If ‘how do you get protein?’ is question #1 from clients who are interested in a plant-based diet, then ‘what are plant-based omega-3 sources?’ may be question #2. This post is dedicated entirely to DHA needs for Plant-Based Diets: what omega 3 fatty-acids are, where to find them, why you need them in your diet, recommendations for pregnant women, and supplement guidelines.
Omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential fatty acids. Simply put, this means they are necessary for our health and our bodies cannot make them—we have to get them through food or supplements. Having enough omega-3 fatty acids in the diet is critical for brain function, lowering harmful lipid levels (LDL cholesterol and triglycerides), reducing the inflammatory response in the arteries.* In basic terms, we need them and most of us aren’t getting enough.
For many of us, when we hear the term omega-3 fatty acids, we tend to think primarily of fatty fish (especially mackerel, salmon, tuna, and sardines). While these fish are all excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids, many people don’t consume fish—either for environmental, ethical, economical, or taste preferences.
Types of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
EPA & DHA
EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are two closely-related fats typically found in fatty fish, and to a lesser extent in some sea vegetables. While we can technically synthesize these fats from ALA (alpha-linoleic acid), the conversion rate is poor in adults and very minimal in pregnancy and lactation.
Studies show an intake of these fats decreases risk of dementia, depression and heart disease. Since they are most commonly found in fish, I recommend plant-based sources (derived from algae) of EPA and DHA.
Flaxseeds, walnuts and a handful of other plant foods provide an omega-3 fat called ALA, an essential nutrient. It’s similar to the other omega-3’s, EPA and DHA, but your body must convert ALA into EPA and DHA. Depending on which study you reference, conversion rates for ALA into the other two omega-3s are fairly low. However, there are benefits in consuming ALA (even if you do eat fish).
Whatever side of the vegetarian fence you are on, ALA is important. Some of the best sources are flaxseed and flax oil, chia seeds, hempseed oil, walnuts or walnut oil, canola oil, and full fat soy foods.
The important thing to remember is that the two types of omega-3 fats are not interchangeable. Even if you are taking a supplement with DHA and EPA, you still may benefit from a source of ALA (like flax or chia seeds) and even with a good source of ALA in your diet, you still need a DHA and EPA supplement (especially those with a higher risk of heart disease.)
DHA Needs During Pregnancy
Most of us are familiar with the common nutrition recommendations during pregnancy— focus on getting enough folate, take a prenatal, eat a little extra. However, not everyone is as familiar with another important nutrient for moms-to-be—DHA.
In addition to the benefits listed above for adults, DHA is critical to support the proper development of baby’s brain, eyes and nervous system.* Additionally, omega-3 fatty acid intake during pregnancy has been shown to help support a healthy mood in the postpartum period.*
DHA accumulation ramps up during the third trimester of pregnancy and continues throughout the first two years of life. It’s why the American Pregnancy Association recommends that all pregnancy and breastfeeding women supplement with DHA, regardless of diet.
This is especially true for plant-based moms, as vegan and vegetarian women have been shown to have lower levels of DHA in umbilical cord blood and breast milk. Supplementation is especially important for plant-based moms because only preformed DHA can raise the level of DHA in mom’s bloodstream, and therefore reach the fetus or baby through breast milk. This means that even a diet high in ALA will not support recommended DHA levels.
DHA supplement guidelines
I highly recommend DHA supplementation for most adults, but especially for plant-based pregnant, lactating moms, and infants. As discussed above, this period of growth is a critical time for brain and eye development and the research around the benefits of DHA is very strong. Therefore, I don’t see any reason not to supplement with a plant-based source of DHA.
Algae oil is a reliable, plant-based source of preformed DHA. In fact, microalgae is actually where fish get their DHA from in the first place, so supplementing with it cuts out the middleman!
Nordic Naturals is my favorite brand for vegan DHA as they provide options for adults, pregnant women, and infants. Nordic Naturals is also the official omega-3 supplement of the American Pregnancy Association, and there are so many reasons why I love them (and why I’m a brand ambassador for them.)
For one, their algae oil is produced using a 100% hexane-free process, which means that DHA is extracted using natural enzymes instead of chemicals.
For adults, I recommend their Algae Omega product, which provides 715 mg total omega-3s, for a higher daily dose than comparable vegetarian options. It’s made with sustainably-sourced microalgae and is certified 100% vegetarian by the American Vegetarian Association.
This is the product that both my husband and I use (when I’m not pregnant/breastfeeding) and have been using for years, long before I become an ambassador.
For pregnant and breastfeeding women, I am so, so excited to announce that Nordic recently launched a 100% vegan Prenatal DHA! Just like their other vegan products, the prenatal is derived from sustainable microalgae and is recommended for preconception, pregnancy, and lactation.
Lastly, while this conversation is largely focused on adults and pregnancy, I do want to mention their Baby’s DHA Vegetarian. If you follow me over on Plant-Based Juniors, you know that I’m a broken record when it comes to DHA supplementation for infants. I’ve been giving these DHA drops to Van since 6 months. Baby’s DHA Vegetarian is a pure, safe, and certified vegetarian source of omega-3 DHA and recommended for babies 5-35 lbs. It’s also certified by the American Vegetarian Association and the official vegetarian baby’s DHA of the American Pregnancy Association.
Tell me: What questions do you have? Did anything surprise you? Are you currently taking DHA supplements?
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.