Did you know there are excellent vegan omega 3 sources? Really! You can get plenty of these healthy fats — fish free — if you know what foods to add to your diet! Here, Miranda, one of our resident nutritional scientists, breaks down the best ways to get omega 3s on a vegan diet!
When I switched to a fully plant-based diet in 2013, I was sure I was doing a good thing. Not just for the animals but also for the planet and my health.
I had done my research.
I knew the ethical arguments for avoiding using animals for food and treating them as property.
And I knew that raising livestock accounted for over 18% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. (For reference, that’s more greenhouse gas than is created by all the cars, planes, trains, and ships in the world.)
And I knew that plant-based diets were rich in micronutrients and reduced the risk of all the big killers in the western world, including:
But because I’d done my research, I also knew there were a couple of possible nutrient snafus in my new way of eating.
Eating a vegan diet would mean I would have to keep an eye on my intake of a few specific nutrients, namely:
- vitamin D
- vitamin B12
- omega 3 fatty acids
These are nutrients found most abundantly or, in a couple of cases, exclusively, in animal foods.
I knew simple ways to make sure I was getting enough of the first three — sunshine, supplements, and plenty of vitamin-C-rich foods with my salads — but getting my omega 3 fatty acids? That was going to take a little bit more research. Omega 3 fatty acids are, by their nature, just a touch more complicated.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids: the ALA, the EPA, and the DPA
The biggest, and most obvious, difference between the other critical vegan nutrients and omega 3 fatty acids is that they aren’t a single molecule.
Iron is iron. Active vitamin D is active vitamin D. And active vitamin B12 is vitamin B12.
But when you say “omega 3 fatty acids”, you could mean one of dozens of different fats!
In fact, all “omega 3 fatty acid” technically means is that the fat has a double bond three carbons away from its omega end (the end without oxygen). So, any fatty acid with at five or more carbons and a double bond on carbon three is an omega 3 fatty acid.
Nutritionally Important Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Despite the technical definition, in the world of nutrition, “omega 3 fatty acids” usually only refers to a very specific subset of fats. In fact, it usually refers to just three individual fats:
- αlpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
- eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
These three omega 3 fatty acids have huge effects on human health.
ALA is an essential fatty acid. That means your body absolutely needs it and it can’t make it on its own. Basically, ALA is a “vitamin” — just it’s also a type of fat!
Why is ALA so important? Well, your body needs it to make the other two important omega 3 fatty acids — EPA and DHA.
Learn More: Healthy Fats and the Omega 6:3 Ratio
EPA and DHA are critical for making sure all your cells work properly. Both of these fats are incorporated into the membranes of your cells. They make sure the membranes aren’t too stiff (which could cause your cells to stop letting important molecules in) or too liquid (which would let the inside of your cells leak out).
Obviously, that’s a really important job that can have vast effects on the health of your entire body!
Effects of EPA and DHA on Health
While all the cells in your body need healthy membranes, some cells are more sensitive to changes than others.
Some of the cells most sensitive to the levels of EPA and DHA in their membranes are:
This helps explain why getting too few omega 3 fatty acids may increase the risk of brain disorders and inflammatory diseases, such as:
Clearly, these fats are really important for your health!
Do Vegans Get Enough Omega 3s?
So, why was I worried about making sure I get enough omega 3s on a vegan diet? Do vegans usually not get enough of them?
The answer here is kind of tricky!
Typically, vegans get plenty of one of the three omega 3 fatty acids — ALA. That’s because ALA is found in lots of different plant foods (we’ll get to that in a second!).
But they tend not to get much EPA or DHA in their diet because these omega 3 fatty acids are found primarily in fish and other seafood.
Wait. If you can make EPA and DHA from ALA, does it matter if you aren’t getting much of them from your diet?
That is a very good question and one that scientists are still hotly debating.
Can You Get Enough EPA and DHA from ALA?
It turns out, while your body can make EPA and DHA from ALA, it’s not very good at it.
Studies estimate that only about 14% of the ALA humans eat makes it into EPA and only 4% to DHA. (Though, it’s important to note that there may be big differences between gender. Men appear to convert ALA far less efficiently than women.)
So, the worry is that even you might get plenty of ALA on a vegan diet, your EPA and DHA levels may still be low.
And research does seem to support this idea. Studies show that vegans tend to have lower DHA levels in their cell membranes than omnivores who consume lots of preformed DHA from fish or seafood. (Of course, “lower” doesn’t necessarily mean “too low” — also another hotly debated scientific question. But one for another day!)
Getting Enough Vegan Omega 3s
So, does this all mean that vegans need to start eating fish to boost their EPA and DHA intake?
Not by a long shot!
