PLANT-BASED ATHLETE SERIES: LET'S TALK ABOUT THOSE ESSENTIAL OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS
Updated: Feb 2
Annie Bothma, 15 November 2022
As an athlete, you have most likely heard of essential omega-3 acids and how they may improve your health and performance. In this post, I will explore the importance of omega-3 fatty acids for athletes and how you can still meet your requirements on a plant-based diet.
FAT CONSUMPTION ON A VEGAN DIET
Vegan diets are typically lower in total and saturated fat and higher in omega-6 fats than omnivorous and vegetarian diets. This trend appears to be associated with reductions in heart disease, hypertension, type II diabetes, cholesterol and cancer, and is potentially a health benefit of veganism. However, the role of fat in the diet is an area of much debated discussion and whether saturated fat consumption are truly that harmful is not universally accepted.
Indeed, in some cases, high-fat diets have even been promoted for health or weight-loss reasons. Interestingly, research has indicated that low-fat dieting might negatively influence testosterone levels in males, which may be of particular interest to athletes needing to maximize lean body-mass gain and adaptation to resistance training. However, despite reporting lower total and saturated fat intakes, evidence has also suggested that vegan males do not have statistically lower testosterone levels than omnivores. The exact relationship between how much fat in the diet is needed to optimize hormones and sport performance may need further research.
When you are considering the health benefits of dietary fat, it is perhaps more important to think of the quality and quantity of fat that is being consumed. Achieving recommended values of 0.5-1.5 g/kg per day (or roughly 30% of daily caloric intake) is feasible for vegan athletes given adequate consumption of oils, avocados, nuts and seeds.
WHAT ABOUT ESSENTIAL FATTY ACIDS?
Due to an absence of marine-sourced fats, vegans appear to consume fewer omega-3 fatty acids and possess lower serum omega-3 fatty acid levels than omnivores and other vegetarians. This might have important health and performance implications, since omega-3 fatty acids are important for normal growth and development. Omega-3 consumption has also been likened to improved cardiovascular health, reduce inflammation, increased immunity and reductions in chronic disease. Of particular interest to athletes, may be the effects omega-3 acids may have to increase nitric oxide production and improve heart-rate variability.
As your body cannot produce essential omega-3 fatty-acids on its own, you must get them from your diet. The best-known sources of omega-3 fatty acids are fish oil and fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, trout, and tuna. This can make it challenging for plant-based athletes, or even those who simply dislike fish to get enough omega-3 fatty acids in their diet. Take note that Pesco-vegetarians, who excludes all animal flesh, but does still include fish may find it easier to get enough omega-3 in their diet.
There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids and of these, plant foods typically contain only alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). However, the problem is that ALA is not as active in the body and must be converted to two other forms of omega-3 fatty acids — eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) — to achieve the same health benefits. Only about 5% of ALA is converted to EPA, while less than 0.5% is converted to DHA. Thus, due to the body's limited capacity to convert ALA, if you don’t take an omega-3 supplement or get sufficient EPA or DHA from your diet, you may run the risk of being deficient in omega-3's.
Both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are essential, however, the long chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are considered to be under-consumed in the modern western diet in general, and in vegans in particular. The omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is important, since if you have a diet that are low in omega-3's, but high in omega-6, it can also increase inflammation in the body.
Combining whole-food sources of ALA, such seeds, nuts, and avocados, along with a supplemental DHA derived from micro-algae oil might be the best way to optimize your omega-3 intake as a vegan athlete.
OMEGA 3 FATTY ACIDS (ALA, EPA and DHA)
ALA: Flax seeds, walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds, avocado
EPA: Seaweed, algae
DHA: Micro-algae oil, seaweed
If you wish to supplement with omega-3 as a vegan athlete, the recommendation is 1–2 g ∙ day per day of combined EPA and DHA at a ratio of 2:1. To achieve a DHA dose of 500 - 1000 mg per day, this would equate to 1–2 g of micro-algae oil, or 2–4 capsules in most commercial products. The best time to take your omega-3 capsules is with a meal that contains fat.
Each post in this series will include a recipe from Leozette Roode's new cook book: THE SOUTH AFRICAN VEGAN COOKBOOK to inspire you to bring more color into your plate.
FEATURED RECIPE: OMEGA-3 BLUEBERRY SMOOTHIE
By Leozette Roode
Cooking Time: Under 30-minutes
1/2 cup flaxseeds
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup tofu
2 cups frozen berries
3 tablespoons agave nectar
2 cups almond milk
Add the flaxseeds and walnuts to a blender. Blend until they form a fine powder.
Add the tofu, berries, agave and almond milk to the blender. Blend until you've combined all the ingredients.
Top with frozen berries and serve immediately.
WHY I LIKE THIS RECIPE
This recipe is full of omega-3 goodness with flaxseeds and walnuts. The tofu is a good plant-based protein option and rich in calcium. You can also further increase the calcium and mineral content by using fortified almond milk. The berries are packed with vitamins and antioxidants. This smoothie is an ideal way to get a lot of nutrients all at once!
Regardless if you are a plant-based athlete or not, omega-3 play an important role in your health and performance. As a vegan or vegetarian athlete, you can make sure you meet your needs by combining plant-based dietary sources of ALA and take a DHA supplement derived from micro-algae oil to optimize your omega-3 intake.
Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers, (2017), By David Rogerson
Sport Nutrition, Third Edition. (2019) by Asker Jeukendrup, Micheal Gleeson
The 7 Best Plant Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids, (2021) by Rachel Link