Nutritionists have touted the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids for years but vegetarians and those who don’t eat fish could be lacking the brain-boosting fatty acid, DHA. While today’s trending superfoods such as chia, flaxseeds and walnuts, contain omega-3 ALA which can convert to the omega-3 DHA (1), it only does so at a rate of 2-5% (2). Studies have also suggested vegetarians have lower levels of this vital nutrient in their blood (1).
Vegetarians are met with the ethical dilemma as to whether they should eat fish to reap the health benefits of this essential fatty acid which is so lacking in their daily plant-based diets. Thankfully, the vitamin manufacturing industry has caught on to the demand for cruelty-free supplements and vegetarians no longer have to choose between their beliefs and their health.
What is DHA?
DHA stands for docosapentaenoic acid - which can be of the omega-6 or omega-3 type fatty acid. They are both present in the human diet in very small quantities (3).
DHA and brain health
Sufficient levels of DHA can help defend against mental decline later in life, including illnesses such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. A nine-year study found that elderly people with higher rates of DHA are almost 50% less likely to get dementia and have a significantly lower risk for Alzheimer’s than their counterparts who present low rates of DHA (4).
DHA is an imperative nutrient throughout pregnancy and helps a baby’s brain, eye and nervous system development. However, too much mercury from fish can be harmful.
DHA and cardiovascular health
While vegetarian diets are largely plant-based, vegetarians aren’t necessarily healthier than their carnivorous counterparts. Numerous research studies agree that DHA omega-3 is a cardioprotective nutrient. Higher intakes of these fatty acids correlate with reduced risk of death from coronary heart disease (CHD) and sudden cardiac death (5).
Fish-free DHA supplements
Supplement manufacturing has come a long way and there are plenty of options for vegetarian consumers who would like to bolster their brain and cardiovascular health.
It is now possible for vegetarians to skip the fish and gelatin with a DHA supplement made from microalgae. Fish actually get their DHA from the microalgae they consume, so why not jump the food chain and go directly to the source?