There are, luckily, four solid (and 100% vegan) ways around this dilemma!
1. Consume tons of ALA every day.
While only a small percentage of the ALA you eat makes it to EPA or DHA, if you simply eat a large enough amount of ALA, that small percentage can meet your needs.
2. Reduce your intake of omega 6 fatty acids.
It turns out that you are more efficient at making EPA and DHA if you have less of another type of fat — omega 6 fatty acids — in your body. (As you can guess from the name, omega 6 fatty acids just have their first double bond on carbon six, rather than carbon 3!)
Omega 6 fatty acids are found highly concentrated in processed vegetable oils (specifically safflower, sunflower, and corn oils) and junk foods made with them. So, cutting back on these types of foods can help you make healthy amounts of EPA and DHA.
3. Develop a taste for algae/seaweed.
Microalgae and seaweeds are the most solid vegan omega 3 sources. They actually contain preformed EPA and DHA.
This means adding edible algae, algae oil, or seaweed to your regular diet can offer you an excellent way to boost your EPA and/or DHA levels.
(Interestingly, fish get their EPA and DHA by eating microalgae — they don’t make it themselves! So, you’re kind of just cutting out the “middle man”, here, as it were!)
4. Take a vegan omega 3 supplement.
If you can’t stomach the idea (or the taste) of eating seaweed or algae, there are plenty of vegan omega 3 supplements on the market that contain pre-formed EPA and DHA. They are made from concentrated algae oil (rather than fish oil) to keep them cruelty-free.
And studies have confirmed that vegan omega 3 supplements work just as well as fish oil for raising EPA and DHA levels!
The 20 Top Vegan Omega 3 Sources
Whether you choose to supplement with vegan omega 3 supplements or not, you should make sure that you’re getting plenty of healthy omega 3s in your diet, as well. (After all, supplements should be just that — a supplement to your diet!)
So, what are the best vegan omega 3 sources you can incorporate into your diet? I’m so glad you asked!
Here is my list of the top 20 foods to make sure your omega 3 levels stay high and healthy!
For reference, the adequate daily intake (i.e. the minimum intake to prevent deficiencies) of ALA for adults is 1,100-1,600 mg. There are no firm recommendations for EPA and DHA but typically about 10% of daily ALA intake is thought to be safe (so, between 50 and 160 mg per day).
Topping my list as the best vegan omega 3 source is wakame!
This tasty seaweed is a common find on many sushi restaurant menus, typically in the form of a wakame salad. From personal experience, I can say the texture and flavor of this zesty salad takes a little getting used to. Once you get a feel for it, though, nothing else quite hits the spot when you want something crunchy, zingy, and flavorful!
And what a great craving to have for your omega 3 levels since wakame is a fabulous source of preformed EPA.
Omega 3 Content: 18.6 mg EPA/10 g
2. Irish Moss
Irish moss is a seaweed that grows on the rocky coasts of the Northern Atlantic Ocean. Though edible, most people don’t eat Irish Moss as is. Rather, it is usually made into a sweet drink that goes by the same name.
Here’s a link to a vegan Irish Moss drink recipe for a sweet, unique way to pack in a healthy dose of preformed EPA.
Omega 3 Content: 5 mg EPA/10 g
Laver is a type of red seaweed that grows happily in intertidal zones (the areas that are flooded at high tide and on dry land at low tide). This, of course, makes it a super seaweed to harvest for food! Just walk out on the muddy shore at low tide!
And great news, it’s also a great source of preformed EPA!
Omega 3 Content: 1 mg EPA/10 g
4. Flaxseed Oil
Flaxseeds have one of the highest concentrations of omega 3 fatty acids of any food in the world. And what way to make them an even better source of these healthy fats? Concentrate them down into an oil!
The massive dose of omega 3s you get from every tablespoon of flaxseed oil doesn’t include any preformed EPA or DHA but it’ll certainly help you make bunches of your own!
Omega 3 Content: 5,330 mg omega 3 fatty acids/10 g
If you like to keep your diet as minimally processed as possible, you can opt for whole flaxseeds rather than flaxseed oil!
While not as concentrated as in the oil, eating whole flaxseeds is still an awesome option for getting in tons of healthy omega 3 fatty acids. And with a light, nutty flavor, they are an easy addition to breakfast cereals, oatmeal, or salads!
Just make sure to grind them up before you add them to your food to make sure your body can actually absorb the omega 3s you’re after.
Omega 3 Content: 2,281 mg omega 3 fatty acids/10 g
6. Chia Seeds
Chia seeds have been having their moment in the sun! These tiny little nutritional powerhouses have made their way onto the “superfood” list and it’s unlikely that they are going anywhere anytime soon!
