After a decade of serious shunning, fats have officially made a comeback. But some still reign supreme over others. (We're looking at you, omega-3s.)
Omega-3 fatty acids are among the most studied and recommended fats across all types of dietary preferences. It doesn't matter if you're vegan, vegetarian, keto, or following a Mediterranean or plant-based diet, you need omega-3 fatty acids to feel your best.
We talked to the experts to get a better understanding of omega-3's are so important and how you can get more of them, including plant based ones.
What are omega-3s, and why do we need them?
Your body can technically make EPA and DHA from ALA (but this conversion process is very inefficient and limited), but ALA must come from the food you eat.
"ALA is unique in that it is an essential fatty acid, meaning the body cannot produce it on its own," explains Maya Feller, M.S., R.D., CDN, registered dietitian nutritionist of Brooklyn-based Maya Feller Nutrition and mbg Functional Nutrition instructor.
Because of this, the Institute of Medicine recommends that adult women get 1.1 grams of ALA per day and adult men get 1.6 grams of ALA per day.
Since the body has the ability to synthesize EPA and DHA from ALA in the liver (albeit inefficiently) there's no official recommended intake level set for these two fatty acids. However, since the conversion rate is so low5 and varies widely (from 0.3 to 20%), it's a wise idea to get what you can from your food.
Many researchers and clinicians wish there were daily requirements set because EPA and DHA are that important.
As a general rule, plant-based foods are rich in ALA, while animal foods (aka marine origin), like seafood (especially fatty fish) and the algae these fish consume, are the best sources of EPA and DHA.
Plant-based omega-3 foods
It also contains very small amounts of EPA6, a rarity for plant-based omega-3 sources but still trace amounts (only 10 milligrams EPA for a kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, or purslane), so its bragging rights are definitely on the ALA front.
If you can't find purslane, you can get ALA from other plant based sources of omega-3s like:
Flaxseeds and flaxseed oil
Vegetarian omega-3 foods
There are also a handful of vegetarian omega-3 sources. These have all three omega-3s in varying concentrations.
Typically the chicken feed is fortified with ALA, but sometimes EPA and DHA, too (the latter are more expensive). These additions go a long way, as omega-3-enriched eggs have been shown to positively affect heart health8.
Seaweed & algae
Seaweed and algae are other plant based and vegetarian-friendly sources of omega-3 fatty acids that may help increase your blood DHA levels better than other plant-based sources9.
Other omega-3 foods.
SMASH (salmon, mackerel, anchovies, herring, and sardines)
If you're not vegan or vegetarian, Hyman recommends sticking to what he calls SMASH (salmon, mackerel, anchovies, herring, and sardines) fish to meet your omega-3 needs.
Two servings of these fish per week will help you get what you need while minimizing exposure to heavy metals (like mercury) and toxins that are often present in larger fish.
So, can you get enough omega-3s just from the foods you eat?
The short answer is: It depends what you're eating.
"Most of the health benefits of omega-3 have been linked to animal-based sources (docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, and eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA)," Megan Rossi, Ph.D., R.D., also known as the gut health doctor, previously told mbg. "The plant-based type of omega-3 (alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA) can be converted by our bodies into DHA and EPA. But the conversion is not efficient."
If you're vegan or vegetarian, Rossi recommends consuming a variety of plant-based omega-3 sources and considering fortified foods or supplements.
"The study supports the notion that EPA and DHA intake contributes to cardioprotection, and that whatever patients are getting through the diet, they likely need more,"* Lavie previously told mbg.
In reality, the large majority (90%)12 of Americans fail to consume the EPA and DHA equivalent of two servings of oily fish weekly, so high-quality fish oil supplements can play a key role in addressing this nutrient gap.*
In other words, while it's always a good idea to eat fish twice per week, you may still need an omega-3 supplement to fill in the gaps.*
Omega-3 fatty acids come from all types of foods. Plant foods provide mostly ALA, while fish and grass-fed beef are richer in EPA and DHA.
Eating a variety of foods can help you meet your omega-3 needs, but you may still need a supplement, especially if you're vegan or vegetarian.
Editor's Note (May 11, 2022): A previous version of this article incorrectly cited a study that claimed one benefit of omega-3 fatty acids is that they support anti-inflammatory pathways in the body. After further scientific review, we have found that the cited article does not accurately represent the latest research and have replaced the linked study with a new one that aligns with the most up-to-date information.
Lindsay Boyers is a holistic nutritionist specializing in gut health, mood disorders, and functional nutrition. Lindsay earned a degree in food & nutrition from Framingham State University, and she holds a Certificate in Holistic Nutrition Consulting from the American College of Healthcare Sciences.
She has written twelve books and has had more than 2,000 articles published across various websites. Lindsay currently works full time as a freelance health writer. She truly believes that you can transform your life through food, proper mindset and shared experiences. That's why it's her goal to educate others, while also being open and vulnerable to create real connections with her clients and readers.