It’s well-known that omega-3 is needed to keep our eyes, brains, and other body parts healthy. An essential fatty acid, it’s often trumpeted that the best source of this is oily fish, such as mackerel, herring, salmon, and sardines. While this may be true in terms of absolute or relative values, it often leads to misleading statements around the internet, such as “we need to eat oily fish twice a week to stay healthy”. I hate statements like this, as they reinforce the popular myth that a vegetarian diet cannot possibly be a healthy one. So how can vegetarians get their share of omega-3 in?
First of all, let’s look at the amount of omega-3 we actually need. Men need 1.6g a day, while women require 1.1g. This is perhaps less than we would have believed considering the emphasis on omega-3 in the media. We perhaps need to consume even less than this depending on what our diets already contain, as many popular foods can now be found in versions that have been fortified with extra omega-3, such as bread, juice, yoghurt, and even confectionery.
But let’s start with those basic values that are needed by all of us each day. One large egg contains just 0.03g of omega-3, so it’s clear that as in many other aspects of nutrition, vegetarians just have to be more creative to get their omega-3 in. Seeds are a good place to start. Already extolled for their high levels of fibre, unsaturated fat, vitamins and minerals, seeds also contain significant percentages of omega-3. Linseeds, for instance, contain up to 59% omega-3. Perhaps even easier is the humble walnut: just 30g of walnuts contains 2.6g of omega-3, which is way more than a man or a woman needs as a bare minimum. Pecan nuts (0.3g/oz) and pistachios (0.1g/oz) are equally tasty sources of the fatty acid, which performs a variety of important functions, including blood clotting, and has been linked to increased memory and a lower risk of heart disease (although statistically vegetarians and vegans have a lower risk of cardiac problems anyway).
Slightly randomly, the butter from grass-fed cows also contains more omega-3 than butter made using the milk of factory-farmed cows – so even more reason for vegetarians to go organic or free-range. Tofu is also 15% omega-3 – meaning you need to eat just 10g of tofu, as a female, to get your full omega-3 requirement for the day. Not bad!
However, our bodies are not great at converting ALAs (alpha lineolic acid – which is the “type” of omega-3 found in these foods) into EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) – which, apparently, are really the best kinds of omega-3 to have in the body. So what can vegetarians do to optimise this process?
The main thing is to make sure you eat a balanced diet in all other areas, as protein, vitamins B6 and B7, calcium, copper, magnesium and zinc all help the conversion process. If you really have to, there’s also a wide range of vitamin and mineral supplements available. Equally vital is to balance our ratio of omega-3 and omega-6: by consuming less omega-6, you benefit more from the omega-3.
The old advice to “eat your greens” is therefore valid for this reason too: leafy green vegetables may be comparatively low in omega-3, but all of the small amounts soon add up. Broccoli has 0.13g per 100g, and cabbage has 0.11g per 100g. Spinach and romaine are also good ones to go for, and all of these green leafy vegetables are higher in omega-3 than omega-6 (walnuts are arguably a bad way to top up your omega-3 levels because of this: their omega-6 level is higher). Asian vegetarians, or fans of Asian food, may also be in luck – seaweed is another excellent source of omega-3 (DHA and EPA specifically), and this features regularly in dishes such as stir-fries (dried nori, or seaweed, is also readily available at most mainstream supermarkets, making it another easy addition to a vegetarian diet). Algae is also where fish get their omega-3 – they don’t make their own, you know! So if it’s good enough for them, it’s certainly good enough for vegetarians around the world.