Vegan Omega-3 Sources: DHA, EPA & ALA Fats

Where do vegans get omega-3 fatty acids like ALA, EPA, and DHA? What about omega-6 and omega-9? Fats are an important part of a healthy vegan diet, but many vegans get too much of certain types and not enough of others.

Fat has gotten a bad rap but the truth is your body needs fat from your diet to be healthy and function properly.

Not all fats are created equal. Good fats and bad fats can have a positive or negative effect on health by respectively reducing or increasing your risk of certain diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers.(1)

Good fats like omega-3s, omega-6s, and omega-9s are important for a variety of important tasks such as improving heart health; promoting bone health; and improving and maintaining your brain health, cognitive abilities, and moods.(1)

We’re going to find out all about fats: what they are, why you need them, and where you can find them as a vegan.

Types of Fatty Acids

Fats are a type of lipid. Lipids, along with protein and carbs, are macronutrients which are necessary for a healthy life.

There are four types of fatty acids: trans fats, saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats.

Trans Fats

Trans fats are considered “bad” fats because they increase the risk of disease — notably, heart disease — and should be avoided wherever possible.

Foods high in trans fats are usually made with partially hydrogenated oils and include foods such as margarine, shortening, commercial frying fats, and processed foods such as crackers, cookies, and other snacks.

Saturated Fats

While not as bad for you as trans fats, saturated fats should still be avoided because of their link to heart disease when eaten in large quantities.

Saturated fats are found in high amounts in animal products but are also present in plant foods like coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils.

Monounsaturated Fats

Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs), also known as omega-9 fats or oleic acid, are “good” fats which are considered non-essential since they can be produced by the body.

Diets that replace some saturated fats with omega-9 fats may have benefits for metabolic health and can improve cholesterol levels.

High quantities of MUFAs can be found in plant oils such as olive oil, canola oil, hazelnut oil, almond oil, high oleic sunflower oil, and high oleic safflower oil. Other good sources of MUFAs are avocados and many types of nuts including almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamias, peanuts, and pecans.

Polyunsaturated Fats

Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) are considered “good” fats because they help your body perform a variety of important functions.

The three types of PUFAs are omega-3s, omega-6s, and omega-9s. These PUFAs can be further divided into short chain and long chain, each with their own benefits and uses.

Your body can make omega-9s on its own, so the only PUFAs that are considered essential are omega-3s and omega-6s, meaning you have to get them from your diet. All other fats are considered non-essential.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fats are essential fats which have to come from your diet since your body can’t make them on its own.

They have important benefits for your heart, brain and metabolism.

There are three important types of omega-3 fatty acids:

Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA)

  • Short chain
  • High amounts found in certain plant products
  • Can be converted into EPA and from EPA into smaller amounts of DHA

Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)

  • Long chain
  • Found mainly in fatty fish and seaweed
  • Can be converted from ALA
  • Can be converted into DHA
  • Important for reducing blood clots, inflammation, blood pressure, and cholesterol

Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)

  • Long chain
  • Found mainly in fatty fish and seaweed
  • Can be converted to and from EPA
  • Important as a major component of the gray matter of the brain, the retina, testis, sperm, and cell membranes

EPA and DHA are synthesized by micro algae, which are consumed by phytoplankton, which are then consumed by fish. This is why fish, fish oils, and krill oils are high in omega-3s.(1)

The body can efficiently convert ALA to EPA, but it may require large amounts of ALA to synthesize optimal amounts of DHA(1), with limited conversion rates of up to only 8% in men and 21% in women.(2, 3)

Top vegan sources of ALA omega-3 fatty acids are:

  • Flax seed oil
  • Ground flax seeds
  • Chia seed oil
  • Chia seeds
  • Camelina oil
  • Hemp seed oil
  • Ground hemp seeds

Top vegan sources of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids are:

  • Supplements made from seaweed or algae

Omega-6 Fatty Acids

Omega-6 fatty acids are essential fats which have to come from your diet since your body can’t make them on its own.

Though omega-6s are an important source of energy, the Western diet contains too many of them.

