What Are Vegetarians Supposed To Do About Omega-3s?

Compared to meat-eaters, vegans and vegetarians enjoy some major health benefits—including a 29% drop in heart disease death and an 18% reduction in cancer risk. And since heart disease and cancer are two of the killers omega-3s have been shown to repel, it may seem like herbivores don’t have to worry as much about consuming the healthy fatty acids. But that’s not necessarily true, says William S. Harris, PhD, of the University of South Dakota.

Harris and his colleagues tested the omega-3 levels of 165 vegans for a study appearing in the journal Clinical Nutrition. Most were deficient, especially when it came to docosahexaenoic acid—or DHA—one of the two omega-3s (along with EPA) most often linked with health benefits. While it’s not clear how that affects herbivores in terms of heart disease or cancer, Dr. Harris says low omega-3 levels may put vegans and vegetarians at greater risk for dementia, Alzheimer’s, and the other mental conditions that omega-3 has been shown to ward off.

Plant-eaters tend to be low in omega-3s because they don’t eat fish—the main dietary source of omega-3s, Harris explains. (Plenty of meat-eaters don’t eat much fish either, which is why omega-3 supplements are so popular.)

But there’s good news for vegetarians: Harris and his colleagues asked the study participants to swallow a daily algae-based omega-3 supplement containing 172 mg of DHA and 82 mg EPA. After 4 months, the vegans’ omega-3 levels had increased an average of 55%.

Algae-derived omega-3 should be just as good for your brain as the fatty acids found in fish, Harris says. For those plant-eaters who may be omega-3 deficient—which is most herbivores, according to Harris’s research—he recommends taking a plant-derived EPA/DHA supplement. A product called Ovega-3 ($25 for 60 softgels, VitaminShoppe.com) contains omega-3s from the same manufacturer Dr. Harris and his colleagues used in their study. This supplement also passed product quality testing from ConsumerLab.com, an independent company that tests health supplements. Each soft gel packs enough EPA and DHA to meet the daily omega-3 targets featured in Harris’s study.