In this post, I will show you my top 5 vegan sources for omega-3, and how you can easily incorporate them into your diet.
Strolling through your favorite supermarket you have probably already noticed the labels “rich in omega-3” on the packaging of flax seeds or chia seeds. As a vegan, you should know, that plant-based food sources typically contain the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). What most plant sources don’t contain are the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which either have to be converted from ALA in the body or have to be consumed from marine food sources directly. Both EPA and DHA are linked to brain health, cardiovascular health and the reduction of inflammation. For this reason, vegans or non-fish-eaters have to either depend on the conversion process of ALA to EPA and DHA, or they have to consume the sole vegan source of EPA and DHA, which is algae or algae oil.
Important note: Please be aware, that current scientific research suggests that the efficiency of the conversion process is dependent on your absolute and relative omega-6/omega-3 ratio. Our standard Western diet usually contains excessive amounts of omega-6 fatty acids, which is mostly present in refined vegetable oils (e.g. sunflower and soybean oil) and processed foods. In cases like this, it sometimes makes more sense to cut back on omega-6 instead of mindlessly increasing your omega-3 intake, which is promoted mostly by the fish oil industry. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that you have to cut out whole food sources such as sesame seeds, pumpkins seeds etc., since these provide a lot of nutritional value. We are talking about the refined oils high in omega-6 and processed foods in general, which often contain high amounts of cheap refined oils.
With that being said, I have listed some of the best plant foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids below. It is definitely a good idea to incorporate these into your diet, no matter if you are a vegan, a vegetarian or a non-fish eater.
1. Flax Seeds
Number one on this list are flax seeds. Flax seeds are one of the best sources of ALA, containing 1.6g of omega-3s per tablespoon of ground flax seeds. They are pretty inexpensive and can easily be found in most supermarkets.
Besides being rich in omega-3s, flax seeds also contain good amounts of soluble and insoluble fiber which aid digestion and help treat constipation. Studies have shown that these nutritious seeds, and especially the lignans they contain, have clear anticarcinogenic effects.
If you have ever eaten flax seeds before you have probably noticed that they are pretty hard to chew. If flax seeds are not ground, they will not be digested well. To grind them use a blender if you are grinding larger amounts. For smaller amounts a coffee grinder will work as well.
To increase the bioavailability soak them overnight in water or plant drink.
Also, be sure to drink enough when consuming flax seeds since they will absorb lots of water.
Storing flax seeds
The unsaturated fats in flax seeds and ground flax seeds in particular oxidize fairly quickly. Once the polyunsaturated fats are oxidized, they may have the adverse effect of their usual benefits. Therefore, always try to grind your flax seeds before use or store them in a refrigerator or freezer after grinding.
Flaxseed oil shouldn’t be used for cooking. Applying heat will break down and destroy the polyunsaturated fatty acids. If you want to add flax seed oil to cooked meals, always add it after cooking the food.
As with whole or ground flax seeds, flaxseed oil is best stored in the refrigerator.
2. Chia Seeds
Chia seeds were already known in Aztec and Mayan cultures for their health benefits. In fact, the word chia stems from the Mayan language, meaning “strong” or “strengthening”. Together with flax seeds, they are one of the best sources for ALA, providing 1.8g per tablespoon.
Chia seeds are also packed with other vital nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, fiber and protein. Other than flax seeds, chia seeds do not have to be ground necessarily, by grinding them, however, you will help your body reap greater nutritional benefits, through increasing their “bioavailability”. Similar to flax seeds soaking them overnight can increase the digestibility even further but also be sure to drink enough water when consuming them.
If you have to choose between chia or flax seeds for omega-3, flax seeds in my opinion are usually the better option since they are cheaper and have cancer-preventive effects due to their high lignan content.
Nevertheless, chia seeds are a great source of calcium, fiber,
My favorite way to eat chia seeds is chia pudding. It really tastes amazing and is a good snack alternative.
3. Hemp Seeds
Hemp seeds are another great vegan source of omega-3. They provide 0.9g ALA per tablespoon and are incredibly nutritious.
Besides their good polyunsaturated fatty acid content, they provide good amounts of magnesium, iron and zinc. Additionally hemp seeds are a high quality protein due to their good amino acid profile, only being slightly limited in the essential amino acid lysine. However, don’t worry. This amino acid can be found easily in lysine-rich staples of the vegan diet, such as beans, legumes, nuts and seeds.
Eating whole hemp seeds increases your fiber intake and in particular the amount of insoluble fiber, which can help your body cleanse and remove toxins from your digestive system. Hulled hemp seeds on the other hand provide better protein absorption due to the removal of the shell.
