Omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients that the body cannot produce on its own. Therefore, the healthy fats must be obtained through diet. The table above shows omega-3 foods containing the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid, which is also found in a variety of plant-based foods.
There are various omega-3 fatty acids. The most well-known ones are:
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
Omega-3 fatty acids are extremely important for good health. They have anti-inflammatory properties, which can strengthen the immune system and reduce chronic inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation is associated with a variety of health problems, including heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and certain types of cancer. Omega-3 fatty acids can also improve skin health by increasing skin moisture, reducing inflammation, and alleviating skin conditions such as acne, eczema, and psoriasis.
In particular, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) contribute to maintaining a healthy heart function. DHA is an important component of the eye's retina and plays a crucial role in vision and eye health. It is also an essential component of brain cells.
Conversion Of ALA To EPA And DHA
In healthy individuals, alpha-linolenic acid can be converted into the more active forms EPA and DHA in the body. However, the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA is limited and not very efficient in the human body. The conversion of ALA to EPA occurs to a limited extent of about 5 to 10%, while the conversion of ALA to DHA is even lower. Therefore, the body can only convert a very small portion of the consumed ALA into the more active forms.
Who Should Pay Attention To Omega-3 Intake?
Since omega-3 fatty acids are mainly found in fatty fish, vegans and vegetarians have an increased risk of omega-3 deficiency. Careful planning and selection of omega-3-rich plant-based foods can help meet the omega-3 requirements. If necessary, the use of supplements should be considered.
The omega-3 requirements may vary depending on individual circumstances and health conditions. The following population groups tend to have a higher omega-3 requirement:
- During pregnancy and breastfeeding, the need for omega-3 is increased as the fatty acids are required for the baby's brain and eye development.
- Intense physical activities can lead to an increased inflammatory response in the body. Since omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory effects, they can support recovery and regeneration after training. Therefore, athletes should also look for omega-3-rich foods.
- People with inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, heart diseases, or neurodegenerative diseases may have an increased need.
- Chronic stress can increase the requirement as stress can amplify inflammatory processes in the body. Omega-3 fatty acids can mitigate the effects of stress on the body and improve overall well-being.
- Older adults should ensure an adequate intake of omega-3-rich foods to support cognitive functions, heart health, and joint health. Additionally, with age, the body's ability to efficiently utilize omega-3 fatty acids may decrease.
- Individuals suffering from inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis may have difficulty efficiently absorbing and utilizing omega-3 fatty acids due to the inflammatory reaction in the gut.
- Alcohol consumption can impair the absorption and utilization of omega-3 fatty acids. The function of enzymes responsible for converting omega-3 fatty acids into their active forms can be negatively affected.
- People with metabolic disorders such as a deficiency in delta-6-desaturase may have difficulty efficiently converting plant-based omega-3 fatty acids into the more active forms (EPA and DHA).
The omega-3 requirement for alpha-linolenic acid can be met with a vegan diet. However, it can be challenging to consume sufficient amounts if the right foods have not been selected. The following list can help you:
- Flaxseed oil is an excellent source of omega-3. It contains a high amount of ALA. Use flaxseed oil as a dressing for salads, drizzle it over vegetable dishes, or add it to smoothies to increase the omega-3 content of meals. In addition to flaxseed oil, there are other plant-based omega-3 oils such as hemp oil, walnut oil, and rapeseed oil, which contain moderate amounts of ALA. Ideally, use high-quality cold-pressed oils.
- Nuts and seeds are rich in healthy fats and omega-3 fatty acids. Chia seeds are particularly remarkable as they are one of the best plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Flaxseeds, hemp seeds, and pumpkin seeds are also very good sources of omega-3. They can be versatilely integrated into the diet, for example, as ingredients for smoothies, yogurt, cereals, or salads. Among nuts, walnuts are at the forefront as they are especially rich in omega-3. According to the table, other omega-3-rich nuts include almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, and pistachios. Use this table to get an overview of the omega-3 content of nuts and seeds.
