Food and Behaviour Research

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12 August 2014 - foodconsumer - Could n-3 fatty acids benefit vegans?

Some studies suggest, that eating oily fish or taking fish oil supplements or long chain n-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA derived from animals may reduce risk of cardiovascular disease although not all studies are consistent.

FAB RESEARCH COMMENT:

As this article explains, vegetarians and vegans (along with anyone else who does not eat fish and seafood) tend to have much lower blood levels of long-chain omega-3 (EPA and DHA) - and this is associated with higher risks for heart disease and many other health problems.

As the author points out, however, other aspects of many vegetarian diets (such as an increased intake of vegetables, fruits and whole grains) can provide advantages that may help to offset the potential health risks of insufficient long-chain omega-3 intakes.

Conversion of the shorter chain omega-3 found in some nut and seed oils (such as flax, chia, walnut etc) into EPA/DHA is not reliable in humans (see Brenna et al, 2009), so although these can generally make a healthy contribution to the diet, they will NOT ensure adequate DHA status in particular.

Instead, for vegetarians wishing to improve their long-chain omega-3 status, vegan-friendly sources of these long-chain omega-3 derived from algae are now available (as supplements, or added to some foods) - although these are more expensive than fish oils.

For more details of this research review, see:
While this news item and the review focus on cardiovascular health only, there is an abundance of evidence that Omega -3 fatty acids play a major role in neurodevelopment and mental health.

For some recent news and research in this area please see:
Furthermore, lack of Omega -3 fatty acids in the diet has also been associated with antisocial behaviour:

The EFSA research panel has published the following reccomendations in July:

The Panel concluded that consumption of about 1‑2 servings of seafood per week and up to 3‑4 servings per week during pregnancy has been associated with better functional outcomes of neurodevelopment in children compared to no consumption of seafood. 

Assuming that taking fish oil is indeed beneficial, what could vegans or vegetarians do to reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease now that they do not eat fish oil or take n-3 fatty acids supplements?

First, vegans or vegetarians who do not eat fish nor take omega-3 fatty acids from animals and generally have a low serum level of n-3 fatty acids are already at much lower risk of cardiovascular disease, compared with omnivores.  

And second, according to a review led by W. S. Harris at University of South Dakota in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, those who do not eat fish or any other animal-derived foods or supplements may use the plant-derived n-3 fatty acids α-linolenic acid (ALA) if they believe these fatty acids are beneficial.

The conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA is low and use of these fatty acids in high doses is recommended.  But be aware that high serum levels of long chain omega-3 fatty acids do not necessarily reduce risk of cardiovascular disease.

In addition to ALA, vegans and vegetarians who do not eat fish can also take supplements containing EPA and or DHA derived from non-animal sources such as microalgae, yeast or plant oils.  These non-animal sources may be genetically modified though.