There are four types of omega-6 fatty acids:

Linoleic Acid (LA)

  • Short chain
  • Easy for vegans to get enough of because it’s the most prevalent omega-6 fatty acid found in plant foods.
  • High amounts found in vegetable oils such as corn, sunflower, soy, safflower, and sesame oils

Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA)

  • Short chain
  • Found in evening primrose oil, borage oil, black current oil, and human breast milk
  • Can be converted into DGLA

Dihomo Gamma Linolenic Acid (DGLA)

  • Long chain
  • Converted from GLA

Arachidonic Acid (AA): 

  • Long chain
  • Found in meat
  • Can be converted from DGLA

Daily Recommendations

Nutritional recommendations for omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients are developed by the National Academy of Medicine (formerly the Institute of Medicine) to plan and assess the nutrient intakes of healthy people.

Adequate Intakes (AI) for Omega-3 Fatty Acids:

0–12 months*0.5 g0.5 g
1–3 years0.7 g0.7 g
4–8 years0.9 g0.9 g
9–13 years1.2 g1.0 g
14+ years1.6 g1.1 g1.4 g1.3 g
*As total omega-3s. All other values are for ALA alone.

Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA): average daily intake of a nutrient that’s sufficient to meet the nutrient requirements of nearly all (97%–98%) healthy people.
Adequate Intake (AI): approximate intake assumed to be nutritionally adequate based on limited research, though still not enough evidence to develop an RDA.
Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL): maximum daily intake that’s unlikely to cause adverse health effects.

Jack Norris, RD, of Vegan Health, recommends 300 mg of omega-3 DHA per day for the average vegan to match the same DHA levels as the average non-vegan. This can be accomplished by either consuming much more ALA or by taking a DHA supplement.(4)

The World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization recommend keeping your omega-6 LA intakes between 2.5% of total calories (prevents deficiency) and 9% of total calories (reduces risk for heart disease).(5)

Omega-6 to Omega-3 Ratio

The main way vegans get omega-3s in their diet is by converting the ALA which is common in many types of plant foods into EPA and then DHA, both of which are typically not found in significant quantities in plant foods.

A diet too high in omega-6 fats compared to omega-3 fats can interfere with this conversion process, leading to competition between omega-3s and omega-6s and resulting in fewer long-chain omega-3s (EPA and DHA) being converted from ALA.(4)

An ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in the diet is thought to be about 3:1 or 4:1, however, the Western diet has a ratio of about 6:1 to 10:1 for meat-eaters, and 10:1 to 15:1 for vegans.

Vegans have a higher omega-6 to omega-3 ratio than meat-eaters because of the abundance of omega-6s found in plant products and the relatively small amount of omega-3s typically incorporated into unmonitored vegan diets.(4)

Traditionally, vegans have been advised to raise omega-3 EPA and DHA levels by increasing omega-3 ALA intake and decreasing omega-6 LA intakes, but because omega-6s are an important source of both calories and nutrients for vegans, it’s better to focus on raising omega-3s rather than reducing omega-6s.(4)

Vegans & Omega-3 Supplements

Because omega-9 fats are made within the body and most vegans already consume too many omega-6 fats, supplementing these fats isn’t considered necessary.

In contrast, although omega-3 ALA is easily converted into EPA, EPA is not easily converted into high amounts of DHA. To increase your DHA levels you can either increase your ALA intake or add a DHA supplement, though because of the low ALA to DHA conversion rate, a DHA supplement is often the best choice for vegans.

Choosing the Right Supplements as a Vegan

Most omega-3 supplements are made with fish oil or krill oil, which aren’t vegan.

Because vegans get plenty of ALA and relatively low amounts of DHA, be sure to check labels and look for DHA supplements made from seaweed or algae as opposed to ALA supplements made from flaxseed oil. Some DHA supplements also contain EPA, which is beneficial as well.

The quality of PUMAs (such as omega-3 fatty acids) is easily deteriorated by oxidation caused by exposure to light and heat, which means that the best vegan DHA supplements are cold pressed and contain an antioxidant like vitamin E as a natural preservative.

Omega-3s like DHA are fats, so they’re better absorbed with meals. It’s best to spread-out your doses throughout the day to avoid any potentially unpleasant gastrointestinal side effects.

Disclaimer: The contents of this website are for educational purposes and are not intended to offer personal medical advice. To make sure your diet is providing you with the correct amount of nutrients your body needs, be sure to consult a nutrition specialist (ie: registered dietitian) with expertise in vegan diets.