Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and vegetarian diets

Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and vegetarian diets

Angela V Saunders 1Brenda C Davis 2Manohar L Garg 3


While intakes of the omega-3 fatty acid α-linolenic acid (ALA) are similar in vegetarians and non-vegetarians, intakes of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are low in vegetarians and virtually absent in vegans. Plasma, blood and tissue levels of EPA and DHA are lower in vegetarians than in non-vegetarians, although the clinical significance of this is unknown. Vegetarians do not exhibit clinical signs of DHA deficiency, but further research is required to ascertain whether levels observed in vegetarians are sufficient to support optimal health. ALA is endogenously converted to EPA and DHA, but the process is slow and inefficient and is affected by genetics, sex, age and dietary composition. Vegetarians can take practical steps to optimise conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA, including reducing intake of linoleic acid. There are no official separate recommendations for intake of fatty acids by vegetarians. However, we suggest that vegetarians double the current adequate intake of ALA if no direct sources of EPA and DHA are consumed. Vegetarians with increased needs or reduced conversion ability may receive some advantage from DHA and EPA supplements derived from microalgae. A supplement of 200-300 mg/day of DHA and EPA is suggested for those with increased needs, such as pregnant and lactating women, and those with reduced conversion ability, such as older people or those who have chronic disease (eg, diabetes).

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