Whether it is the environment, animal rights or health, today more and more people are choosing a vegetarian or even vegan diet. While not eating animals or animal products is definitely an advantage for animals, and even a plus for reducing one’s CO2 footprint, is it healthy to eat a diet devoid of animal products? Well, that depends on what one eats instead. Eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds can give many health advantages. What about essential nutrients? Can they be found in this type of diet? In this article we will look at one of those, omega-3, and where it is found in a vegetarian diet.
Omega-3 is needed for normal growth and development. Fetus’s that don’t get enough omega-3 are at risk of developing vision and nerve problems. Additionally, omega-3 may reduce the risk of inflammation in the body and help lower the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer, and arthritis.1
Looking at the implications for thinking, omega-3 is needed for brain function. It is important for memory, performance and behavior.2 It has been found that healthy adults who increased their omega-3 intake experienced improvement in reaction time, attention, ability to gain and apply knowledge, as well as in mood.3 Omega-3 has also been seen to benefit attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD), autism, dyspraxia, dyslexia, and aggression, as well as mood disorders such as major depression and bipolar disorder.4
There are three types of Omega-3: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA comes from plant sources (see TEXTBOX), while both EPA and DHA come from fatty, cold-water fish and certain water plants. The body cannot make ALA, but it can use ALA to make both EPA and DHA. In order to do this the body requires vitamins B3, B6, and C, as well as magnesium and zinc. Aside from the different land plant sources of ALA omega-3, there are water plant sources available for EPA and DHA in the form of algae oil or algae supplements.
Types of Omega-3 Fatty Acids5
ALA: (Alpha-Linolenic Acid) present in land plant sources
EPA: (Eicosapentaenoic Acid) found in most fish, but also present in water plants
DHA: (Docosahexaenoic Acid) present in water plants and fish
The recommended amount of omega-3 needed per day is about 2,5 to 3 grams (2500 – 3000 mg, about 1% of one’s energy intake).6 This is equal to 2 to 3 tablespoons canola oil or just over one tablespoon chia seeds.
Plant-based omega-3 sources (ALA)7
|Flaxseed*||2 Tbsp /28 g||6388 mg|
|Chia seed||2 Tbsp/28 g||4915 mg|
|English Walnuts||about 14 nuts/28 g||2524 mg|
|Canola oil||1 Tbsp/14 ml||1267 mg|
|Wheat germ oil||1 Tbsp /14 g||932 mg|
|Green Soybeans||2,5 dl/155 g||569 mg|
|Pecans||about 14 nuts/28 g||276 mg|
|Sweet red pepper||1 large/28 g||217 mg|
|Blueberries||2,5 dl/148 g||86 m|
So with wise choices, there is no problem in getting sufficient Omega-3 in a vegetarian or even vegan diet. And with all the benefits, it is well worth the effort.
1. University of Maryland Medical Center (2016) Omega-3 fatty acids. Retrieved from http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/omega3-fatty-acids
3. Fontani, G., Corradeschi, F., Felici, A., Alfatti, F., Migliorini S., and Lodi, L. (2005) Cognitive and physiological effects of Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation in healthy subjects. European Journal of Clinical Investigation 35.691-699.
4. Kidd, P. A. (2007) Omega-3 DHA and EPA for Cognition, Behavior, and Mood: Clinical Findings and Structural-Functional Synergies with Cell Membrane Phospholipids. Alternative Medicine Review, Volume 12, Number 3
5. Nedley, N. (2015, 2016) Optimize Your Brain Workbook. Nedley Publishing. China.
6. Alternative Medicine Review (2009) Docosahexaenoic Acid. Alternative Medicine Review. Volume 14, Number 4.
7. Nedley, N. (2015, 2016) Optimize Your Brain Workbook. Nedley Publishing. China.
8. Livsmedelverket (2016) Cyanogena glykosider och vätecyanid – linfrö. Retrieved from http://www.livsmedelsverket.se/livsmedel-och-innehall/oonskade-amnen/vaxtgifter/cyanogena-glykosider-och-vatecyanid/?_t_id=1B2M2Y8AsgTpgAmY7PhCfg%3d%3d&_t_q=linfrö&_t_tags=language%3asv%2csiteid%3a67f9c486-281d-4765-ba72-ba3914739e3b&_t_ip=188.8.131.52&_t_hit.id=Livs_Common_Model_PageTypes_ArticlePage/_91e10a6e-1eda-4420-9a62-8b380cb2bac9_sv&_t_hit.pos=3
*Flaxseed is one of the highest land plant sources of omega-3 (ALA). However, recently questions have been raised about potential side effects from other substances in flaxseeds, prompting Livsmedelverket to issue a warning not to eat ground flaxseed.8
In order to access the omega-3 in flaxseeds they must be ground. Whole flaxseeds simply pass through the body giving little nutrition as they transit. This is where a potential problem arises. Flaxseeds contain the naturally occurring cyanogenic glycosides linamarin and lotaustralin, which in their breakdown can contribute to cyanide metabolism in the body. Grinding flaxseeds make these substances more readily available for absorption. There are small amounts of cyanide constantly present and undergoing metabolism in the body, so cyanide in itself is not unusual. What becomes a concern is when there is an overload of cyanide on the metabolic processes. The question then arises: how much ground flaxseed is too much to overload the metabolic processes and cause a health risk? Well, this is where research is not clear. Some experts believe that the amount needed to gain the omega-3 benefits pose minimal risk. However, until more research can be done, there are plenty of other land plant sources for omega-3.