There’s more to eating a healthy diet than getting the right amount of calories, fruits, and vegetables every day. You also want to make sure that your diet has as many nutrients as possible to avoid a nutritional deficiency, which is true even when it comes to dietary fats.
A nutritional deficiency means that you aren’t getting enough of the essential nutrients in your diet that your body needs to function at its best. One such nutrient is omega-3s. These healthy fats play a wide range of roles in your body, and an Omega-3 deficiency can be a major cause for concern.
Omega-3 deficiencies can be especially concerning for specific subsets of people, including vegetarians and vegans. Because two of the most important omega-3s, DHA and EPA, have historically been the most accessible from fish, it can be challenging to get enough omega-3s from your diet alone without the help of supplementation.
The Importance Of Dietary Omega-3s
You’ve probably heard that omega-3s are essential, especially since so many Americans take them to keep their body as healthy as possible. So what do omega-3s actually do?
Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids that play a wide variety of roles in your body. They are critical components that contribute to a healthy brain, cardiovascular system, and joints.*
The omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are critical because they have anti-inflammatory properties.* Inflammation is your body’s natural response to sickness, injury, and toxins. Under normal circumstances, this response is protective and is your body’s way of keeping you healthy. However, certain chronic conditions, including atherosclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and even cancer, can be caused by chronic, overactive inflammation.
Getting an adequate amount of EPA and DHA can help to fight off overactive inflammatory reactions to keep your brain, heart, and the rest of your body healthy.*
Why An Omega-3 Deficiency Can Be Dangerous
Not getting enough omega-3s can put you at risk for developing inflammatory conditions and diseases, which can be very serious.
For example, your brain depends on the omega-3 DHA to help with learning, thinking, and other cognitive processes. One study found that people who had less DHA in their system tended to have smaller brains, which can indicate an “aging brain” due to brain inflammation.
And what’s more, not getting enough omega-3s in your diet can be bad for your heart. Omega-3s can boost your heart health in various ways, including helping to lower blood pressure and decreasing the amount of “unhealthy fats” in your body.* In the absence of a sufficient omega-3 fatty acid intake, your cardiovascular system doesn’t have all the tools it needs to stay healthy.
There are other major implications of an omega-3 deficiency as well. Omega-3s also play roles in fetal development, skin health, muscle recovery, and eye health, to name a few.* So when you aren’t getting enough omega-3s from your food, you’re facing the possibility of negatively affecting multiple systems in your body.
What Are The Symptoms Of An Omega-3 Deficiency?
It can be hard to determine how many omega-3s you are getting from your diet, especially if you don’t eat fish or take supplements. However, there are some initial signs and symptoms that you can look out for. Potential omega-3 deficiency symptoms can include:
Dry skin, hair, and nails
Fatty acids like omega-3s play critical roles in both the appearance and the function of your skin. The two layers of your skin, the epidermis, and the dermis, rely on fatty acids to stay hydrated and protect against potential irritants. An omega-3 deficiency could be linked to dry skin and other inflammatory skin issues like acne and dermatitis.
Similarly, your hair and nails also depend on omega-3s for their cell structure and can be affected by an omega-3 deficiency.
Omega-3s are also crucial for keeping your eyes healthy. They help improve the oil film on your eyes, keeping them hydrated and preventing dry eyes symptoms.
In addition to comfort, omega-3 fatty acids are also important for maintaining vision, especially as you grow older. Research has found that a sufficient omega-3 intake can be protective against macular degeneration, an age-related disease that can lead to severe vision loss. Not surprisingly, an omega-3 deficiency can have the opposite effect since your eyes are less protected from degeneration.
Many people complain of tight, achy joints, especially as they grow older. The pain and stiffness that you feel in your joints could be due to inflammation, especially under conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, where your body attacks its own tissues.
The omega-3s DHA and EPA from your diet can be converted into powerful anti-inflammatory compounds that can put a stop to an out-of-control inflammatory response and bring some pain relief.
Brain fog and decreased cognitive function
Your brain is largely made up of fat, including omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA. These healthy fats are used as ingredients to build the cells in your brain and can keep your neurons firing on all cylinders.
So an adequate amount of omega-3s can help your brain with focus, memory, and learning ability. On the other hand, brain fog and decreased cognitive function could point to dietary insufficiency.
Similarly, a lack of omega-3s can also be detrimental to your mental health. Omega-3 deficiencies have been associated with mental disorders like depression, anxiety, dyslexia, bipolar disorder, and attention-deficit disorder.
So the first initial signs of an omega-3 deficiency can be either very obvious or more subtle. However, it’s vital to pay attention if you’re experiencing any of these omega-3 deficiency symptoms because they can go on to have major effects on essential systems like your heart and brain.
