Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Benefits, Deficiency, and Foods

Omega-3 fatty acids, AKA omega-3 fats or n-3 fats, are essentials, meaning the body is unable to make it from scratch and thus obtains it from food. It offers various health benefits including maintaining a healthy heart, brain and blood vessels. What most people think of when they hear omega-3 is fish. In fact, fish oil supplements have become a booming business for precisely this reason. However, consuming fish is not only unhealthy, but it is unsustainable and it is estimated that we will face fishless oceans by 2050. It is entirely possible to avoid this travesty while fulfilling all your omega-3 requirements by going vegan! In fact, there are many plant-based foods, which are abundant in omega-3s!

In this guide, we’ll cover the following topics:

Types of Omega-3s

There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids:

Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA):It is the most common type of omega-3 fatty acids in your diet. It is most often used by the body for energy and can also be converted into biologically active forms of omega-3, DHA & EPA. However, only a small portion of ALA is converted into DHA and EPA. 

Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) & Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA):These are two important omega-3 fatty acids in your body. They play an integral role in brain health, retinas and various other body parts. It is also mainly found in marine-based sources. 

Health Benefits of Omega-3

For Your Heart: Omega-3s play a role in maintaining a regular heartbeat. This nutrient aids in preventing your heart from beating in any abnormal rhythms which may lead to fatalities such as cardiac deaths. Omega-3s are also important for decreasing the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. It has even been reported to help reduce the risk of death if you have already been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease. 

For Your Blood Vessels: Omega-3s play a pivotal role in maintaining healthy blood vessels. It helps keep the lining of your arteries smooth and free from damage, which could otherwise result in thick, hard arteries. It helps prevent the formation of plaque in your arteries, otherwise known as atherosclerosis. It also helps lower inflammation, which is thought to have a part in the development of atherosclerosis. 

Omega-3s also help lower triglyceride levels. Triglycerides are a common type of fat found in the blood and account for 95 percent of all dietary fats. When left unchecked, it can contribute to the development of atherosclerosis and heart disease. According to numerous studies, having high triglycerides has been associated with low levels of HDL, which is the good cholesterol that aids in removing fat from your artery. Omega-3s help lower triglycerides levels by slowing down the rate at which they develop in your liver. 

Furthermore, Omega-3s are important in preventing blood clots. The nutrient keeps clotting balanced and in control by stopping blood platelets from clumping together. Thus, it reduces the risk of heart attacks, which is often caused by a clot that is typically sudden and catastrophic. 

For Your Brain: Omega-3s are quite essential for brain health, EPA and DHA. DHA is typically found in your brain. In fact, it consists of around 30 percent of your brain’s dry weight. On the other hand, EPA is not usually found in large amounts in the brain, however,  it is quite important in helping blood flow to your brain.

There is also evidence that EPA and DHA may prove beneficial in improving depression and cognition, especially in children, infants, and older adults. However, the results of these studies are not yet conclusive.

For Your Skin & Hair: Omega-3s are also important in keeping your skin hydrated, glowing and youthful, which helps guard against dry, itchy skin caused by disorders such as psoriasis and atopic dermatitis. In fact, one study’s results showed that in 12 weeks, women who consumed about half a teaspoon of flaxseed oil rich in omega-3, found that their skin was 39 percent more hydrated. In comparison to the placebo group, their skin was less rough and sensitive.

Omega-3s may also offer protection from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays by reducing your skin’s sensitivity to UV rays. It also helps prevent or decrease the severity of acne. The reason for this is because recent studies suggest that acne may be caused by inflammation and thus, omega-3s help fight against acne as it has been known to aid in reducing inflammation. 

Omega-3s are also beneficial for encouraging hair growth and reducing hair loss. It helps fight against issues such as dry and brittle hair, hair fall, itchy and flaky scalp, dandruff and improper blood circulation in the scalp. Omega-3s nourish your hair follicles thus giving you strong and healthy tresses. 

7 Signs of Omega-3 Deficiency

Despite being a nutrient that provides a plethora of benefits, studies show that the majority of people do not consume enough omega-3s and are most likely experiencing some form of mild omega-3 deficiency. Here are seven signs that you may be suffering from a deficiency in omega-3:

