Learn how to get the benefits of omega-3s and other nutrients while maintaining a vegetarian diet.
A vegetarian diet is healthier than the typical American diet in many ways. Among other benefits, it is high in fiber, and contains antioxidants and a score of phytonutrients that may help reduce the risk of many serious diseases.
However, if you’re one of the millions who follow a vegetarian diet—or are considering a change in that direction—it’s important to know that there is much more to being a vegetarian than simply excluding meat, fish, and fowl. Almost every vegetarian I’ve examined has been deficient in nutrients commonly found in animal products, including omega-3s. If you are not aware of what you eat, you could be missing out on both EPA and DHA omega-3 benefits. DHA omega-3s benefits are essential to heart health. DHA omega-3s are also one of the most abundant fats in the brain, and are crucial contributors to mood, memory, and overall brain health. EPA omega-3 benefits play an important part in cardiovascular health as well.
Coldwater fish such as wild salmon, sardines, and tuna are the best natural sources of omega-3s. In terms of marine-based supplements, one fantastic source is calamarine oil, which is derived from squid. Both algae and calamari oils are less likely to be contaminated with mercury, pesticides, and other poisons than some fish supplements. But if you don’t eat fish or take a marine-based oil supplement, it is vital to your brain and heart health to get these omega-3 benefits from other sources.
Natural Sources of Omega-3s
Flaxseed oil a great source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the form of omega-3 that is found in plant sources. However, you should also make sure your diet contains plenty of green leafy vegetables such as spinach and mustard greens. Additionally, wheat germ and walnuts also contain ALA in varying amounts.
Get more of Dr. Sinatra's advice on Omega-3s
One excellent way of getting omega-3 benefits through ALA food sources is by eating a salad that includes spinach, mustard greens, wheat germ, and walnuts. Top off your salads with a vinaigrette dressing made with flaxseed oil. It’s a delicious way to get your omega-3 benefits, as well as fiber and a host of other important phytonutrients.
Most people are able to convert ALA into EPA and DHA omega-3s. However, your body’s ability to make the conversion may decline as you age. Even if your body’s conversion ability is running at peak efficiency, you’ll probably only be able to turn about 18 percent of the ALA you take in into omega-3 benefits1.
If you eat fish or take a fish oil supplement, it’s still a good idea to add ALA to your diet. A Harvard study concluded that ALA may help improve cardiovascular health through various biological mechanisms—including platelet function, inflammation reduction, endothelial cell activity, and arrhythmia control.
Omega-3 Benefits Are Not the Only Thing Your Diet Could Be Missing
I have seen a few other deficiencies in vegetarian patients in the past. These deficiencies include protein, vitamin B12, and carnitine (along with a few others).
Vegetarians must be sure to get the critical nutrients that are contained in the foods that they have excluded from their diet—which means finding other food sources or supplements. So here’s how you can make up the deficit and avoid health problems related to these deficiencies.
Be Proactive in Getting Your Protein
Protein deficiency in most vegetarian diets is probably the easiest to address with plant sources. Good vegetarian sources for protein include fermented tofu, nuts, and quinoa—a grain that grows in the Andes. In fact, quinoa is the only vegetable source I know that contains a balanced set of the essential amino acids. It’s also high in fiber, phosphorus, magnesium, and iron. I use it instead of rice when I fix stir fry.
Don’t Be B12 Deficient
Additionally, vegetarians must consider their need for vitamin B12. The natural sources for this key member of the family of B vitamins are meat and dairy, which means vegans are often deficient in this crucial nutrient that helps maintain nervous system function and normal homocysteine levels while also helping to prevent pernicious anemia.
There aren’t any plant sources for vitamin B12, so vegetarians must take a supplement to get what they need. The good news here is that supplemental B12 is vegan friendly. It’s a synthetic form called cyanocobalamin.
Keep in mind that it’s important to have a wide array of B vitamins and to not just supplement with one of them. So your best bet is a high-quality multinutrient that not only gives you 200 mcg of B12 per day but that also gives you a wide range of other B vitamins—such as 20 mg of thiamine (B1), 20 mg of riboflavin (B2), 40 mg of niacin (B3), 40 mg of B6, and 100 mcg of folic acid or folate (B9).
There are other B vitamins, but the important thing to keep in mind is that a quality multinutrient will provide you with a full range of the members of the vitamin B family.
Keep Keen on Carnitine
As the name indicates, carnitine comes from meat (carni being Latin for flesh or meat). Lamb and mutton are the best sources for this nutrient that crosses into the mitochondria (the powerhouse of the cells). Carnitine helps do at least three things for your body: turn fat into energy, deliver and balance oxygen supplies, and prevent the production of some toxins.
As with B12, if you don’t get your carnitine from meat, you’ll have to get it from a supplement. Although the body can produce its own carnitine if it has the proper enzymes and co-enzymes, studies have indicated that vegetarians aren’t able to make adequate amounts on their own—which is why supplemental carnitine is essential.
Even meat eaters should look to a full-spectrum carnitine supplement. Again, the good news for vegans is that the carnitine used in supplements is synthetic.
Remember CoQ10, Taurine, and Alpha Lipoic Acid
Everyone should supplement with coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), but vegetarians need to be even more vigilant. Over the years that I’ve been measuring blood levels for this critical nutrient, I’ve found low levels in some of my vegetarian patients who don’t take a CoQ10 supplement.
Two other nutrients that vegetarians are usually low in are taurine and alpha lipoic acid. As with B12 and carnitine, it’s important to get synthetic forms of these nutrients in a supplement if you’re not consuming organic meat and dairy. Be aware, though, that the gelatin used for most supplement capsules will have an animal source, so vegans will need to look for supplements that use “veggie caps.”
There you have it. Adopting a vegetarian diet can be a healthy move, but you have to play it smart. Your best efforts may backfire unless you make sure you get the critical nutrients you need from other sources.
- 1Linda M Arterburn et. al. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006 Jun;83(6 Suppl):1467S-1476S.