- Seaweed is the only plant-based source that naturally contains EPA and DHA. It can be found in various forms such as dried leaves, seaweed chips, seaweed flakes, powders, and oils in the market. They are also considered iodine-rich foods. There is also the option to take EPA and DHA-rich algae oil supplements to meet the need for these two fatty acids.
- In general, vegetables are not particularly rich in omega-3 fatty acids. However, green leafy vegetables like spinach, kale, and arugula contain small amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. Although the content is not as high as in the previously mentioned sources, regular consumption can contribute to the supply. You can find the omega-3 vegetables table here.
- Legumes are not only an important source of protein. Soybeans and related products such as tofu or tempeh are rich in omega-3. Kidney beans and green beans are other legumes that contain omega 3, albeit in smaller amounts.
- Fruits, like vegetables, are not a good source of omega-3. Small amounts can be found in avocados, olives, jackfruits, and raspberries. This table reveals the amounts of omega 3 in fruits.
- Some food manufacturers offer plant-based products enriched with omega 3. These can include plant-based drinks or vegan margarine, for example.
Ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6
Pay attention to a good balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Both fatty acids work together in the body. However, an excess of omega-6 can have pro-inflammatory effects. Omega-6 fatty acids are present in many plant-based foods. Particularly, vegans should be mindful of moderating their omega-6 intake and favoring omega-3-rich foods to achieve a balanced ratio.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids Are Heat-sensitive
Omega-3 fatty acids, like omega-6 fatty acids, belong to the polyunsaturated fatty acids, which can oxidize and alter their structure under intense light exposure and high temperatures, leading to negative health effects. Eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid are particularly sensitive to heat, light, and oxygen. If omega-3-rich foods and oils are exposed to high temperatures for an extended period, this can result in a reduction or destruction of their omega-3 content. For example, flaxseed oil and walnut oil have low smoke points and are easily oxidized at higher temperatures. Therefore, they should not be used for frying or deep-frying.
Try not to heat omega-3-rich foods excessively. Add them to your dishes after cooking or baking, if possible, to preserve their nutrients. Use gentle cooking methods at lower temperatures.
The following list shows you how to incorporate plant-based omega-3 foods into your vegan diet:
- Flaxseed Chia Pudding: Mix ground flaxseeds and chia seeds with plant-based milk and let it thicken in the refrigerator. Serve it with fruits and nuts.
- Avocado Walnut Salad: Combine fresh avocado with walnuts, mixed greens, and a lemon dressing.
- Vegan Lentil Walnut Burger: Blend cooked lentils with chopped walnuts, onions, and spices into patties that you can fry or bake. Serve them on a whole grain bun with lettuce and tomato.
- Hemp Seed Energy Bars: Mix hemp seeds with dates, nuts, and cocoa into a delicious and healthy snack.
- Chia Seed Smoothie: Blend chia seeds with plant-based milk, frozen berries, and a banana into a nutrient-rich smoothie.
- Quinoa with Flaxseed and Vegetables: Cook quinoa and add ground flaxseeds and steamed vegetables of your choice.
- Vegan Omega-3 Salad: Combine spinach, arugula, chopped walnuts, flaxseeds, and avocado with a balsamic dressing.
- Whole Grain Oatmeal with Flaxseed and Berries: Prepare your oatmeal with plant-based milk and top it with ground flaxseeds and fresh berries.
- Chickpea Turmeric Curry: Cook chickpeas with turmeric, coconut milk, tomatoes, and spices, and serve it with rice or quinoa.
- Vegan Flaxseed Quark: Mix ground flaxseeds with plant-based quark. Add some flaxseed oil and a bit of lemon juice.
- Sautéed Vegetables with Hemp Seed Pesto: Sauté a selection of vegetables and serve them with a pesto made from hemp seeds, basil, garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice.
- Vegan Omega-3 Smoothie Bowl: Blend frozen berries, spinach, plant-based milk, chia seeds, and hemp seeds into a creamy smoothie bowl. Garnish it with fresh fruit and nuts.