Omega-3 fatty acids are important for brain health in all stages of life, including infancy. DHA and EPA are particularly important forms of omega-3s that should be supplemented during pregnancy and breastfeeding by vegans and others who do not consume fish.
What are omega-3s and why do I need them?
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential in supporting proper functions of the brain, heart, eyes, blood vessels, lungs, the immune system, and the endocrine system. During pregnancy, omega-3s cross the placenta and play a critical role in the growth and development of the baby. For those who are breastfeeding, the transfer of these important fatty acids continues through milk.
There is a lot of confusion about various types of fats, what’s healthy, what to avoid, and what to supplement. I want to clarify what we’re addressing here and will continue to post articles about the other types of fats.
There are so many fatty acids (which make up the larger structures of fat), so why focus on just one type? Of all the different fats, only the polyunsaturated ones are essential, meaning that our bodies cannot create them.
Of the polyunsaturated fats, omega-6s tend to be abundant in our diets from foods such as avocados, olive oil, and various nuts and seeds, whereas omega-3s are less common. A high imbalance between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids can cause inflammation in the body.
What are DHA, EPA, and ALA?
As shown in the chart above, omega-3s come in 3 main types: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). There are other forms of omega-3s as well, but these 3 are associated with the majority of the health benefits. ALAs are present in some nuts and seeds, while DHAs and EPAs are most commonly found in fish.
DHA and EPA intake is associated with visual and cognitive development in babies as well as long-term brain health in adults. Studies suggest that both DHA and EPA are necessary for positive outcomes in pregnancy and to reduce the risk of metabolic diseases later in the child’s life .
ALA is essential and our bodies can convert it into DHA and EPA, but not very effectively . While research on this topic is still ongoing, it is generally agreed that we cannot synthesize enough DHA and EPA to meet our own needs or the needs of our babies.
How much omega-3 do I need?
The National Academy of Medicine (NAM) does not have a Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for omega-3s because there is not enough data available. Instead, the NAM published a recommended Adequate Intake (AI) that establishes the level needed to prevent deficiencies :
- Women over the age of 14: 1.1 grams of ALA per day
- During pregnancy: 1.4 grams of ALA per day
- While breastfeeding: 1.3 grams of ALA per day
The NAM does not have RDA or AI levels set for DHA or EPA for adults because only ALA is essential.
Looking at other official publications, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends 300 milligrams (mg) per day of EPA and DHA during pregnancy and breastfeeding . Considering other studies recommend 200 mg/day of DHA , it follows that 100 mg should be in EPA form.
There are no known harmful effects from too much DHA and EPA, so the upper intake levels have not been determined.
Can I get enough omega-3 fatty acids on a vegan diet?
A vegan diet can provide enough ALA but is lacking in DHA and EPA. It is likely that a supplement for the latter two is needed, especially for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Flaxseed oil is the highest source of ALA at 7.2 grams per tablespoon . Canola oil and soybean oil are also high in ALA, containing 1.3 grams and 0.9 grams per tablespoon, respectively. Some seeds and nuts are great options as well, such as:
- Chia seeds: 2.5 grams ALA per tablespoon
- Ground flaxseeds: 2 grams ALA per tablespoon
- Hemp seeds: 0.9 grams ALA per tablespoon
- Walnuts: 0.8 grams ALA per quarter cup
Adding some of these seeds to your oats or smoothies is an easy way to meet the recommended ALA intake levels. Vegans do not consume any food sources of DHA and EPA, as they are predominantly found in fish.
Should I supplement with omega-3s?
This is a great question and is still up for debate as many studies have been inconclusive. For example, there is no evidence that women who follow a healthy diet and eat no fish are at risk for pregnancy complications or poor child development . Other studies, however, show that supplementation by pregnant and breastfeeding women who do not eat fish is beneficial for their infants .
Knowing that vegans tend to have lower levels of DHA and EPA both in their blood and their breastmilk [9, 10], most experts recommend a supplement. And luckily, supplementation has been shown to effectively increase levels of DHA and EPA.
Vegan Supplements with Omega-3
Fish oil is the most commonly available supplement for DHA and EPA. But fish get their omega-3s from the algae that they consume and so can we! Studies show that supplementing with DHA derived from algae does lead to improved health outcomes . Also, algae-derived supplements do not contain contaminants from the ocean since they are often grown in tanks instead .
There are many vegan omega-3 supplements on the market, but most of them have additional nutrients as well. With the assumption that you are taking a prenatal, or otherwise meeting your nutritional needs elsewhere, I chose to list a few of my favorites that only contain algae-derived oil:
- Zenwise Health Vegan Omega-3: 300 mg DHA, 150 mg EPA
- Deva Nutrition Vegan DHA-EPA: 120-140 mg DHA, 60-80 mg EPA
- NuTru Vegan Omega 3: 300 mg DHA, 150 mg EPA
- Ovega-3 Plant-Based Omega-3: 270 mg DHA, 135 mg EPA
- Nature’s Way NutraVege Omega-3: 300 mg DHA, 200 mg EPA
- The 3 main forms of omega-3 fatty acids are ALA, DHA, and EPA.
- Vegans should include flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and flax or canola oil to get plenty of ALA from their diets.
- Research shows benefits from supplementing at least 200 mg of DHA and 100 mg of EPA per day during pregnancy and breastfeeding.