How should vegans increase the DHA in their diets?

Without supplementing with a plant source DHA supplement, it’s a little difficult to get the amount of DHA that has associated health benefits. Additionally because you also need the EPA to get the potential positive outcomes you would need to mix up the diet significantly. It may be a good idea and certainly more practical to take a plant-based omega-3 supplement containing both DHA and EPA. Although most omega-3 supplements are made from fish sources, vegetarian supplements are available and are derived mainly from plant sources, such as flaxseed. There are other vegetarian sources such as algae/seaweed that contain DHA but not EPA. Plants foods (e.g. nuts, oils, vegetables, etc.) contain both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. However the plant derived omega-3 fatty is acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which can be converted to EPA & DHA but very inefficiently (8-20% of ALA to EPA; .5-9% to DHA) and therefore not considered a good source of the 2 potentially beneficial compounds. The other problem with plants as the only sources is that that they contain high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids (FA) which competes with the benefits of omega-3s, meaning omega-6 FA tend to increase harmful inflammation, while omega-3s tends to lower it. Of course plant foods have their own special health benefits. At the end of the day if you are a vegan looking for the specific benefits, such as maintaining heart, brain, hearing and vision health, attributed to omega-3s, look for vegetarian capsules that can supply ~600mgs of omega -3s made up of 360mgs EPA & 240mgs DHA. Take 1 capsule daily unless a qualified physician advises more for a specific condition.
Anna-Lisa Finger
Nutrition & Dietetics
DHA, which is short for docosaheaenoic acid, is an omega-3 fatty acid. It is mainly found in animal sources such as salmon, herring, egg and dairy products. Except for vegan supplements of DHA which are made from microalgae. 

DHA is also converted from ALA or alpha linolenic acid, which is found in plant sources such as walnuts, flaxseeds, tofu, soybeans and hemp products. However, this process is not very efficient.

Therefore, it's recommended that vegans aim for higher amounts of ALA, when using food sources, which is 2.2g-5.3g for men and 1.8g-4.4g for women. Active and heavier people should aim for the higher amount and more sedentary and smaller people should aim for the lower amount. If supplementing for DHA aim for the recommended amounts of non-vegans, 1.6g for men and 1.1g for women

It's also important to reduce the amount of omega 6 fatty acids since it interferes with the conversion of ALA to DHA. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in sunflower, corn and safflower oil.
Donna Feldman
Nutrition & Dietetics
DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid, is an omega-3 fatty acid that is critically important for brain, eye and nerve function. There are 3 major omega-3 fats in our diets: ALA (18 carbon alpha linolenic acid), EPA (20-carbon eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (22 carbon chain). The only natural food source of DHA is fatty fish, like salmon, sardines and mackerel. Since vegans do not eat fish, getting enough DHA is a concern. This is especially true for pregnant and nursing vegan women. The growing fetus relies on the mother for DHA during the period of rapid brain and eye development. Immediately after birth, the brain continues to develop, so breast milk must provide omega-3 fatty acids. 

ALA is found in certain high fat plant foods, like walnuts, canola oil and flax seed. These foods can be part of a vegan diet. Luckily, humans do have some capacity to metabolize the 18-carbon ALA from plant foods to EPA and DHA. This ability varies from person to person, and is quite low. But some research indicates infants have a heightened ability to metabolize ALA, compared to adults. This means an infant consuming ALA in breast milk could make DHA, although there is no way to predict how much EPA or DHA a particular infant makes.

Vegans have another option: DHA from algal supplements. A process that extracts DHA from algae makes some DHA supplements appropriate for vegans. They should be labeled "vegan," or some similar designation. The ingredients list should indicate an algal source. Infant formula companies that add DHA to formula typically use this algal form as well, so a vegan infant could consume a soy-based formula with algal DHA.

One important consideration for vegans: do not assume that a fortified vegan food, supplement or formula labeled "good source of omega-3" actually does contain DHA. In many cases, such products simply contain walnuts or flax. The omega-3 is in ALA form. If you're trying to increase DHA, be sure it's listed as such somewhere on the label. Another consideration: so far, algal omega-3 production is limited to DHA, not EPA, which is also nutritionally important. Vegans must rely on metabolism of ALA to EPA in order to obtain this important omega-3 fat. So vegans should be sure to include flax, canola and walnuts in the diet.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.