One of the nutrients they provide in abundance? Omega 3 fatty acids!
New to chia seeds? I totally recommend trying out a vegan chia seed pudding, like this one by The Simple Veganista. It is so easy and decadent you’ll completely forget you’re doing your body good!
Omega 3 Content: 1,783 mg ALA/10 g
7. English Walnuts
Can you believe there was a time when we thought nuts were bad for us because of their calorie content? Nuts!
Nuts and seeds are actually some of the healthiest foods we can eat! And if you’re looking at omega 3s, walnuts top the nut list!
Sprinkle some on your morning cereal or oatmeal, mix them into a stir fry or salad, or just enjoy them on their own as a snack.
Omega 3 Content: 908 mg omega 3 fatty acids/10 g
8. Canola Oil
While olive oil tends to get all the hype for its healthy monounsaturated fatty acids, if you’re looking for omega 3 fatty acids, canola oil is actually the way to go! It provides about 6x as many omega 3 fatty acids per 10 grams as olive oil (and 11x fewer omega 6s for a way healthier omega 6:3 ratio).
Swap olive oil for canola oil in some of your cooking, baking, and salad dressing recipes and enjoy a daily boost in your omega 3 intakes!
Omega 3 Content: 634 mg ALA/10 g
9. Soybean Oil
Another oil that beats olive oil for omega 3s? Soybean oil! With roughly as much omega 3 per 10 g as canola oil, soybean oil provides another great, simple way to increase your daily intake of these healthy fats, especially if you’re not a fan of canola oil!
Omega 3 Content: 679 mg ALA/10 g
10. Black Walnuts
While not a quite so potent omega 3 source as their English cousins, black walnuts deserve still serious omega 3 recognition! After all, they still make the top 10 of the best vegan omega 3 sources in the world!
Swap them in anywhere you’d use English walnuts for a slightly different flavor.
Omega 3 Content: 201 mg ALA/10 g
If soybean oil is a great source of omega 3s, it should come as no surprise to you to learn that tofu is as well. Since tofu retains the fiber and other complex molecules removed when making the oil, the omega 3s are quite a bit less concentrated. But they are all still there!
Add some tofu to a stir fry, mix up a tofu-veggie scramble for breakfast (I love this one by Loving It Vegan), or add some tofu to your lunch salad for a pop of omega 3 fatty acids (and some serious protein to boot!).
Omega 3 Content: 58 mg omega 3 fatty acids/10 g
Since omega 3 fatty acids are fats it seems like they would be found in foods you think of as “fatty”. But that’s not entirely the case. Some of the best sources of omega 3s are leafy greens — something you almost certainly would think of as “low fat”!
Add some kale to your salads, smoothies, soups, or stir-fries for a healthy dose of omega 3s.
Omega 3 Content: 11 mg omega 3 fatty acids/10 g
If soybean oil and tofu are good sources of omega 3 fatty acids, then, of course, so is edamame! This tasty treat made from immature soybeans may not pack the same punch as far as concentration goes, but it’s still not a shabby dose of these healthy fats!
And it is far, far easier to toss in your bag and munch on when you’re on the go than a chunk of tofu!
Omega 3 Content: 36 mg ALA/10 g
14. Brussel Sprouts
Here’s another “low fat” food rich in omega 3 fats: Brussel sprouts!
Roast up a batch of these delicious little cabbages with some garlic, pepper, and chili flakes for the perfect omega-3-rich side dish for any dinner!
Omega 3 Content: 17 mg omega 3 fatty acids/10 g
Is there any healthy nutrient that spinach doesn’t have? This soft, mildly-flavored leafy green seems to pop up on every single healthy food countdown list on the internet!
And it makes it on to this one because, just like kale, it is an excellent source of omega 3 fatty acids. Add a cup or two to your salads, smoothies, soups, or stir-fries for a bump in the omega 3 content!
Omega 3 Content: 14 mg omega 3 fatty acids/10 g
16. Kidney Beans
Are you starting to see a pattern here? Yep, legumes and beans are a great source of omega 3s! Even the humble kidney bean!
Whip out a can of kidney beans (no salt added!) for your next vegan Taco Tuesday festivities for a helping of these healthy fats (not to mention a boatload of plant-based protein and fiber!).
Omega 3 Content: 8 mg ALA/10 g
17. Bok Choy
And on to another of our leafy greens!
Bok choy (also called Chinese cabbage) is undoubtedly less well-known in the West than spinach and kale, but it shouldn’t be! This nutritional powerhouse has a unique, sharp flavor that brings life to any dish without being overpowering. Add it to salads or stir-fries for an extra dose of omega 3s and a bump in flavor!
