Omega-3 DHA and EPA: Why Most Vegetarians Don't Get Enough, and What You Can Do About It

Omega-3 fatty acids are probably one of the best-known nutrients today. They play a major role in every stage of your life, and their benefits are backed by lots of great research.

What are Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Their Benefits

EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid), and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) come from fish. These two fatty acids are important for cardiovascular health; brain health and development; and good eyes and eyesight.

Fish are high in DHA and EPA because they eat alga that contains omega-3 ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). Fish convert the ALA to DHA and EPA, which then gets stored in their bodies. If you eat fish, voilà, you also consume their DHA and EPA. But if you're a vegetarian what can you do?

"Studies have shown that women whose diet is high in omega-3 fats have a lower risk of developing breast cancer."

From The Wisdom of Menopause: Creating Physical and Emotional Health and Healing, by Christiane Northrup

How Vegetarians Get Omega-3 DHA and EPA Fatty Acids

There are two important fatty acids that your body can convert to EPA and DHA, ALA and SDA.

SDA (stearidonic acid)

Unlike ALA, SDA has an excellent conversion rate of 20 to 30%. While there are very few vegetarian sources, you can get SDA from consuming hemp seed oil. Organic hemp seed oil is sold online and in specialty and health food stores.

ALA

While ALA is an important fatty acid, only a small percent gets converted. No one really knows yet what the conversion rate is, but the majority of studies show it's only 0.05%.

3 Steps you Can Take to Get More DHA and EPA from ALA Rich Foods

There are three things you can do to increase the amount of DHA and EPA that you get from ALA.

1) Decrease the number of foods that are high in omega-6.

Foods high in omega-6 fatty acids reduce the amount of ALA that's converted to EPA and DHA by up to 40%.

How can you do this? Eliminate certain oils from your diet that are high in omega-6. These include sunflower, safflower, corn, cottonseed, and soybean oils.

Omega-3 for Youthful Skin

Your skin needs omega-3 fatty acids and a small amount of cholesterol to stay hydrated.

They're popular in home kitchens, restaurants, and in most processed foods. This is why the average American winds up consuming ten times more omega-6 fatty acids than they need. How much should you get? The recommended ratio is 3.5 omega-3s to 1 omega-6.

2) Eat a diet rich in ALA foods.

This will increase the amount of DHA your body makes. The best sources of ALA are the following:

Flaxseeds 2 tbs. = 3.51 g ALA
Walnuts 1/4 cup = 2.27 g ALA
Soybeans1 cup = 1.02 g ALA
Chia Seeds One gram = 228.7 mg ALA

3) Improve your overall Diet.

There are other changes you can make to increase the conversion rate. Cut back, or eliminate, alcohol and foods that are high in saturated fat, cholesterol, and trans fatty acids. They also interfere with the conversion rate of ALA to EPA and DHA.

Even though a vegetarian diet doesn't give you a direct source of omega-3 EPA and DHA, you can get enough. The trick, as always, is to carefully plan meals so that you get the right amount and type of foods into your diet.

References

Goyens PLL, Spilker ME, Zock PL, et al., "Conversion of α-linolenic acid in humans is influenced by the absolute amounts of α-linolenic acid and linoleic acid in the diet and not by their ratio.", Am. J. Clin. Nutr., 2006

Burdge GC, Calder PC, "Conversion of α-linolenic acid to longer-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in human adults," Reprod. Nutr. Dev.

Burdge GC, Wootton SA., "Conversion of α-linolenic acid to eicosapentaenoic, docosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids in young women, "Br. J. Nutr., 2002

Berger A, Gershwin ME, German JB., "Effects of various dietary fats on cardiolipin acyl composition during ontogeny of mice," Lipids (1992) 27: 605-12.

Li D, Mann NJ, Sinclair AJ., "Comparison of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids from vegetable oils, meat, and fish in raising platelet eicosapentaenoic acid levels in humans," Lipids 1999.

Das UN, "Essential fatty acids — A review," Curr. Pharma. Biotechnol, 2006.

Layne KS, Goh YK, Jumpsen JA, et al., "Normal subjects consuming physiological levels of 18:3(n-3) and 20:5(n-3) from flaxseed or fish oils have characteristic differences in plasma lipid and lipoprotein fatty acid levels, " J. Nutr. 1996.

University of Maryland Medical Center, FACT Sheet: Omega-6 Fatty Acids

The World's Healthiest Foods, Fact Sheet: Omega 3 Fatty Acids http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=nutrient&dbid=84

Leslie Baumann, M.D., The Skin Type Solution (Bantam, 2006)

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DISCLAIMER: The information on this website is not intended to replace the advice of a qualified health care professional, and is not intended as medical advice.