Vegan LNA conversion to EPA/DHA
Hey Sassy! I'm an undergraduate college student studying nutrition, and also a semi-vegan (vegan about 90% of the time, strict vegetarian), so I am thoroughly impressed with your website.
Lately I've been concerned with my Omega 3 intake. Yes, we can get omega 3s from flax, walnuts, and certain vegetable oils, but this, as I'm sure you know, is only the essential Alpha-Linolenic Acid (LNA) form. While our bodies can convert LNA to the more-important DHA and EPA, we don't do it very efficiently.
I'm worried about how safe it is to rely solely on flax and walnuts (ALAs) as I do - I take flax oil and eat milled flax/walnuts daily. Would it be better to consume a lot more ALA than necessary so our bodies have an excess to work with in the conversion?
Are we vegans really missing the DHA/EPA boat with fish oil? I'd just start taking fish oil capsules rather than risk my brain and emotional health, but I really don't want to, and I certainly couldn't bring myself to eat fish!
Hi Lauren, This is such a HUGE issue that can be very confusing.
Let me clarify a few points about long-chain fatty acids that are found in animal products. Many advocates for animal foods claim that these nutrients are found in meats and that vegetarians are deficient. The reasoning is that if one is deficient in long-chain fatty acids (EPA, DHA, and AA), one can develop neurological problems, and also disorders such as depression, Alzheimer's and ADHD. Of course, there are other causes of these challenges.
Fish are particularly high in these nutrients. This is because the original source of these long-chain fatty acids are actually microalgae found in bodies of water such as oceans. Small fish eat the algae which is then eaten by the larger fish and up the food chain it goes. But turning to fish or fish oil capsules may not be ideal since mercury and other toxins are now found in our Earth's waters, and consequently in fish oils as well.
When humans eat foods rich in Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA), an essential fatty acid found in foods such as flax and hemp seeds, walnuts, and soy, our bodies then can convert these to EPA and DHA.
Some of us can perform this internal conversion fairly easily, while others have some challenges.
So how do you know which camp you fall into?
Well, if someone is deficient in DHA/EPA, this might mean they are not ingesting enough of the raw materials to make this conversion; or it might mean their body is simply not converting well; or it might mean they're eating too many Omega 6's (from things like oils and commercial foods) which can make it more difficult for your body to convert these Omega 3's.
It is frustrating that current research supports both points of view, some saying that our bodies can efficiently make this important switch over and others saying no way José.
It would seem to me that consuming excess ALA in the hopes that it would then cause more conversion than normal may or may not work - either your body converts efficiently or it doesn't.
The good news? There are some vegan EPA/DHA supplements which are plant-based and contain these readily-available long-chain fatty acids. I feel they are a bit expensive, but many people think it is worth the cost, myself included.Opti 3
has a good option for you. It's what Jeff and I use. They usually have a sweet 3-for-2 deal which saves you a lot of money. (The one drawback from ordering from this company is they usually take over 2 weeks to arrive here in the U.S. But if you can wait, the savings are pretty great!)
If you are concerned about your own conversion from ALA to EPA/DHA, I recommend you talk to your doctor about supplementing your diet. And please continue to research this vast and complex topic as you see fit.
Hope this helps. xo