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Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Plant-Based Diets

Get omega-3s with ease on a plant-based diet!

Omega-3 fatty acids are important for maintaining heart and brain health. But you don't need to turn to fish—or fish oil supplements—to get your omega-3s. Keep reading to get the answers to frequently asked questions about omega-3s and plant-based diets!

What are omega-3s?

Omega-3s are essential fatty acids. They play an important role in cellular function and in maintaining heart health, brain health, kidney function, eye health, and skin health.

Are omega-3s found in plant foods?

Omega-3 fatty acids are readily available in a wide variety of plant foods. Sources include walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, edamame, seaweed, and algae. Other green leafy vegetables and beans also contain small amounts. 

Are plant-based omega-3 sources different from fish-based sources?

Plant-derived omega-3s come in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)—which is the only essential omega-3 fatty acid. Our bodies cannot synthesize it, so we must consume ALA through our diets. The body naturally converts ALA into longer chain omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—which is important for brain health—and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). 

Fish contain both DHA and EPA. But that doesn’t mean that those following plant-based diets are deficient in these longer chain omega-3s. In fact, women following vegan diets actually had significantly more long-chain omega-3 fats in their blood, compared with fish-eaters, meat-eaters, and ovo-lacto vegetarians, according to findings from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) Study. Despite zero intake of long-chain omega-3s (EPA and DHA) and lower intake of the plant-derived ALA, vegan participants converted robust amounts of shorter-chain fatty acids into these long-chain fatty acids, compared to fish eaters.

Do people eating plant-based diets have adequate omega-3 levels?

Most people following plant-based diets have no problem getting enough omega-3s in their diets. One study found that people who follow vegan diets, on average, have intakes above the recommended amounts for omega-3 fats.

When it comes to measuring omega-3 levels, the likelihood of having lower EPA and DHA levels among vegans is, on average, higher; however, this does not extend to any known clinical relevance. In fact, researchers note the advantage of a vegan diet for heart health compared with nonvegans.

Is a plant-based diet healthy for the brain?

Plant-based foods are beneficial to the brain and may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Research shows that saturated and trans fats—found in animal products, pastries, and fried foods—can increase the risk for cognitive decline. Foods rich in vitamin E—including nuts, seeds, leafy greens, and whole grains—are especially beneficial for brain health. Studies have also suggested that vitamin C—found in fruits and vegetables—may help protect against cognitive decline. 

Is fish consumption heart-healthy?

Although some of the fat found in fish comes in the healthy omega-3 form, much of the remaining fat is unhealthful saturated fat. For example, chinook salmon derives 52% of its calories from fat, a quarter of which is saturated fat. Fish and shellfish are also significant sources of cholesterol. Three ounces of bass has about 80 milligrams of cholesterol—the same amount found in a 3-ounce steak. Diets high in saturated fat and cholesterol can increase the risk for heart disease. 

On the other hand, a plant-based diet has been proven to prevent, and even reverse, heart disease. A recent study found that while replacing red meat with plant-based protein lowers the risk for heart disease, replacing red meat with fish did not reduce the risk.

What about fish oil supplements?

Although fish oil supplements have been touted as a cure for everything from heart problems to arthritis, current research shows that there may not be any benefits to taking the supplement. According to a review that combined data from 20 studies, the use of omega-3 supplements over a two-year period had no effect on heart-related death, heart attack, or stroke. Another study found no link between fish oil supplements and the prevention or improvement of dementia.

By focusing on plant foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes, you’ll get the full range of essential nutrients without the toxins and other health risks associated with fish consumption!

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