We've all heard of the importance of "Omega-3’s", but we don't often hear that not all Omegas are created equal. Omega fatty acids from flax or chia seeds — the "ALA" kind — are an amazing addition to your plate, but plant-based people may not adequately intake other forms — namely, DHA and EPA — which are also critical for cardiovascular and brain health.
Omega-3’s play a key role in nearly every cell of your body. As such, a daily intake of these essential fatty acids is critical for optimal functioning— from regulating your cholesterol levels to powering your nervous system. Omega 3s may also help to prevent rheumatoid arthritis, ADHD, asthma and depression. One of the most important functions — which we are just recently beginning to appreciate — is controlling the low-grade, systemic inflammation that is tied to many chronic diseases. So where can you find these powerful compounds?
Your body can produce all of the necessary fatty acids required for daily function, except for linoleic acid (LA), an omega-6 fatty acid, and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid. We need to consume those compounds as part of our diet. When we do, our body uses them to synthesize other fatty acids, like EPA and DHA.
The good news is that ALA is abundantly available from plant-based foods, especially flax, chia, and hemp seeds. Just remember to crush or grind the seeds because our GI tract is unable to breakdown the shell. If seeds aren’t your favorite food item, you can also find ALA in soybeans and walnuts, among other non-seed sources. The story on DHA and EPA is more complicated.
You might be thinking, “If we can create DHA and EPA from ALA, why not just focus on eating tons of ALA sources?” The challenge is that our body is extremely inefficient at deriving DHA or EPA from ALA— the conversion rate is only 2-10%. Part of the reason is Omega-6 fatty acids may inhibit absorption of Omega-3s. Consuming adequate amounts of Omega-3s is not a challenge faced only by plant-based people; the standard American diet is extremely high in Omega-6s relative to Omega-3s. This is particularly true for people who consume a lot of processed foods. Unfortunately most of the Omega-6s consumed by Americans comes from oils, shortening and margarine rather than whole foods. This contributes to multiple dietary and disease risks in addition to reduced absorption of Omega-3s.
People who consume high quantities of fish are often getting sufficient Omega-3s. That’s because fish consume micro-algae and other marine plants, and these species of seaweed are the source of high-quality EPA and DHA. Those compounds are then deposited in the fish’s fat deposits. It’s not that fish uniquely produce DHA or EPA; it’s that fish consume Omega-3-rich seaweed, and those Omega-3s are stored in their tissues. Unfortunately fish also store ocean contaminants in their tissues as well, potentially making them toxic to humans.
So now you might be thinking, “Seaweed is a plant, why not just eat that?” Here too the issue relates to the actual quantity available to absorb. Because seaweeds are so low in fat, they provide relatively low amounts of EPA and DHA on a per gram basis. So you would have to regularly consume large servings of seaweed, in order to reap a sufficient amount of Omega-3s. Very few people consume that much micro-algae or seaweed on a daily basis. This is why we advise that you complement your plant-based ALA with a algae-derived source of DHA and EPA.