What are omega-3 fatty acids?

Essential for maintaining your brain and heart health, omega-3 fats are actually pretty easy to slip up on when following a plant-based diet if you’re not paying them enough attention.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to recommend you start munching on a tuna steak or gulping down smelly fish oil tablets to get your daily dose of omega-3. Contrary to popular belief, there are other (original) sources of plant-based omega-3, which are better for your health, the ecosystems and, of course, the fish in the ocean!

In this guide we will cover:


What is omega-3? 

Omega-3 is a group of polyunsaturated essential fatty acids. If that just sounds like a load of long science-y words that mean nothing to you, let me break it down. Fatty acids play an important role in the body: they store energy, help the body absorb vitamins, and control hormones. Omega-3s are essential fats because your body can’t produce them on its own - you have to consume them through food or supplements. The fact they are polyunsaturated refers to the fact that they’re healthy fats, which you need for your brain to function well. 

So if you’re still wondering, “is omega-3 a fat?”, the quick answer is yes - a very important one.

While omega-3s often get lumped into one category, it’s important to distinguish between the three different types of omega-3 molecule. The three types of omega-3 needed for a human diet are ALA, EPA and DHA. 

  • What is ALA? 

  • ALA stands for alpha-linolenic acid, the most common omega-3 fatty acid found in most Western diets. ALA is also mostly found in plant foods, like vegetable oils, nuts, flaxseeds and some leafy vegetables. Unfortunately, it’s also the least useful form of omega-3, as it is only stored as triglycerides or used as energy.

    Your body can convert ALA into the more useful, bioavailable longer chain omega-3s EPA and DHA - but this process is highly inefficient, with about an 8% conversion to EPA and just a 0.5% conversion to DHA.

  • What is EPA?

  • EPAs and DHAs are the real nutritional powerhouses. Eicosapentaenoic acid is most commonly found in seafood, such as fatty fish like herring, eel and shrimp, but its original source is from specific types of marine algae that fish eat. EPA fatty acids are needed to fight inflammation in the body and reduce symptoms of depression. 

  • What is DHA?

  • Docosahexaenoic acid acts as a key structural component of your brain, the retina of your eyes and other body parts. Low levels of DHA have been associated with learning disabilities, impaired brain function, and increased levels of anxiety and depression, so this isn’t something you want to be running low on!

    Unfortunately, vegans and vegetarians do often lack DHA. This is because, like EPA, it’s found in seafood, fatty fish and grass-fed animals - although, again, its original source is from marine algae. 

    Eating foods high in ALA isn’t the most effective way to try and get your dose of DHA either - the low conversion rate means you’d have to eat almost half a kilo of flaxseed daily to get just half a gram of DHA!

    Just 2ml of Vivo Vegan Omega-3 provides 300mg of Omega-3 EPA and 600mg of Omega-3 DHA.

    What does omega-3 do for your body?

    So, what is omega-3 actually good for? Omega-3’s most important function is to keep your heart healthy. They help the heart beat at a steady rate thus preventing heart disease, reduce blood pressure, raise “good” HDL cholesterol levels, and improve blood function. No wonder they’ve got such a good rep! 

    And the health benefits aren’t limited to your heart - omega-3 isn’t called ‘brain food’ for nothing! Omega-3 fatty acids are involved in a wide range of physiological functions related to neurogenesis, neurotransmission and neuroinflammation, so they play fundamental roles in the development, functioning and aging of the brain. Research has found that those who consume more omega-3s have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and other problems with cognitive function.

    A top tip for those who menstruate: studies have also found that consuming omega-3s can help alleviate period cramps. One study even determined that an omega-3 supplement was more effective than ibuprofen in treating severe menstrual pain, so, next time you’re doubled over wondering why your foolproof combination of 2 paracetamol and 2 ibuprofen still hasn’t dulled the ache, try reaching for your all-natural omega-3 supplement instead!

    Not only that, but omega-3s also play an important role in maintaining eye health, skin health, kidney function, and so much more.

    How is omega-3 created?

    There are a lot of misconceptions about where omega-3 comes from. Most people associate fish with omega-3, but omega-3 actually comes from algae, which are a primary food source for the fish that produce omega-3 fatty acids.

