You know that recommendation from the American Heart Association to eat two servings of fatty fish per week? That’s because of the type of fat that fish have in their bodies. Salmon, herring and sardines contain DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), an omega-3 essential fatty acid.
But guess what? The fish actually get their DHA from algae. So, do you need to eat fish to get DHA? The answer is no! Vegans can get enough DHA without fish or fish oil supplements.
Which is great news because we know that not only do fish feel pain, but overfishing is causing significant harm to the oceans and our planet. In other words, eating fish is not the answer to getting enough DHA!
What is DHA?
DHA is a type of omega-3 essential fatty acid, which are polyunsaturated fatty acids (the heart-healthy kind of fat). Omega-3 is a classification based on the chemical structure of the fat. DHA has 22 carbons and 6 double bonds.
There are three main dietary types of omega-3s that are important for humans: ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentanoic acid) and DHA. ALA is a short-chain omega-3 and EPA and DHA are longer-chain omega 3s.
Omega-3s are found in cell membranes and help give cells structure. DHA is special in that it is concentrated in cells in the brain and the eyes, signifying its importance in these organs.
Why is DHA Important?
DHA is critical for healthy brain development, which is why you’ll often see it added to infant formulas. And, when pregnant people take DHA supplements in pregnancy, their babies tend to have better cognitive abilities.
DHA is important throughout the life cycle, not just in utero and as an infant. As the brain continues to develop through childhood and adolescence, DHA is essential. And studies have found higher blood concentrations of DHA to be associated with better cognitive performance in adults.
There is some evidence showing the importance of omega-3s in preventing excessive cognitive decline later in life, but more research is needed on the specific impact of DHA on risk for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Omega-3s have also been linked with heart health. Higher levels of DHA in the blood have been associated with lower disease progression in people who have heart disease. As for preventing heart disease, research is mixed. Specifically, supplementing with fish oil has not been shown to be beneficial for the generally healthy adult.
Why ALA May Not Be Enough
ALA is a short-chain fatty acid found in plant foods including walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseed and hemp seeds. Since the body contains enzymes that can convert ALA to the longer-chain EPA and DHA, theoretically, you can make all the EPA and DHA you need from ALA alone.
However, the enzyme that converts ALA to EPA, and EPA to DHA, also converts omega-6 fats and may not be able to convert all the ALA we eat to longer-chain omega-3s. While conversion of ALA to EPA tends to be OK, research suggests that conversion rates of EPA to DHA can be very low.
Since you don’t know how much ALA your body is able to convert to EPA and DHA, it’s a good idea to consume some longer-chain omega-3s for extra insurance. This doesn’t mean it’s not important to consume ALA. Vegans should still aim to eat several servings of ALA-rich foods daily.
Vegan Sources of DHA
While DHA is not found in plant foods, it is produced by algae. And supplement manufacturers are able to harvest the vegan DHA from algae and put it into capsules! Which means algae is a vegan source of DHA.
Move over fish oil supplements, there’s a new DHA in town. Naturelo has an algae-based vegan DHA supplement in a gelatin-free capsule. Vegans can take this supplement to ensure they’re getting enough DHA.
Research has found vegans to have lower amounts of DHA in their blood than meat-eaters, and we’re not sure if vegans have lower amounts of DHA in their brains and eyes. If you want to be extra cautious, it’s a good idea to take a vegan DHA supplement in addition to consuming plenty of ALA.
How Much DHA do I Need?
In addition to consuming the dietary reference intake of ALA (1.6 grams per day for males and 1.1 grams per day for females), Jack Norris, RD, of VeganHealth.org offers the option of consuming an extra 2 grams of ALA or 200 to 300 milligrams of DHA per day.
One Naturelo vegan DHA softgel contains 400 milligrams of DHA which should be plenty to meet your DHA needs.
Before beginning any new dietary supplements, be sure to discuss it with your health care provider. For personalized nutrition advice, work with a registered dietitian nutritionist.
Taylor offers one-on-one nutrition counseling to help vegans eat nutritious and delicious meals and snacks they love.
More Vegan Nutrition Articles
- How To Get All Your Nutrients As A Vegan
- I’m Vegan … Do I Really Need To Take Vitamins?
- I Was Vitamin D Deficient—And You Could Be Too
Advice About Eating Fish. U.S. Food and Drug Administration website. Updated July 2, 2019. Accessed October 31, 2019.
Essential Fatty Acids. Linus Pauling Institute. Oregon State University. Updated May 2019. Accessed October 31, 2019.
Jabr F. It’s Official: Fish Feel Pain. Smithsonian website. Published January 8, 2018. Accessed October 31, 2019.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. Updated October 17, 2019. Accessed October 31, 2019.
Omega-3s Part 1—Basics. VeganHealth.org. Updated June 2012. Accessed October 31, 2019.
This vegan DHA article was written by Taylor Wolfram RD for World of Vegan. The information presented here is not to be construed as medical advice or used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any condition or disease. Please note that this article contains affiliate links which help us keep regular content coming to life here at World of Vegan. Many thanks to our friends at Naturelo for supporting our work at World of Vegan!