Article by Erin Janus| Many people are concerned about getting sufficient omega-3 fatty acids, especially on a vegetarian or vegan diet. However, most people do not understand or know much at all about the essential omega-3’s or know of the plant-based sources of them. People are constantly bombarded with the notion of fish and fish oil as as the only reliable way to get essential omega-3s. However, this is misleading as you do not need to consume anything that comes from a creature in order to meet all your omega-3 requirements. Here is the difference between the essential omega-3 fatty acids, and how to get them on a vegan diet:
ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) is an essential fatty acid that with adequate intake can have a very positive effect on cardiovascular health, neuro-protection, anti-inflammation and the immune system. ALA is found in an abundance of plant foods and is the least common deficiency among omega-3s.
DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is an essential building block of tissue in the brain and retina of the eye. It helps with brain function including the formation of important neural transmitters such as phosphatidylserine, and plays a very important role during fetal development, early infancy and old age. It is more common to be deficient in DHA as it is not as abundant in common foods as ALA.
EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) is converted into hormone-like substances called prostaglandins, which regulate cell activity and healthy cardiovascular function. Together, DHA and EPA act as a source of energy, insulate the body against heat loss, prevent skin from drying and flaking, and cushion tissues and organs. In some cases, the body can convert plant-based ALA into DHA and EPA, but this is very limited. Therefore consuming sources of all three of the essential omega-3s is best.
Vegan Sources of ALA:
Flaxseeds are the most concentrated source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), as well as the most balanced ratio of omega 6-3, being 1:4. One teaspoon of flaxseed oil contains 2.5 g of ALA. One tablespoon of ground flaxseeds contains 1.6 g of ALA. If flaxseeds are not ground, they will not be digested. This can be done using a coffee grinder, but it’s also fairly easy (and affordable) to find ground or ‘milled’ flaxseeds, which can be added to smoothies, baked goods, and more.
Chia seeds are a good source of ALA, and like flax seeds, are best absorbed when they are ground or ‘milled’. There are also great recipes that can be found online for vegan chia seed puddings, chia seed smoothies, and there are even chia-seed drinks available at many natural food markets!
Hemp seeds are another good source of ALA, with two tablespoons containing approximately 880 milligrams of ALA. Hemp seed oil works too! A unique characteristic of hemp seeds is that they contain all essential amino acids, making them a complete protein— which is great for overall health! Hemp seeds are most absorbable when they are ‘shelled’, also known as ‘hemp hearts’. They can be sprinkled on salads, baked goods, or added to smoothies. A blend of ground or ‘milled’ flax, chia and hemp is ideal for ALA intake, and can be purchased at most health food stores or natural food markets.
- Camelina oil (with omega 6-3 ratio of about 1:1.4, one study found camelina oil fares better increasing EPA and DHA levels than olive and canola oil)
- Leafy green vegetables including romaine, arugula and spinach
- Root vegetables including potatoes, yams, beets
- English walnuts (2.6 grams of ALA per ounce)
- Winter squash (664mg of ALA per cup)
- Soybeans (1.0g of ALA per cup)
- Tofu (0.4g of ALA per 100g)
Vegan Sources of DHA & EPA:
The reason fish and fish oil are good sources of omega-3s is because of what fish eat: sea vegetables, plankton, algae and cyanobacteria! And vegans can get their omega-3s the same way fish do! Aphanizomenon flos-aquae or ‘AFA’ for short, is a freshwater species of cyanobacteria (also known as blue-green aglae) which is a great source of DHA and EPA, as well as 65 vitamins, minerals and amino acids which can be purchased through E3Live here. It can be added to smoothies or taken like a wheatgrass shot!
Algal oil is derived from algae or cyanobacteria and can be a great source of DHA and EPA. This nutrition study showed that algal oil and salmon are nutritionally equivalent sources of DHA! Algal oil from the genus Schizochytrium for example, contain significant levels of DHA as well as EPA, which is why it is used in many omega-3 supplements.
Algal oil can also be used in food without any strange or unpleasant taste! In fact, algal oil is used in Gardein’s vegan fishless filets as a source of EPA and DHA! How awesome is that? Now vegan fish alternatives can contain all the omega-3s that real fish contains!
Seaweed including wakame, kombu, dulse and nori contain both DHA and EPA. A typical 1-2 tablespoon serving of wakame contains roughly 3.75–7.5 kcal and provides 15–30 mg of omega-3 fatty acids. Wakame also has high levels of calcium, iodine, thiamine and niacin. This is one of the ways fish get their EPA and DHA, from sea veggies!
Purslane is an edible weed commonly used in Mediterranean, Asian and European dishes. It is high in the precious omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA! While there are dozens of other wild, edible weeds that are good sources of DHA and EPA which many wild foragers can tell you all about, purslane is the most commonly sourced and consumed one in the Western and Eastern world. Check out this video on how to identify wild purslane!
