Incorporating alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), a type of omega-3 essential fatty acid (EFA) from plant-based sources, can provide you with numerous health benefits. Ensuring that you’re getting adequate amounts of EFAs is key to any diet, particularly when transitioning to a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle.
The three main types of omega-3s are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). EPA and DHA are derived from marine sources, such as salmon and mackerel. (6) These two sources are not always suitable for everyone, and individuals may wish to incorporate plant-based omega-3 fatty acids for many reasons, including dietary patterns (e.g., vegetarian, vegan), religious beliefs, food allergies, and environmental or ethical concerns.
As a vegetarian or vegan, it can be difficult to identify the ideal sources of omega-3s that also suit your lifestyle. Thankfully, you can easily incorporate plant-based sources of omega-3s into your diet by consuming whole foods and supplements when needed.
Conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an essential omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA), is the precursor of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). (1) ALA’s counterpart is linoleic acid (LA), an essential polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acid (PUFA). Although it’s important that your diet includes both ALA and LA, it should be noted that ALA has anti-inflammatory effects, whereas an increased amount of LA can contribute to inflammation. When LA is consumed through foods such as chicken, beef, eggs, and milk and converted by our bodies, it results in arachidonic acid (AA). (7) LA and ALA compete for the same enzymes for conversion, so excess intake of LA may negatively impact EPA and DHA levels. This means that even if you’re getting enough ALA, consuming excessive amounts of LA will inhibit its conversion to EPA and DHA. (5)(7)
The Western diet has evolved over the past 100 years to include a higher amount of LA-containing foods and decreased activity levels. (1) Examples of common LA-containing foods include:
- Convenience, fast and fried foods
- Red meat
- Sesame, sunflower, corn, soybean and safflower oils (2)(7)
Although some of these examples are often considered tasty time-savers, the excess amount of LA they contribute to your diet may contribute to chronic inflammation. (1)
Vegetarians, vegans, and omnivores receive similar amounts of ALA when maintaining a balanced diet, regardless of source. (7) As a result of the poor conversion of ALA, vegetarians and vegans are at an increased risk for low levels of EPA and even lower levels of DHA. (3) Lacto-ovo vegetarians are able to consume small amounts of DHA and adequate amounts of EPA through enriched sources of eggs and dairy, while vegans, who consume no animal-based products, receive minimal DHA from food sources alone. (2)
The good news is that there are several easy tips and tricks that you can incorporate into your lifestyle to increase your intake of ALA.
How to get omega-3 as a vegan or vegetarian
You can find omega-3 in land-based plants containing ALA or sea-based plants that contain EPA and DHA, but the latter must be consumed as extracts in supplemental format. (7) Examples of ALA-containing whole foods include flaxseeds and walnuts. (2) When ALA is consumed, it’s converted by enzymes in our bodies into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Our bodies don’t produce omega-3s on their own, so it’s important to incorporate them through diet and, when necessary, through supplementation. (7)
Health benefits of vegan omega-3 ALA
As a result of its conversion to EPA and DHA in your body, ALA offers many of the same benefits. (7) Some of the most frequently discussed health benefits of ALA are summarized below.
Increasing your daily intake of ALA will result in overall improved levels of EPA and DHA, both of which may help to prevent and reduce inflammation. (6)(7) As previously mentioned, it’s common for individuals following Western diets to consume higher levels of omega-6 fatty acids, which can increase the levels of proinflammatory markers in the body. Adding ALA to your daily diet through dietary sources or supplementation can help reduce this response and prevent many chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease (IBS), and certain cancers. (1)(6)
Improving cardiovascular health
Adding ALA to your diet can also help to support cardiovascular health by decreasing inflammation, a precursor to many cardiovascular conditions, including atherosclerosis, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and stroke. (1) The addition of ALA to your diet can also help lower triglyceride levels, offering similar cardiovascular benefits as a marine sourced omega-3 fatty acids. (3)
Supporting brain development during pregnancy
ALA is important for pregnant or breastfeeding women, particularly those following a plant-based diet. ALA is converted to DHA, which helps to reduce the risk of neurological and behavioral problems in children, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, and schizophrenia. (2) DHA is also essential for cognitive, eye, immune, and fetal development. (3)
Three evidence-based tips to increase omega-3s when following a plant-based diet
1. Increase your intake of plant foods high in ALA
1.6 g of ALA per day for women and 2.6 g per day for men can help to increase ALA levels. (7) Include plant foods rich in ALA, such as:
- Flax, hemp, and chia seeds
- Leafy greens
- Soybeans and tofu
- Unheated flax, hemp, and chia oil
- Walnuts (5)
2. Correct the ratio of LA to ALA
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggests that the ideal ratio of LA to ALA to achieve adequate intake (AI) for those consuming a plant-based diet is between 2:1 to 3:1. (2) This suggested ratio takes into consideration the conversion process of ALA to EPA and DHA, however, the ratio may differ depending on your diet and lifestyle. (2)
