Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids and have numerous health benefits. They are particularly helpful in preventing cardiovascular diseases and contribute to brain health. For good health, Harvard University recommends consuming at least one source of omega-3-rich food every day through your diet 1.
The three most important omega-3 fatty acids are:
- alpha-linolenic acid
- Eicosapentaenoic acid
- Docosahexaenoic acid
The essential alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) needs to be obtained through diet. Our body can convert ALA into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) on its own. Alpha-linolenic acid is of utmost importance for vegans as the other two fatty acids are scarce in plant-based foods.
What should vegans consider?
It is important for vegans to pay attention to a favorable ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids when selecting their foods. It should not be worse than 1:4 per day. However, the ratio often turns out to be even worse as plant-based foods mostly contain more omega-6 than omega-3. An unfavorable ratio can have detrimental health effects. Additionally, omega-6 competes with omega-3 for absorption in the body and hampers the conversion of alpha-linolenic acid into docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid 2. Therefore, it is advisable to focus on an omega-3-rich diet while simultaneously reducing omega-6 intake.
The foods mentioned on this page have a favorable fatty acid ratio. Omega-3 rich foods with significantly higher omega-6 content are explicitly identified.
Omega-3-rich foods are susceptible to damage
Omega-3-rich foods are susceptible to damage from free radicals, which can be caused by light, heat, and oxygen. Alpha-linolenic acid is particularly sensitive to destruction by light, oxygen, and heat 3. This greatly reduces their shelf life and some of the fatty acids can become toxic. Therefore, omega-3 rich foods should be stored in a cool, minimally heated, and dark environment.
Omega-3 in Nuts and Seeds
Seeds and nuts are extremely rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Flaxseeds and chia seeds are by far the best sources, especially in terms of the omega-6 ratio. Flaxseeds contain 22.8 g and chia seeds contain 17.8 g of alpha-linolenic acid per 100 g. They should not be missing from any vegan diet! It is recommended to purchase ground flaxseeds to enhance the body's access to nutrients during digestion 4. To improve nutrient absorption in the body, you can also grind the seeds in a coffee grinder. In addition, chia seeds have been shown to increase plasma levels of alpha-linolenic acid by 138% and eicosapentaenoic acid by 30% 5.
Hemp seeds (8.7g) are also excellent sources of Omega-3. They go well with muesli or salads, just like flax and chia seeds.
Walnuts (6.3g) also contain high amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids. They are still within the acceptable range for a good Omega-3/Omega-6 ratio.
Algae as a Source of Omega-3 - Eicosapentaenoic Acid
Algae such as spirulina and wakame are rich in Omega-3. Algae and seaweed contain small amounts of eicosapentaenoic acid 6.
Good sources of docosahexaenoic acid are microalgae and microalgae oil 7. However, supplements from microalgae are commonly available in the market, but not the oil itself. The oil from the brown seaweed kelp is also a good source of eicosapentaenoic acid 8.
When consuming algae, the high iodine content should be considered, as it can quickly lead to iodine excess.
Omega-3 in Vegetables
Vegetables are generally low in omega-3. Nevertheless, especially chlorophyll-rich vegetables contain valuable omega-3 fatty acids. Thus, the healthy fatty acids 9 are primarily found in the chloroplasts. "Higher" amounts of approximately 0.1 to 0.2 g of alpha-linolenic acid can be found in kale, spinach, Brussels sprouts, and lettuce. Other good vegetable sources of omega-3 include cauliflower, radishes, turnips, green beans, collard greens, kohlrabi, zucchini, and broccoli.
Fruit with Omega-3
Fruits are quite low in omega-3. Recommended fruits in this group include: bananas, plums, cherries, strawberries, blueberries, currants, raspberries, oranges, lemons, pineapples, mangoes, guavas, honeydews, papayas, grapes, pumpkins, and rhubarb. Wild berries are also good sources of omega-3 10.
Omega-3 in Herbs and Spices
Fresh herbs and spices like parsley, basil, tarragon, oregano, chives, and marjoram also contain some omega-3. However, it is difficult to meet the daily requirement of omega-3 solely through these healthy herbs and spices. Broadleaf plantain, narrowleaf plantain, ground elder, and dandelion leaves, all of which grow wild, contain relatively high amounts of omega-3.
Omega-3 in Legumes
Legumes also contain some omega-3. The best sources here are mung beans, kidney beans, and white beans. Soybeans are less suitable as they have a higher proportion of omega-6.
Cereals are not suitable as omega-3 sources
Cereal products are not good sources of omega-3. They contain little omega-3 but high amounts of omega-6. Therefore, they should not be relied upon to meet the omega-3 requirements.
Omega-3 in processed foods
Here are the processed products corresponding to the omega-3-rich foods mentioned above, such as flaxseed oil (53 g), hemp oil (22 g), walnut oil (10.4 g), canola oil (9.1 g; suitable for frying), and in small amounts, mustard oil (5.9 g) is recommended. Another good source of omega-3 is cold-pressed linseed oil (53.4 g) 11. However, this oil is not widely available but can usually be found in health food stores, organic shops, or online. Here's the table with Omega-3 in fats and oils.
Sunflower and safflower oil, although they also contain omega-3, are absolutely not recommended. They contain excessive amounts of omega-6, of which vegans generally already consume enough.
In retail, Omega-3 bread and rolls, as well as vegan Omega-3 margarine (which may contain transfats), are often offered. Alternatively, when it comes to baked goods, there is also the option of making them yourself or supplementing ready-made baking mixes with ingredients such as flaxseeds, chia seeds, or hemp seeds.
Vegan sources of eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid are products made from microalgae and microalgae oil, which are usually sold in the form of dietary supplements 12. When purchasing products with eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, it is particularly important to ensure that they are of plant origin.