Just as there are many kinds of protein, there are likewise numerous forms of fat. Chemistry and nutrition graduate students can spend months studying the functions of these various protein and fat molecules. But simply gaining an understanding of how to meet your body’s needs for protein and fat is relatively straightforward. Just a little reading on these two topics can enable you to avoid some of the most common pitfalls associated with vegan nutrition.
We’ve saved the protein story for another page. The point of this article is to keep you from coming up short where your omega 3 fats are concerned. There are three omega 3 fats that are relevant to human nutrition: ALA (alpha-linolenic acid); DHA (docosahexaenoic acid); and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). We’ll examine here why these fats are so important, and conclude with some recommendations to ensure that your dietary needs for these fats are met. First let’s take a broader look at all dietary fat, so that we can understand omega 3 fats in their proper context.
Dietary fat comes in three forms: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. Researchers have not found that dietary saturated fat plays any crucial role in nutrition, so there is no minimum intake recommendation. Many health organizations, however, set a maximum intake recommendation for saturated fat, as too much saturated fat is strongly associated with cardiovascular disease. Monounsaturated fat (which is abundant in nuts, avocados, and olive oil) is likewise not essential in the diet, but there is some evidence that there are health benefits associated with its consumption in moderation.
In contrast to saturated and monounsaturated fats, two different polyunsaturated fats are essential nutrients. That is, if you don’t get sufficient amounts of these two fats, there is clear evidence that your nutritional status will be impaired. The first of these essential polyunsaturated fats is an omega-6 fat, and this is the easy one to get. In fact, it’s so abundant in plant-based foods that vegans never need to worry about getting enough (so long as they’re not following an extreme low-fat diet). The other essential polyunsaturated fat is the omega-3 fatty acid ALA mentioned earlier, which is inconveniently rare in the plant kingdom. While most fat-containing vegan foods contain some ALA, it’s usually present in tiny and grossly inadequate amounts.
There are some excellent vegan sources of ALA, though. Both chia and flax seeds are loaded with ALA, while hemp seeds, walnuts, walnut oil, and canola oil are decent sources too. Broccoli and many leafy greens likewise contain a high percentage of their fat as ALA, but very little total ALA since these foods contain only tiny amounts of fat in the first place.
Vegans can easily meet their ALA needs by consuming a little ground chia or ground flax seeds every day. These seeds are so rich in ALA that it’s possible to cover your entire day’s needs with just a tablespoon. With chia it’s desirable to grind the seeds for better absorption by the body, and with flax it’s imperative to do so—flax is essentially indigestible unless the seeds are ground up. It’s wise to grind right before eating, since ground seeds quickly go rancid without refrigeration. A mortar and pestle or a cheap spinning-blade coffee grinder will do the job in seconds. Just don’t use a burr-style coffee grinder, or any grinder that’s not based on a spinning blade, or you’ll ruin your machine!
Once you’ve ground your chia or flax, it can be consumed in a number of ways. Both chia and flax will vanish into a fruit smoothie, making it the easiest possible way to get your daily dose of ALA—but grind an extra teaspoon since some will inevitably stick to your glass and blender. If you like making oats or other hot cereals for breakfast, you can mix in your chia or flax just before serving. Or you could just take the lazy man’s approach and stir your ground seeds into a glass of soymilk. If you want to get a little fancier, chia lends itself to a delicious vegan pudding.
Walnuts have somewhat less ALA than flax or chia, but they’re still among the richest vegan sources of this fat. You’ll need to eat about six walnut halves to get the ALA found in a tablespoon of ground flax or chia. It’s probably best to eat raw rather than roasted walnuts, as the fats will be more intact if not exposed to heat. Hemp seeds have a lot less ALA than flax, chia, or walnuts, but they have a terrific nutty flavor and are a delicious salad topping. It’s hard to satisfy your ALA needs entirely through hemp seeds but they’re a welcome secondary source.
Finally, both canola oil and walnut oil are excellent sources of ALA. You can meet your needs with one tablespoon per day of either of these oils. Choose cold-pressed oils and store them in the refrigerator to keep them fresh. Then use this oil for salad dressings or to lightly sauté vegetables over low heat.
DHA and EPA
While the above-mentioned seeds, walnuts, and oils are rich sources of ALA, they don’t contain any DHA or EPA. Although neither DHA nor EPA are considered essential in the diet, they may be important for preventing chronic disease and they are crucial for brain health.