    As algae is much lower down in the food chain than fish, it’s a more efficient and sustainable source of omega-3, which doesn’t cause any harm to marine life. Algae omega-3 is also cleaner, as it’s grown in unpolluted environments, free from the heavy metals and contaminants that are found in fish.

    What foods provide omega-3?

    • Fish and other seafood - but these also come with unwanted contaminants, such as mercury, dioxins and pesticide residues, which can damage nerves and disrupt cognitive development.

    • Nuts and seeds e.g. walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds

    • Plant oils e.g. flaxseed oil, soybean oil, canola oil

    • Some vegetables e.g. kale, spinach, edamame

    But all plant-derived omega-3s come in the form of ALA. That’s why it’s necessary for vegans and vegetarians to supplement with a plant-based supplement, like our Vegan Omega 3 derived from algae, the purest form of omega-3 there is!

    Is omega-3 the same for vegans and non-vegans?

    We all need omega-3, it’s just that non-vegans get theirs through the middle man: fish, or fish oil supplements.

    When you cut fish out of your diet, you probably won’t accidentally consume DHA and EPA omega-3s unless your favourite snack happens to be algae (in which case you win the title for the most “vegan” vegan ever!) 

    Taking a plant-based supplement derived from algae means you’re consuming the exact same thing the fish do, directly from the source, with all the health benefits and none of the nasty contaminants! In our book that makes vegan omega-3 superior.

    Can you have omega deficiencies?

    Yes! And you’re more likely to be omega-3 deficient if you’re following a plant-based diet.

    Intakes of omega-3 ALA are around the same for vegans, vegetarians and meat-eaters alike, thanks to the abundance of plant-based foods high in omega-3 ALA. However, intakes of EPA and DHA tend to be much lower for vegans.

    Another problem is that plant-based foods high in ALA are often also high in omega-6. Although omega-6 is also beneficial for your health in the right amounts, if your omega-3 intake is too low, a high intake of omega-6 can cause inflammation. Omega-3 and omega-6 compete for the same conversion pathways - so if you’re eating much more omega-6 (which is found in a lot of processed vegan food), the competition will prevent the full synthesis of omega-3 fats that we need for optimum health.

    Symptoms of an omega-3 deficiency include:

    • Attention deficit, anxiety, restlessness, poor concentration

    • Poor mental health, including symptoms of depression and anxiety

    • Changes to the skin (inflammation, dryness, flakiness, sensitivity) and hair (brittle and thin)

    • Dry eyes

    • Dehydration

    • Joint pain and stiffness

    • Symptoms of allergies i.e. eczema, asthma, hayfever etc.

    What happens if you have too much omega-3?

    New research has found that omega-3 fatty acids taken in excess could have negative impacts on general health. Although omega-3s have beneficial anti-inflammatory properties, excessive amounts can alter immune functions, leading to a dysfunctional immune response to infection.

    However, unless you’re consuming a high dose omega-3 supplement and eating four to five omega-3 enriched foods a day (unlikely if you’re vegan), you’re probably safe from that danger.

    The simplest way to strike the right balance and ensure you get enough of all three essential omega-3 fatty acids as a vegan is simply to supplement with the recommended dose. We recommend just 2ml of our (non-fishy tasting) Vegan Omega 3 supplement  a day, and you’re covered! 

    Sources

    Omega-3 Fatty Acids’ https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-Consumer/

    ‘Omega-3 Fatty Acids: An Essential Contribution’ https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/fats-and-cholesterol/types-of-fat/omega-3-fats/

    ‘Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Plant-Based Diets’ https://www.pcrm.org/good-nutrition/nutrition-information/omega-3

    ‘Comparison of the effect of fish oil and ibuprofen on treatment of severe pain in primary dysmenorrhea’ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3770499/

    ‘Benefits of fish oil supplementation in hyperlipidemia: a systematic review and meta-analysis’  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18774613/

    ‘Early protection against sudden death by n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids after myocardial infarction: time-course analysis of the results of the Gruppo Italiano per lo Studio della Sopravvivenza nell’Infarto Miocardico (GISSI) - Prevenzione’

    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11997274/

    ‘Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Depression: Scientific Evidence and Biological Mechanisms’ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3976923/

    ‘Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and vegetarian diets’ https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25369925/

    ‘Long chain omega-3 fatty acid immunomodulation and the potential for adverse health outcomes’ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3912985/

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