Vegan DHA/EPA supplement
On top of all the edible food sources of vegan omega fatty acids, you can also always purchase liquid vegan DHA and EPA (instead of fish oil) to cover your bases. Just realize that for every 1-kilo of pure fish oil produced, it takes 500 kilos of fish bodies!1 Thankfully, there are many vegan DHA+EPA supplements to choose from which can be purchased online or in health food stores. Experts like vegan Dr. Joel Furhman sell a great liquid vegan DHA+EPA. A quick google search for ‘vegan DHA/EPA supplements’ will produce many results.
For those who prefer soft-gels over liquid and are looking for a quality DHA supplement, NothingFishy sells fully vegan DHA softgels from algal oil which you can purchase here. Providing 200mg of DHA per softgel, and packaged in recycled re-usable glass jars, WHO said you need fish oil?
Why not just eat real fish and fish oil?
Ethically, consuming fish is not the same as consuming plant-based foods and omega-3 sources. While it is popular belief that fish don’t feel pain, many scientists have confirmed that fish feel pain like mammals, and new research suggests their nervous system to be much more complex than we thought.
Joseph Garner of Purdue University and his colleagues in Norway for example, reported that the way goldfish respond to pain demonstrated beyond a doubt that fish do experience pain consciously, rather than simply reacting with a reflex. Furthermore, in 2003, scientists from Edinburgh claimed to have witnessed conclusive evidence of pain perception in fish, including receptors in the heads of rainbow trout which responded to electric and chemical shocks. And upon injecting bee venom into the lips of fish, the fish demonstrated a rocking motion—similar to pain responses seen in mammals. Dr. Lynne Sneddon Ph.D, from the Institute of Integrative Biology confirmed that the behavior witnessed within the study ‘fulfills the criteria for animal pain.’
Furthermore, fish are intelligent and social— as confirmed by Associate Professor Culum Brown of Macquarie University, “fish have very good memories, live in complex social communities where they keep track of individuals and can learn from one another. They can recognize themselves and others.”
The environmental impact of fishing
The environmental affects of fishing for wide-scale human consumption (as well as omega-3 supplement production) are devastating. Every year, as many as 2.7 trillion sea animals are pulled from the ocean. The research article “Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services” published in the journal Science, concluded that ‘marine biodiversity loss is increasingly impairing the ocean’s capacity to provide food, maintain water quality, and recover from perturbations.’
According to the United Nations Food And Agriculture Organization (FAO) and UN News Center, 3/4 of the world’s fisheries are over-exploited or depleted. Another daunting fact affirmed by the FAO is that for every 1 pound of fish caught, up to 5 pounds of unintended marine species are caught and discarded as by-kill. Scientists estimate as many as 650,000 whales, dolphins and seals are killed every single year by fishing vessels.
Rancidity in fish oil, toxicity of fish
While all cold-pressed and delicate oils have the risk of rancidity if they are not stored properly or refrigerated after opening, fish oil is very much prone to rancidity even under ‘proper’ preserving conditions.
Shockingly, a recent major study from Norway looked at 113 different over-the-counter fish oil capsules and found that 95% of them were rancid.
On a personal report: when I worked at a natural food market, it was common knowledge among a co-worker/supplements specialist that most people consume rancid fish oil without even knowing it! The ‘turpentine’ smell that refrigerated fish oil often has, as well as frequent burping that consumers experience after just a small spoon of fish oil are both tell-tale signs of oil rancidity. Don’t believe me? Just look it up— rancidity and spoilage of fish oil is the #1 complaint among fish oil consumers.
Furthermore, consuming fish has never been more hazardous to human health, as well as nervous system and neurological functions. Mercury levels are the most recognized concern of fish consumption, however, fish are often contaminated with high levels of dioxins, pesticides, furans, PCBs and other environmental contaminants due to the intense pollution of our lakes and oceans.
In fact, according to a report by The Environmental Working Group (EWG) of an analysis of fish contaminants and nutrient data, people who follow the federal government’s guidelines on seafood consumption are likely to consume too much mercury, and too few omega-3 fatty acids!
The omega-3 conclusion
The truth is that the plant kingdom is abundant with sources of ALA, EPA and DHA, we’ve just only cultivated and created a market for a very small variety of what is out there. Some of the best sources of omega-3 are found in wild berries, many wild edible weeds, and of course many other sea vegetables that are seldom cultivated and sold on the market. Luckily there is enough plant-based sources of omega-3 available in health food stores and online for the average vegan to get all the omega-3s they need. And the more vegan choices people make, the more encouraged companies will be to begin cultivating more plant-based sources of omega-3 rather than animal-based sources.
I hope this article helped you understand more about omega fatty acids, and the consequences of consuming fish. A little research and effort can go a long way. You can get all the essential omegas-3s that you need on a vegan diet! Ethically, environmentally, and sometimes even for your own health— it is far better to consume vegan alternatives to fish and fish oil. So whether you’re vegetarian, vegan or omnivorous, incorporating and choosing the awesome plant-based sources of omega-3s is worth doing.
My name is Erin Janus. I’m a passionate vegan, journalist, video producer and aspiring musician. Thanks for reading this article and please feel free to share it on social media, with family and friends. You can connect with me on facebook, twitter, instagram and join my mailing list here.
Original article copyright Erin Janus. Sources hyper-linked within article.