The reason that DHA and EPA aren’t considered essential nutrients is that the body can convert ALA into these two fatty acids—assuming it’s getting sufficient ALA in the first place. So it’s possible (but not yet certain) that some vegans can fully satisfy their body’s DHA and EPA needs solely by consuming sufficient amounts of ALA-rich vegan foods. The trouble is that people vary dramatically in their ability to convert ALA to DHA and EPA. So the only way to be sure your body is taking in sufficient amounts of these latter two nutrients is to supplement.
Most DHA/EPA supplements are made from fish oil. But it turns out that fish don’t actually produce DHA and EPA on their own. They get it from algae, either by eating it directly or by eating other marine life that have consumed algae. There are several vegan brands of DHA/EPA that are algae-derived (these brands typically come in vegan capsules, whereas fish-based brands usually come in gelatin capsules.)
Per milligram of DHA/EPA, algae-based supplements are far more expensive than fish-based supplements. But they’re also much lower on the food chain and therefore less prone to contamination. And of course, no fish are killed to create algae-based supplements and there’s less impact on the oceans too. The fish oil industry has decimated menhaden populations (the tiny species of fish most commonly caught and refined into fish oil.)
Are Omega 3 Deficiencies Possible?
Whether through flax, chia, walnuts, canola oil alone or through some combination of these foods, it’s easy to get plenty of ALAs. But unless you make a point of eating these foods daily, it’s likewise easy to fall far short of your optimal intake. It’s reasonable to suspect that a great many vegans are ingesting virtually no omega 3 fats on a daily basis.
What are the risks of inadequate ALA consumption? Although outright deficiency is rare, getting too little of this nutrient can impact skin health and immunity. Insufficient ALA intake may also reduce growth rates in children. So there’s really no uncertainty where ALA is concerned: if you want optimal health, then you must consume your daily tablespoon of ground chia or flax, or another ALA-rich food in sufficient quantity to provide a comparable dose.
What about DHA and EPA deficiency risks? Here, it’s still unclear whether supplements are absolutely necessary. That said, there is good reason to believe that it’s worthwhile to take them. By weight, the human brain is about 60 percent fat, and this fat contains a significant amount of omega 3 fatty acids in the form of DHA.
Whether you’re taking ALA alone (from flax or chia), or taking it along with an EPA/DHA supplement, you’ll likely derive some secondary benefits from consuming these nutrients. In particular, all of these omega-3 fats have anti-inflammatory properties that are potentially protective of heart and circulatory system health.
This article covered a lot of ground, but the take home points couldn’t be simpler. Since ALA can convert to DHA and EPA, but DHA and EPA supplements won’t revert back to ALA, everybody should be consuming a rich source of ALA every day.
To cover your needs, take at least a tablespoon of the either ground chia or ground flax daily (or another source containing an equivalent quantity of ALA). The benefits are potentially enormous and the cost is practically nothing. A tablespoon of chia or flax costs just pennies. In fact the glass of soy milk you might stir your chia into costs at least five times more than the seeds themselves.
You can buy chia or flax seeds at any natural foods store, but Amazon.com probably handily beats them on price.
You’re probably not throwing your money away by also taking a vegan DHA/EPA supplement. Since it’s possible that your body is doing a poor job of converting your dietary ALA to DHA and EPA, a supplement can go a long way towards ensuring your needs are covered. Right now we don’t have a detailed understanding of the optimal DHA and EPA dose from supplements, and this lack of understanding is aggravated by the fact that the ideal dose varies significantly from one person to the next. In the meantime, if you can afford it, taking at least a few hundred daily milligrams of EPA/DHA is prudent, and the payoffs may include improved brain function and reduced risk of depression, age-related neurodegenerative disease, and psychiatric disorders. A typical vegan supplement delivers about 200 mg DHA and 100 mg EPA per capsule. If you’re going to supplement, it makes sense to take at least that much, and perhaps double that amount if you can easily afford the cost.
The bad news here is that vegan DHA/EPA capsules are by far the most expensive supplement that vegans commonly take. While a day’s worth of B12 can cost less than a penny, and your day’s chia seeds only a few cents, two DHA/EPA capsules can set you back about 50 cents. It’s a drag that vegan DHA/EPA supplements aren’t cheap, and that there is still no conclusive proof that we need them. But it would be a bigger drag to go decades without taking the stuff and then find out that the protective effects against neurodegenerative decline were indeed compelling. Right now there is at least a reasonable possibility that this may turn out to be the case.
It’s a good time to be alive. Barely a hundred years ago dentistry mainly involved pliers. Twenty years ago only cutting-edge nutrition experts knew much about ALA, DHA, and EPA. We still only know a fraction of what we will ultimately learn about these fats, but there is already ample reason to make sure that you are not coming up short.
I am indebted to Ginny Messina for generously taking time to review this article. Any errors remain my own.