You can ensure that you’re getting the correct ratio by limiting the amounts of trans fats and saturated fats that you consume. This can be achieved by limiting your intake of processed and convenience foods, and avoiding cooking with safflower, grapeseed, sunflower, corn, and soybean oils. (2)
When consuming foods containing LA, look for whole food sources, as these sources contain additional beneficial nutrients as well as fats. (2) Make sure you are eating healthy sources of omega-6 fatty acids, such as:
- Sunflower, pumpkin, and sesame seeds
- Wheat germ (7)
3. Maintain a balanced and healthy lifestyle
Avoid smoking and limit your intake of caffeine and alcohol, as these factors can impact your body’s conversion of ALA. (2) A lack of certain key nutrients in your diet can also inhibit the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA. Make sure that you’re incorporating whole foods rich in the following nutrients:
- B vitamins, such as B3, B6, and B12
- Vitamin C
- Zinc (7)
Vegan omega-3 supplements
Following the steps above can help to correct an ALA to LA imbalance, resulting in a higher EPA production. However, getting enough DHA from ALA is still a concern for those following a plant-based diet, especially for at-risk populations, such as pregnant and lactating women, elderly populations, and diabetic individuals. (7)
Certain varieties of microalgae naturally produce DHA and EPA. (6) Algae oil is not readily available from food sources, however, small doses of algae oil from supplements can help you to increase your omega-3 levels by providing a direct source of EPA and DHA (no conversion necessary!). Doses as low as 0.94 g per day (1 ml or roughly a quarter teaspoon) have demonstrated a positive impact on DHA levels. (5) If you require additional support, particularly if you are pregnant, elderly, or suffering from diabetes, you may benefit from using an algae supplement. (7)
Another benefit of algae oil is that it can be more sustainable to grow compared to fish oil. (6) Farming algae may have less of an environmental impact as it’s easier to grow the physically smaller algae at a larger scale, than it is to grow fish. (6) There are also certain varieties of fish that are experiencing a reduction in variety and number, which may be a result of fish farming. (6) Although further research is needed, this is something to keep in mind for vegetarians, vegans, and omnivores who are looking to reduce their environmental footprint!
Before taking any new supplements, we recommend speaking to your integrative healthcare practitioner to find out if you would benefit from an omega-3 supplement.
Other noteworthy information
There’s no denying that vegetarians and vegans typically consume less omega-3s from their diet compared to omnivores. However, there is no available research to demonstrate that lower levels of EPA and DHA in a plant-based diet puts you at risk for deficiency. (7) Risk of cardiovascular disease is already decreased if you are a vegetarian or vegan, and available research to date does not show that EPA and DHA consumption further reduces the risk. (4)
However, considering the plethora of benefits that incorporating omega-3s can have on your health, it’s worth considering consuming more ALA omega-3 plant-based foods if you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet.
The bottom line
If you follow a plant-based diet, chances are your intake of omega-3 EPA and DHA is lower compared to those who consume animal-based sources of these nutrients. (5) EPA and DHA can be incorporated into your diet by consuming whole foods containing ALA, supplementing with microalgae oil, and ensuring that you’re eating a balanced ratio of omega-6s and omega-3s. As always, it’s best to consult with your integrative healthcare provider for more guidance on any dietary needs, supplement dosages, and changes you decide to make, especially if you’re part of an at-risk population.
- Blondeau, N., Lipsky, R. H., Bourourou, M., Duncan, M. W., Gorelick, P. B., & Marini, A. M. (2015). Alpha-Linolenic Acid: An Omega-3 Fatty Acid with Neuroprotective Properties—Ready for Use in the Stroke Clinic? BioMed Research International, 2015, 1–8. doi: 10.1155/2015/519830
- Davis, B. C., & Kris-Etherton, P. M. (2003). Achieving optimal essential fatty acid status in vegetarians: current knowledge and practical implications. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 78(3), 640–646. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/78.3.640s
- Doughman, S. D., Krupanidhi, S., & Sanjeevi, C. B. (2007). Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Nutrition and Medicine: Considering Microalgae Oil as a Vegetarian Source of EPA and DHA. Current Diabetes Reviews, 3(3), 198–203. doi: 10.2174/157339907781368968
- Harris, W. S. (2014). Achieving optimal n–3 fatty acid status: the vegetarian’s challenge… or not. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 100(suppl_1), 449–452. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.071324
- Lane, K., Derbyshire, E., Li, W., & Brennan, C. (2013). Bioavailability and Potential Uses of Vegetarian Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids: A Review of the Literature. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 54(5), 572–579. doi: 10.1080/10408398.2011.596292
- Lenihan-Geels, G., Bishop, K., & Ferguson, L. (2013). Alternative Sources of Omega-3 Fats: Can We Find a Sustainable Substitute for Fish? Nutrients, 5(4), 1301–1315. doi: 10.3390/nu5041301
- Saunders, A. V., Davis, B. C., & Garg, M. L. (2013). Omega‐3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and vegetarian diets. Medical Journal of Australia, 199(S4), 22–26. doi: 10.5694/mja11.11507