Omega 3 Content: 6 mg omega 3 fatty acids/10 g
18. Red Cabbage
Colorful and crunchy, red cabbage makes any meal feel like a fresh feast! And, as it turns out, a feast richer in omega 3s!
Add shredded red cabbage to your salads, soups, or stir-fries for a nearly calorie-free but color-saturated boost in your omega 3 intakes for the day!
Omega 3 Content: 5 mg omega 3 fatty acids/10 g
19. Mustard Greens
Omega-3 rich soul food? Sign me up!
Saute these delectable leafy greens in canola or soybean oil with some garlic, pepper, and (if needed) salt for a warm, filling, omega-3 laden side dish that will be welcome at any dinner table!
Omega 3 Content: 2 mg omega 3 fatty acids/10 g
20. Garbanzo Beans
Look! Another bean makes our list!
A staple in Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine, these tasty and mild little legumes are a fabulous addition to all kinds of dishes. Add them to curries, soups, or stews for some texture, or whip them up into some delectable hummus (I love this recipe!) for sandwiches, wraps, or dips!
However you get them into your diet, you’ll enjoy the extra omega 3s!
Omega 3 Content: 2 mg omega 3 fatty acids/10 g
The 5 Best Vegan Omega 3 Supplements
Disclosure – This post contains affiliate links. Click here for details.
While it might feel like “cheating”, if you want to be 100% sure you’re getting enough omega 3s, you can absolutely go with a supplement. With highly concentrated preformed EPA and/or DHA, you can be certain you’re meeting your body’s needs.
If you think a vegan omega 3 supplement is a good fit for your diet, here are five top brands I recommend checking out!
This 100% vegan omega 3 supplement provides 350 mg of algal DHA per capsule, which is more than enough to cover your daily needs! Independently tested, GMO-free, with a lifetime money-back guarantee, and high customer satisfaction (4.3-star average rating on Amazon), this is definitely a solid vegan omega 3 supplement option.
It only makes number five on my list, though, because it doesn’t contain any preformed EPA, just DHA. Additionally, the capsules use carrageenan, a controversial ingredient that may cause some people digestive issues. If you know you’re sensitive to carrageenan, or if your digestive system is sensitive, in general, this may not be the best pick for you.
My number four pick is Testa Omega-3 capsules. This supplement is, of course, vegan certified and contains absolutely no fish or animal products of any kind. It provides 250 mg of DHA and 125 mg of EPA per capsule.
Importantly, Testa is passionate about protecting the oceans. The algae used to make these supplements is sustainably grown and the company works to conserve ocean habitats and fish stocks. So, choosing their vegan omega-3 oil is using your dollar to vote for sustainability and cruelty-free living.
Of course, this is all tangential if the supplements themselves aren’t high quality! But they are! On Amazon, Testa Omega-3 has been rated a solid 4.4 out of 5 stars from over 250 customer reviews.
Coming in at number three we have Amala Vegan Omega-3. Made from sustainable algae, this supplement is another awesome cruelty-free omega-3 option.
Each vegan, gluten-free, GMO-free, and artificial-flavor- and color-free Amala Vegan Omega-3 capsule gives you a solid 360 mg DHA and 5 mg EPA. Each capsule is small, making this a great choice if you don’t enjoy swallowing pills!
My runner up supplement is Ovega-3!
Ovega-3 has a more potent dose of omega 3s (320 mg DHA and 130 mg EPA) per capsule than the other supplements on this list. And independent testing has given it rave reviews (100% purity and efficiency!).
Combine this with exceptional customer satisfaction and a great price-per-mg-of-omega-3s, this supplement is hard to beat!
The only downside to this supplement is that it contains carrageenan, making it a poor option if you’re sensitive to this seaweed extract.
Finally, topping my list I have Nordic Naturals Algae Omega!
Nordic Naturals’ brand is well-known for its high-quality, high-purity products, and this supplement is true to brand — a fact clearly attested to by independent testing!
Each algal oil capsule contains a full 195 mg of EPA and a healthy 305 mg DHA sourced from fully sustainably harvested wild algae. You can check the quality details for your batch directly with Nordic Naturals to make sure all possible contaminants have been removed.
Combine the sustainability, transparency, concentrated doses, quality, and purity of this supplement with excellent customer satisfaction and exceptional value and you have an absolutely awesome vegan omega 3 supplement on your hands!
Take Home Message
A vegan diet is a great choice for the animals, the planet, and — if you keep an eye on a few key nutrients — for your health! One of these key nutrients is omega 3 fatty acids, specifically the longer chain EPA and DHA forms.
To make sure you are getting enough EPA and DHA to keep your cells healthy, be sure to bone up on vegan omega 3 sources and/or add a vegan omega 3 supplement to your routine!