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Vegetarian DHA:

Can Plants Give Us What We Need?

Vegetarian DHA and Vegan DHA (docosahexainoic acid) has become something of an bone of contention, quite unnecessarily.

I frequently get emails from people telling me their doctors are insisting they must eat fish to get enough DHA, a long-chain omega-3 fat with anti-inflammatory properties that plays an important role in brain and eye function. Low DHA levels have been associated with mental decline and other problems, so it's a serious issue.

DHA levels among vegetarians and vegans are consistently lower than among fish eaters, leading many to conclude that a plant-based diet does not provide sufficient quantities of DHA, and is thus endangering them.

Vegetarian DHA: Not What it Seems To Be

Vegetarian DHA is actually not the issue at all because DHA is not an essential fatty acid.

The only two essential fatty acids the body cannot do without are the the omega-3, alpha linolenic acid (ALA) and the omega-6, linoleic acid (LA). The body is fully equipped to manufacture as much DHA as it needs using ALA.

Vegetarian DHA Buy VeggiesSo where do Omega-3 and 6 come from? The only life forms that can create these two fats are plants. All animals (including humans and fish) are unable to make the fats themselves and must eat plant foods to get enough, although excess fatty acids can be stored in the body, and a predator can obtain them by eating another animal.

When animals have enough omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, they convert them into the derivatives need for the proper function of the body, including EPA and DHA. 

Humans have no difficulty in converting ALA into DHA in the liver, thus supply our needs (1).

Vegetarian DHA: So Why Do Omnivores Have More?

Although vegetarians and vegans test lower in DHA, nutritional researchers have concluded that it's not an issue.

Researcher Thomas Sanders, author of the "DHA status of vegetarians," which appeared in the August-September 2009 issue of the journal of Prostaglandins Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids, wrote that "…the relatively lower intake of linoleic acid and the presence of preformed DHA (fish) in the diet of omnivores explain the relatively higher proportion of DHA in blood and tissue lipids compared with vegetarians. In the absence of convincing evidence for the deleterious effects resulting from the lack of DHA from the diet of vegetarians, it must be concluded that needs for omega-3 fatty acids can be met by dietary ALA (alpha linolenic acid).” (2).

Because ALA is derived from plant sources, there's nothing to worry about as long as you're eating enough fruits and vegetables.

One study looking at women on Vegan Diets showed they have more long-chain Omega-3s, compared with fish eaters, meat eaters, and ovo-lacto vegetarains. Vegan men did not have quite the as high of levels as the women (3).

Yet despite zero intake of long-chain DHA, vegan participants converted robust amounts of shorter-chain fatty acids into these long-chain fatty acids (3).

Vegetarian DHA: Following Up

Learn more about our nutritional needs here.

Discover a healthy raw food diet that will supply you with all your vegetarian DHA needs.

Vegetarian DHA: Sources

1) Langdon JH.  Has an aquatic diet been necessary for hominin brain evolution and functional development? Br J Nutr. 2006 Jul;96(1):7-17.

2) Sanders TA. DHA status of vegetarians. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2009 Aug-Sep;81(2-3):137-41.

3) Welch AA, Shakya-Shrestha S, Lentjes MAH, Wareham NJ, Khaw KT. Dietary intake and status of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in a population of fish-eating and non-fish-eating meat-eaters, vegetarians, and vegans and the precursor-product ratio of a-linolenic acid to long-chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids: results from the EPIC-Norfolk cohort. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010;92:1040-1051.


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