If you’re vegan, vegetarian, or straight-up don’t love the idea (or smell) of fish oil, we have some good news: there are plenty of other ways to get your omega-3s.
Our favorite? Algae.
But let's start with the foundational elements to vegan omega-3. Essential fatty acids.
Not the most glamorous term, but these are a critical part of our overall health. They keep your brain sharp. They’re beneficial for your heart. They make your hair and nails look great.1 The list goes on.
For the longest time, it seemed like the only way to get them was from fish, which is great if fish is a steady part of your diet. But what if it’s not?
Before we get into the wonderful (vegan) ways to get your omega-3s, let’s break down what they are and what they do for us.
The Big 3 That Makeup Omega-3s
Essential fatty acids come in plenty of different forms (eleven, to be precise), but there are really only three that are important in our diet: ALA, EPA, and DHA.
They’re “essential” because we require them, but can't synthesize them on our own. So, we need them in our diet or supplements. Technically we can produce EPA and DHA, but they get lumped in with ALA anyway.
ALA is a short-chain molecule that can found, in small amounts, in meat and plants like kale and spinach. There is also a ton in foods like flax, chia seeds, walnuts, soybeans, and hemp. However, our bodies need to convert ALA into EPA or DHA in order to process it, and we aren’t great at that, so it often ends up getting stored or used for energy.2
Long story short, flax in your smoothie and chia-seed pudding is great for you (and delicious), but ALA isn’t as crucial as EPA and DHA since it’s not biologically active in our bodies.
Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)
EPA and DHA are the long-chain molecules. They’re the ones you typically find in fatty fish and algae, but there are also small amounts in eggs.
Even seaweed has a bit. These guys are the heavy hitters: EPA can also be converted into other helpful molecules, and DHA is found all over our bodies, from the grey matter in our brain to our skin and our retinas.3
DHA specifically is all about brain function; not getting enough could lead to early-onset Alzheimer’s and other cognitive issues.4 Basically, this is what to look for in your omega-3 supplements.
Due to a number of factors, including diet, the process of converting all three of these molecules in our bodies isn’t super efficient.5 It takes three steps to convert ALA into EPA, and then another four to convert EPA into DHA.6
In particular, vegans and vegetarians might not get enough of the other nutrients needed to help with this process, like iron, magnesium, and vitamin B6.7 So it’s all about making the most of the essential fatty acids you get — getting the most bang for your molecular buck.
Click here to learn even more about the differences between the three and the math behind the conversion. (It’s cool, we like to geek out about it too.)
What Are the Benefits of Omega-3s
The cool thing about omega-3s is they don’t just do good; they also help prevent the bad. Here are a few of the ways they earn their superstar status:
- Fight inflammation
- Boost brain health and cognition
- Ensure healthy fetal development
- Maintain healthy eyes
- Make your skin, nails, and hair look awesome
- Combat depression
- Prevents inflammation
Why Choose Vegan Omega-3s?
We know that fish is an excellent source of omega-3, but if you prefer to eat a plant-based diet it’s not ideal. And if you’re pregnant, you’re likely avoiding eating fish, in general, to steer clear of mercury or other toxins.
While supplementing with fish oil might seem like a good solution, it’s usually derived from the same fish women are cautioned to avoid because of possible contamination. Plus, fish oil supplements are often processed using artificial ingredients, like hexane, that has potentially negative effects.
So, what’s the solution?
Algae. The same source that fish get theirs from. (Smart, hey?)
All About Algae
Everyone’s favorite aquatic organisms are the most potent plant-based source of EPA and DHA. Although other vegan forms of essential fatty acids, like flax or chia, provide ALA, only about 3% gets converted.
Let’s put it this way: Your brain is made up of 60% fat, and roughly 30% (or more) of those fats are DHA.7
So, to get the most out of your omega-3 intake you need something tha