  1. Dull and lifeless hair: Omega-3s help nourish and thicken hair as well as decrease scalp inflammation, which often leads to hair loss. The nutrient can be found in your hair follicles and help keep your locks glossy and lustrous.
  2. Dry and/or bumpy skin: Omega-3s are essential in maintaining youthful and moisturized skin. It is naturally found in the cell wall structure and aids in the absorption of various nutrients as well as in the expulsion of waste products thus giving you healthy, glowing skin. Hence, the more deficient you are, the drier your skin will become. Additionally, you may also develop dandruff and small bumps on your skin (like goosebumps), typically on the backs of your upper arms and legs. 
  3. Brittle nails: Soft, peeling and brittle nails are usually a warning sign that something in your body isn’t going right. It could be related to a deficiency in omega-3.
  4. Poor concentration: Those lacking omega-3s may experience trouble concentrating or focusing on tasks. However, it has been reported that it is possible to significantly improve concentration just by making sure that you obtain your daily dose of omega-3. 
  5. Fatigue: While fatigue can be symptomatic of numerous causes, it is also undoubtedly one sign of a deficiency in omega-3. In fact, it is quite a common symptom of an underlying lack of omega-3 in the body thus it’s important to consume more foods rich in omega-3s in order to boost your energy levels. 
  6. Insomnia: Studies show that those with higher levels of omega-3 in their bodies claim to experience a better quality of sleep. 
  7. Joint pain: Because omega-3s are beneficial in lowering inflammation levels, they may be effective in helping prevent the process that destroys joints and tissues, which is what causes the inflammation to begin with. 

Skin and concentration symptoms are typically common in children and young adults, however as you age, you may also experience sleep and energy-related symptoms. Joint and cognitive associated symptoms are most often experienced by middle-aged and elderly persons. Many of these symptoms are not necessarily life-threatening and are often overlooked or misdiagnosed as many of them are also symptomatic of other illnesses. However, if ignored, you will be in a constant state of deficiency. In the long run, it can lead to a less than ideal functioning of your body. 

How Much Omega-3 Do You Need?

Most organizations recommend that adults obtain around a daily dose of 800 to 1,100 milligrams of ALA omega-3s and 250 to 500 milligrams of EPA and DHA omega-3s. The Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3 recommends that you should consume the higher end of that range in order to help decrease the risk of coronary heart disease. In addition, some experts recommended that vegans and vegetarians consume double the amount of ALAs, which may help boost the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in your blood since your body is capable of converting ALAs into EPA and DHA, albeit a very small amount. 

9 Foods Rich In Omega-3 (All Plant-Based)

9 Vegan Omega-3 sources

  1. Flaxseeds: These seeds are an excellent source of ALAs. Just one tablespoon of ground flaxseeds offers 1,600 mg of ALA. Simply add it to your salads, oatmeal or smoothies to meet your daily intake!
  2. Walnuts: Not only are they a great source of poly- and monounsaturated fatty acids, they are also rich in ALAs. Two tablespoons of the nuts give 1,140 mg of ALAs and they’re a great addition to salads and desserts. 
  3. Chia Seeds: They are a great source of ALAs and are also rich in fiber, protein, calcium, magnesium and phosphorous. Just add them to your cereal, salads, shakes or smoothies. You can also use them as an egg substitute while baking by switching out 1 egg with ¼ cup of chia seed gel. 
  4. Algae: A common misconception is that you must consume fish in order to get adequate amounts of DHA and EPA. In reality, fish don’t naturally produce DHA and EPA on their own, instead, they obtain it from algae! There are many algae-derived supplements that you can consume in order to meet your daily intake. You could also consume spirulina, a product made from a strain of algae. You can also consume seaweed in either its raw or dried form for DHA and EPA. 
  5. Canola Oil: Made from rapeseeds, this particular oil contains both monounsaturated fats (MUFA) and polyunsaturated fats (PUFA), which are further split into omega-3 and omega-6. This oil contains an optimal balance of the two omegas and can be easily used for cooking. 
  6. Hemp Seeds: It is excellent for improving your brain and digestive health. Some people opt for hemp seed oil. Two teaspoons is sufficient enough for your daily intake of ALA. Simply incorporate it in your salads, dips or sauces!
  7. Tofu: Four ounces will provide 360 mg of ALA and it’s also a great source of protein. It is often used as a great substitute for paneer! Some of the other soy-derived products also contain ALA such as tempeh, which acts as a replacement for meat. 
  8. Pumpkin Seeds: They’re loaded with not just omega-3s but also iron and even help stabilize blood sugar and hormone levels. 
  9. Acai Berries: This superfood may actually be richer in omega-3s than some types of fish! It is also rich in antioxidants called anthocyanins, which has been proven to aid in preventing heart disease. 

The Bottom Line

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for various bodily functions such as maintaining a healthy heart and brain as well as for keeping your blood vessels clear of plaque and clots. It is mistakenly thought that the only way to obtain EPA and DHA is by the consumption of fish, however, algae are one of the few and best vegan sources for both. It is easily available as supplements, spirulina or seaweed. Be sure to also take in a healthy amount of ALAs so that you can maximize the synthesis of EPA and DHA by your body. Otherwise, it can lead to deficiencies which while not life-threatening, can result in a less than optimal function of your body over time.