RDA for Omega 3 is 1.6g/day for adult men and 1.1g/day for healthy adult women. This amount of Omega 3 could easily be obtained by eating a ½ ounce of walnuts, or a handful of just about any other type of nut or seed. Beans, legumes, and wheat germ are also high in Omega 3.
But the problem isn’t with Omega 3. It is with DHA and EPA.
*There are no established daily requirements for DHA and EPA. The American Heart Foundation recommends that adults consume 500 mg of DHA and EPA combined per day. However, most studies use a recommendation of 1000mg/day for DHA and 220mg/day for EPA.
Since our bodies make EPA and DHA out of Omega 3 fatty acids, one would think that eating more Omega 3 foods would help us get enough of these nutrients. Unfortunately, the body is not very good at turning Omega 3 into EPA or DHA. Women convert about 21% of Omega 3 into EPA and 9% into DHA. By contrast, men only convert about 8% of Omega 3 into EPA and 0-4% of Omega 3 into DHA.
Some evidence shows that too much Omega 6 blocks Omega 3 conversion into EPA and DHA.
There are very few food sources of DHA and EPA. They are almost exclusively found in fish, though some DHA can be found in seaweed. To make sure you don’t end up with a deficiency, you might want to consider supplementing with DHA and EPA. Or, you could try to help your body convert more DHA and EPA by improving your Omega 3:6 ratios.
The dangers of Omega 6
Omega 6 Blocks Omega 3 Conversion
Since our bodies make DHA and EPA out of Omega 3, you’d assume we could just eat lots of Omega 3 foods to ensure we are making enough DHA and EPA.
Unfortunately, getting enough DHA and EPA isn’t as simple as eating more Omega 3.
Research suggests that Omega 6 inhibits the conversion of Omega 3 into DHA and EPA. So, the Omega 3 from foods like walnuts (2,542mg Omega 3 but 10,666 Omega 6) or sesame seeds (105mg Omega 3 but 5,984mg Omega 6) may not be adequate sources of Omega 3 for conversion into DHA and EPA.
*Note that getting enough Omega 3, DHA, and EPA isn’t just a concern for vegans and vegetarians. The Standard American Diet (appropriately called SAD) is low in Omega 3 while simultaneously very high in Omega 6. One report found that Americans are consuming 10-20x more Omega 6 than Omega 3! Most health experts recommend keeping Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratios at 1:4. Other experts recommend keeping the ratio even lower at 1:1.
To meet DHA and EPA recommendations, vegetarians and vegans should strive to exceed the RDA for Omega 3 while simultaneously keeping their Omega 6 intake low.
Omega 6 Causes Inflammation
Ancestral evidence shows that humans evolved on a diet where Omega 3 and Omega 6 were in a 1:1 ratio. Today, the typical Westerner consumes 14 to 25 times more Omega 6 than Omega 3. As mentioned before, Omega 6 causes inflammation whereas Omega 3 reduces inflammation. Researchers believe that this imbalance of Omega 3:6 is causing an inflammatory response in the body.
Inflammation is a root cause of numerous diseases and disorders common in the Western world. These range from arthritis to heart disease to asthma. Yes, there is a huge amount of research which shows that diets high in Omega 6 but low in Omega 3 are linked to these diseases. As a result, you’ve got experts recommending that we should consume Omega 3:6 in a 1:4 ratio, or even strive for a 1:1 ratio. You’d pretty much have to eat nothing but cold-water fish and flax seeds to meet that ratio though.
Before you get too worried about your Omega 3:6 ratios, bear in mind that the evidence mostly shows that it is Omega 6 from processed food which is to blame. When the Omega 6 is from natural foods, it doesn’t seem to have a negative effect on health.
For example: 1oz of sesame seeds contain 105mg of Omega 3 and 5,985mg of Omega 6. That’s a 1:57 ratio! Yet, there is evidence that shows sesame seeds reduce inflammation. Nutrition isn’t as simple as dubbing something pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory. Other components of sesame seeds affect the inflammatory response; it isn’t just Omega 3 and Omega 6.
The bottom line? If you are eating natural, unprocessed foods, don’t worry too much about getting the right ratio of Omega 3:6 – at least as far as inflammation goes.