I like to sprinkle hemp seeds over some hummus or avocado toast but you can also add them to your smoothies or salads.
Walnuts are the only representatives of the nut family high in omega-3. These nuts have potential benefits for brain health and brain functioning. No wonder you might think, since they are brain-shaped. And you might be right, the phytochemicals and polyunsaturated fatty acids they contain, decrease oxidant and inflammatory load on brain cells, improve interneuronal signaling, and increase neurogenesis (formation of neurons).
One ounce of walnuts contains 2.5g of ALA; a considerably high amount. But keep in mind that this same ounce of walnuts also contains 10.6g of LA.
If you want to decrease the amount of omega-6 you take in on a daily basis, you shouldn’t go overboard with walnuts. Still, this doesn’t mean that eating a handful of walnuts a day will be harmful.
I usually just like to snack on plain walnuts but if you have some better recipe ideas that I should try, definitely let me know in the comments.
5. Leafy Greens / cruciferous vegetables
The ALA content in leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables such as kale, spinach, romaine lettuce, collard greens, broccoli, and cauliflower is not extraordinarily high. But these leafy greens still provide decent amounts of ALA with a very favorable omega-6 to omega-3 ratios, mostly in the range of 1:1-4.
Additionally, kale and other greens are high in vital nutrients such as calcium, iron, vitamin C and vitamin K. Two cups of chopped kale for example contain 240mg of ALA, close to 200mg of calcium which meets 20% of your daily requirements and more than 2mg of iron. Furthermore, one cup of any of these leafy greens will be more than enough to cover your vitamin K requirements for the day.
You can use leafy greens such as kale or romaine lettuce in salads or add them to your smoothies.
Broccoli tastes great in stir-fries or roasted in the oven, while cauliflower goes well with curries. Both also taste great if they are roasted in the oven.
Ever wondered why fish is rich in omega-3? It’s the seaweed! And by consuming seaweed you go straight to the source. Different seaweeds like kelp, wakame or nori are the only plant sources which contain the long-chain omega-3s EPA and DHA. However, to be able to meet your daily requirements you would have to consume larger amounts of seaweed, which in turn would make your iodine intake skyrocket. It is probably smarter to consume algae oil instead of seaweed, since it provides you with the essential oils without the risk of taking in too much iodine.
As mentioned earlier, you do not have to depend on the conversion process of ALA since algae oil already contains EPA and DHA. This fact sets algae and algae oil apart from the other plant foods on this list.
You can get algae oil either as capsules or as bottled oil which you can add to your salads or smoothies.
As for serving sizes, capsules are pretty straight forward. Usually you take 1-2 capsule a day, which will contain the recommended daily intake of around 250-500mg combined EPA and DHA. If you are going for the algae oil, depending on the individual product, one teaspoon or tablespoon should be enough. Make sure that the algae oil you are buying contains an antioxidant such as Vitamin E (tocopherol) and make sure you store it in a cool place. This will help prevent oxidization of the poly-unsaturated fatty acids, which makes the oil turn rancid.
|Serving size||Omega-3 in g||Omega-6 to omega-3 ratio|
|Flax seeds||1 tbsp (7g)||1.6g||1:4|
|Chia seeds||1 tbsp (10g)||1.8g||1:3|
|Hemp seeds||1 tbsp (10g)||0.9g||3:1|
|Walnuts||Handful (1oz, 28g)||2.5g||4:1|
|Leafy greens (e.g. kale)||2 cups (134g)||0.2g||1:1-4|
|Cruciferous vegetables||1 cup (150g)||0.2g||1:3|
|Algae oil||1 tsp (5ml)||1.8g||n.a.|
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And as always,
Move, eat, and think healthy!
 Chen, J., Stavro, P. M., & Thompson, L. U. (2002). Dietary flaxseed inhibits human breast cancer growth and metastasis and downregulates expression of insulin-like growth factor and epidermal growth factor receptor. Nutrition and cancer, 43(2), 187-192.
 NCC Database.
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 Poulose, S. M., Miller, M. G., & Shukitt-Hale, B. (2014). Role of Walnuts in Maintaining Brain Health with Age–3. The Journal of nutrition, 144(4), 561S-566S.
Njike, V. Y., Ayettey, R., Petraro, P., Treu, J. A., & Katz, D. L. (2015). Walnut ingestion in adults at risk for diabetes: effects on body composition, diet quality, and cardiac risk measures. BMJ Open Diabetes Research and Care, 3(1), e000115.