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What Vegans Need to Know About Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Adopting a Vegan lifestyle can feel like a dramatic change at first. But, once you’ve learnt the basics of a healthy plant-based diet (like how to cook tofu!), you’ll soon realise that it’s not so difficult after all. It’s a hugely positive adjustment that can have an incredible effect on your health and wellbeing.

Nevertheless, as with any dietary change, you need to ensure that you’re still getting enough of the good stuff when you decide to go Vegan! This includes making sure that you’re getting enough omega-3.

Fish is the go-to source of omega-3 fats for many people. However, when you decide to cut animal products out of your diet, it becomes more important to pay extra attention to these polyunsaturated fats.

What are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

The omega-3 family is made up of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).

ALA is an essential fatty acid. This means that our bodies cannot produce ALA and must obtain it from our diets. We can produce small reserves of EPA and DHA by converting ALA, but this process doesn’t create the quantities we need. We must rely on our diets to provide all three fatty acids, with a combination of ALA, DHA and EPA-rich foods.

ALA can be found in plant sources such as flax seeds and soybeans, so a balanced Vegan diet should contain plenty of these omega-3-rich foods. However, it’s important not to confuse alpha-linolenic acid with linolenic acid, an omega-6 fat found in seed and nut-based foods. This includes sunflower oil, hemp seeds and peanut butter.

Western diets are often higher in omega-6 fats than omega-3, but we do need both for good cardiovascular health. Vegans must also find plant-based sources of EPA and DHA to avoid omega-3 deficiency. These essential fatty acids are a vital part of a balanced diet, with many important health benefits to consider.

What are the Health Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

As immunonutrients, ALA, DHA and EPA fatty acids carry many health benefits that we rely on from infancy through to old age. Combined, omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to:

● Contribute to healthy cognitive development in infants;

● Improve retina function for strong vision;

● Promote good cardiovascular health and protect against coronary heart disease;

● Reduce bodily inflammation, which has been linked to many types of cancer;

● Keep skin hydrated, prevent the development of acne and help to manage psoriasis.

If your diet doesn’t contain enough ALA, DHA and EPA, you could be at risk of developing omega-3 deficiency. Some of the main signs of omega-3 deficiency include fatigue, poor vision, joint pain and arthritis, weak nails, dry skin and brittle hair.

Currently, the recommended daily dosage of omega-3 fatty acids is 250-500 mg per adult.

How to Boost Omega-3 Intake With a Vegan Diet

A balanced Vegan diet will typically get plenty of ALA, as this fatty acid comes from many of the staples we rely on. These include:

● Beans, including soybeans, kidney beans and edamame beans;

● Nuts, including walnuts;

● Avocados;

● Seeds, including chia seeds and flax seeds;

● Vegetable oils, including canola oil and rapeseed oil.

These nuts, seeds and beans can be added into salads, curries, stews, soups and even smoothies alongside immunity-boosting fruits and vegetables. Try sprinkling ground flax seeds on top of your porridge or stirring edamame beans into a stir fry to increase the ALA in your daily diet!

Eating chia seeds is a particularly effective way to boost your ALA intake, as a serving of just two tablespoons packs up to 5 grams of omega-3 fats. Chia seeds can be eaten whole, mixed into smoothies, stirred into puddings, or used in overnight oats.

The easiest way to make sure you’re also getting enough EPA on a Vegan diet is to consume algae sources or take algae-based supplements.

Algae is a highly nutritious source of omega-3 fatty acids and is available in various forms, including spirulina, chlorella and dried seaweed, such as nori and kombu. Algae is a nutritional powerhouse, offering not just omega-3 EPA but also high levels of immunity-boosting antioxidants, protein, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, copper and folic acid!

Spirulina, chlorella and many types of seaweed can be bought from most supermarkets (often in dried sheets or powders) and enjoyed as snacks or in main meals. Vegan sushi is perhaps the most obvious way to welcome seaweed into your diet, but you can also mix spirulina and chlorella powders into juices, smoothies, soups, sauces, curries and stews.

To boost the DHA in your diet, you may also consider the benefits of algal-oil capsules. Some studies have even shown that algal-oil capsules and cooked salmon are 'nutritionally equivalent’ sources of DHA.

Don’t Forget…

● Balanced Vegan diets need ALA, DHA and EPA fats.

● These essential fats improve heart health, cognitive function and protect against inflammation.

● High omega-3 foods include chia seeds, ground flax seeds, walnuts and algae.

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