How Much Omega-3s Do You Need Every Day?
Your body doesn’t make omega-3s on its own, so you need to get your omega-3 intake from your diet and/or supplements.
There is currently no official recommendation for the exact amount of omega-3s you need to take daily to avoid a deficiency. More research needs to be done to determine the RDA, or Recommended Dietary Allowance, for omega-3 fatty acids.
However, in the absence of an RDA, we know that an adequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids is 1.6 grams for males and 1.1 grams for females. This amount of omega-3 fatty acids is enough to ensure that you’re getting enough omega-3s to avoid an insufficiency.
According to the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans, this amount of omega-3s can be approximately covered by eating two servings (about 8 ounces total) of fatty fish like salmon every week.
How Common Are Omega-3 Deficiencies In The United States?
Unfortunately, not everyone is getting enough omega-3s from their diet alone.
In a study conducted by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, researchers found that many adults in the United States weren’t getting enough fish in their normal diet to meet their recommended omega-3 intake. They also found that certain groups, like women and younger people, were less likely to get enough fish to meet EPA and DHA needs.
An omega-3 deficiency can also be more of a problem in vegetarians and vegans who do not eat fish at all. These circumstances can make you more prone to having an omega-3 deficiency.
However, it’s important to note the difference between deficiency and insufficiency when talking about omega-3s.
Since there is no current official recommendation for the amount of omega-3s you should get from your diet, we can’t establish the official cut-off for a nutritional deficiency. However, we can still determine whether omega-3 insufficiency is a problem based on the AI. You can also get your omega-3 levels tested via a blood test.
So actual omega-3 deficiencies are rare in the United States, but many people still aren’t meeting the recommended amount of omega-3s in their diet every day.
How To Get More Omega-3s In Your Diet
Fatty fish like salmon and mackerel are the most well-known sources for EPA and DHA. If you want to increase your omega-3 intake, you can start by increasing the amount of cold-water oily fish you eat. Ideally, you would include them in your meals twice a week.
You can also use fish oil pills as a supplement if you aren’t getting enough fish in your diet.
However, this doesn’t solve the problem for people who can’t or won’t eat fish.
The problem of omega-3 deficiency is compounded for certain groups who are less likely to have adequate EPA and DHA sources in their diet. This includes vegetarians, vegans, and anyone else who can’t eat fish. In fact, vegetarians and vegans may be getting only half of the EPA and DHA that others do!
How Can Vegans Get Omega-3s
Plant Based Foods
Certain plant-based foods contain ALA, which is a third omega-3 fatty acid that you can get from your diet. The richest food sources for ALA include walnuts, chia seeds, flax, and hempseeds, though it can also be found in other plant foods like leafy greens.
However, it’s important to note that your body doesn’t use ALA on its own. Rather, ALA is a precursor to EPA and DHA. This means that your body needs to convert your dietary ALA into EPA and DHA before it can start fighting inflammation and boosting your heart health.
Unfortunately, getting your omega-3s from ALA alone is not as efficient as getting the EPA and DHA directly. The conversion process probably won’t yield as much EPA and DHA as you might need to meet your intake goals. You would also need to eat a lot to get enough every day. Just one gram of ALA (before conversion into DHA and ALA) would mean eating 10 cups of leafy greens!
Algae Oil Supplements
A better choice for plant-based eaters is to get EPA and DHA directly from algae oil pills. These fish oil alternatives are the vegan- and vegetarian-friendly answer to finding omega-3 supplements that don’t compromise your values.
Oily fish is such a good source of omega-3s because they eat microalgae, which produce DHA and EPA via photosynthesis. So rather than being made from fish oil, algae oil pills are made using microalgae – making the transfer of EPA and DHA to your system more efficient.
As a significant bonus, algae oil pills are also a more eco-friendly option than fish oil pills. This means that anyone can benefit from choosing them over fish-based sources!
So algae oil supplements are the best way for vegetarians, vegans, and anyone else at risk of a deficiency to get enough healthy fats every day. Remember, you’ll want to consult with your physician before starting any supplement regimen to decide the correct dose for you.
Final Thoughts On Omega-3 Deficiencies
Getting enough omega-3s in your diet is hard enough for nonvegetarian eaters. So vegans, vegetarians, and anyone else who does not include fish in their diet need to take extra care to avoid an omega-3 fatty acid deficiency.
Luckily, there are now high-quality dietary supplements like Calgee’s Vegan Omega-3 Supplement that use microalgae, rather than fish, as their source for EPA and DHA. With 450mg of combined EPA/DHA per serving, they can supplement your diet and decrease your risk of deficiency. Adding an omega-3 supplement that uses algae oil can ensure that you’re getting enough of these valuable fatty acids to benefit your health. No compromise necessary.