Do You Really Need to Eat Fish for Omega 3? Vegans and the Omega Fatty Acids

Did you know that people who take fish oil capsules often report “fishy burps”?  I don’t know about you, but when I hear that, I am very glad to be a vegan! But why do people endure the burpy nastiness for this strange oil? 

What is Omega 3?  Do those of us who avoid fish need to supplement our diets somehow?

Plant Based Foods and the Omega Fatty Acids

There are 3 major types of Omega 3 fats that we can get from our diet.  The first, Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), is a short-chained fatty acid and can be found in walnuts, ground flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and leafy green vegetables

Our bodies do not make ALA and it must be supplied through our food.  Taking 1 Tbsp of hemp, chia or ground flax daily will supply your need for ALA.

Save your brain
The human body needs the Omega 3 fatty acids to develop and maintain proper brain function

When we eat foods containing ALA, a proportion of it is converted into the long-chain fatty acids DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid)- the 2 other major types of Omega 3 fats.  In nature, fish who happily munch on algae ingest DHA and EPA in rich amounts and store it in their bodies.  Of course as vegans, we will not consume fish, and must therefore rely on our body’s conversion of ALA ,or make like our fishy friends and consume our own direct source of EPA and DHA from algae.  Don’t worry- skimming pond scum is not necessary! There are several brands of sterile, vegan algae EPA and DHA supplements on the market.

Save Your Brain!

The human body needs the Omega 3 fatty acids to develop and maintain proper brain function.  There is evidence that Omega 3s play a role in preventing depression, dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, as well as proper cognitive and visual development in children.  The Omega 3s may benefit those with ADHD, reduce inflammation in the body, lower the risk of developing heart disease, and improve both memory and mood.  Pretty important stuff!

So how do you make sure you are getting enough?

Olive oil
Omega 6 in Olive Oil: The ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 and 9 is vital. As important as making sure you get a daily source of Omega 3 is, so is reducing your levels of Omega 6 and 9.

Apparently some people are better converters of ALA to DHA and EPA than others, so it is not possible at this time to know exactly what amount you personally might need.  Although there has not yet been a scientifically agreed upon daily supplementation requirement, it seems to me to be safe and prudent to take in both food sources of ALA as listed above as well as taking a vegan EPA/DHA supplement in the recommended minimum amount of 170mg DHA and 80mg EPA.  Until more research can show us clearly if there is a risk of too much DHA/EPA, it would be wise to stick to the minimum dose.

It’s All in the Ratio

While consumption of Omega 3s is crucial, the ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 and 9 fatty acids is also vital.  In most modern diets, Omegas 6 and 9 are ingested way out of proportion to the 3s, which can lead to inflammation in the body. 

Omegas 6 and 9 are found in a wide variety of plant and animal fats- namely vegetable oils- including olive oil, which is a rich source of Omega 9, and both safflower and soybean oils, which are high in Omega 6 fatty acids. The proper ratio should be 3:1 or 4:1 Omega 6 to Omega 3, but in today’s diet, the ratio is closer to 10:1!  So as important as making sure you get a daily source of Omega 3 is, so is reducing your levels of Omega 6 and 9

Stick to more whole plants, prepared at home – fruits and vegetables, beans and whole grains – while reducing oils and packaged, factory-made, or restaurant foods.

Further information on the Omega Fats and links to the most recent research can be found at Dr. Furhman’s website and at

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