With this in mind, we’ve compiled a list of the best vegan sources of Omega 3. All of these foods also have low Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratios.
|*The RDAs for Omega 3 are 1.6 grams/day for adult males and 1.1 grams/day for adult females. There are no set RDAs for DHA and EPA. For the details on essential fatty acids, read our Omega 3 nutrient guide.|
Best sources of vegan omega 3
Vegan Omega 3 and DHA Supplements
Omega 3 and DHA supplements commonly used fish oil. Luckily, there are now a lot of vegan omega 3 and DHA supplements from algae and other sources, like the list below. You can also check out our recommendations for the top vegan supplements here.
Note: the above are Amazon Affiliate links
Not surprisingly, flax tops our list as the best vegetarian source of Omega 3. One ounce of flax seeds packs in 6388mg of Omega 3 (nearly 6 times the RDA). You get 1655mg of Omega 6 in the process, which helps keep your Omega 3 to Omega 6 raios in check. To get an even bigger boost, you can take a tablespoon of flax oil which delivers 7196mg of Omega 3.
Chia seeds have only recently gotten mainstream attention (at least beyond use on ceramic “pets”) – and it is long overdue! A single ounce of chia seeds packs in 4915mg of Omega 3 but just 1620mg of Omega 6. They are also loaded with calcium (1oz=18% RDA), fiber, and manganese.
Hemp seeds have a great Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratio. One ounce of the seeds will provide 1100 Omega 3 and 2700 Omega 6.
If you are looking to cut back on your Omega 6 (as most of us should be), then you may consider swapping your olive oil salad dressing for mustard oil instead. Mustard oil has 826mg Omega 3 and 2146mg Omega 6 in a tablespoon. Compare this to the 103mg Omega 3 and 1318mg Omega 6 found in olive oil! You can usually find mustard oil in Indian food stores.
Seaweeds not only have fairly high amounts of Omega 3, but they are also one of the only vegan foods which also have EPA and DHEA. Spirulina (58mg Omega 3, 88mg Omega 6 per tablespoon) is one of the best choices. Wakame is a good runner up.
Beans don’t have as much Omega 3 as seeds or nuts. However, they still can help you meet your RDAs all while avoiding excess Omega 6. Mungo beans — aka Urad Dal — are by far the best choice with 603mg Omega 3 and just 43mg Omega 6 in one cup cooked (not to be confused with mung beans). French beans and navy beans are also good choices. To really get the most out of these super foods, sprout them first!
Winter squash is a surprisingly good source of Omega 3, with 338mg per cup cooked – and you’ll only get 203mg of Omega 6.
To meet calcium and iron RDAs, vegetarians should be loading up on leafy greens. It turns out that greens are also a decent source of Omega 3 too. A cup of cooked spinach has 352mg of Omega 3 with only negligible amounts of Omega 6. Broccoli rabe, collards, kale and grape leaves are also good sources of Omega 3.
Vegetables in the cabbage family have a surprising amount of Omega 3. Cauliflower is the most notable with 208mg Omega 3 and just 62mg of Omega 6 per cup, cooked. Broccoli and Brussels sprouts are also good choices. Greens in the cabbage family are also a great bioavailable source of calcium.
Berries are not only good sources of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, but they also are also a good vegetarian source of Omega 3. Blueberries top the list with 174mg of Omega 3 per 1 cup serving while simultaneously only delivering 259mg of Omega 6.
Wild rice should be a staple for all vegetarians and vegans. One cup cooked delivers lots of iron, protein, fiber, magnesium, zinc, and manganese. You’ll also get 156mg Omega 3 while only taking in 195mg of Omega 6.
Herbs and Spices
Virtually all popular herbs and spices have a great Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratio. Cloves are one of the best at 86mg/52mg per 2 grams, as is oregano (73mg/18mg), marjoram (49mg/18mg), and tarragon (44mg/11mg). You probably aren’t going to meet your RDAs for Omega 3 on herbs and spices alone, but the added nutrition is a good reason to make your foods more flavorful.
Mangoes are one of my all-time favorite foods. These succulent citruses pack in 77mg of Omega 3s per fruit. They are one of the few vegetarian sources of Omega 3 which actually have less Omega 6 than Omega 3 (just 29mg per fruit).
A cup of honeydew melon balls delivers 58mg of Omega 3. Like with mangoes, it also has less Omega 6 than Omega 3 (46mg!).