ALA conversion to DHA/EPA may be increased in non-fish eaters

November 17, 2010 at 12:01 pm Leave a comment

The conversion of the plant-based omega-3 ALA to the long-chain EPA and DHA may be increased in vegans and vegetarians who do not eat fish, suggest results from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC).

Despite having significantly lower intakes of EPA and DHA (associated with fish consumption), blood levels of EPA and DHA in vegans and vegetarians were approximately the same as regular fish eaters, according to findings published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The results indicate that when people do not consume adequate levels of EPA and DHA, like vegans and non-fish-eating vegetarians, their bodies respond by increasing the conversion levels of ALA to EPA.

“The implications of this study are that, if conversion of plant-based sources of n-3 PUFAs were found to occur in intervention studies, and were sufficient to maintain health, it could have significant consequences for public health recommendations and for preservation of the wild fish supply,” wrote the researchers, led by Ailsa Welch from the University of East Anglia in England.


Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) omega-3 is an essential fatty acid that the body cannot make, and therefore must be consumed in the diet. Good sources of ALA include: flaxseed, soybeans, walnuts, and olive oil. The U.S Institute of Medicine recommends an ALA intake of 1.6 grams per day for men and 1.1 grams per day for women.

The health benefits associated with alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) consumption include cardiovascular effects, neuro-protection, a counter to the inflammation response, and benefits against autoimmune disease.

However, the longer-chain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) have received more study from scientists and more attention from the consumers.

Much attention has been paid to the conversion of ALA to the longer chain EPA, with many stating that this conversion is very small. According to an article in Nutrition Reviews (Vol. 66, pp. 326-332), between eight and 20 per cent of ALA is converted to EPA in humans, and between 0.5 and nine percent of ALA is converted to DHA.

In addition, the gender plays an important role with women of reproductive age reportedly converting ALA to EPA at a 2.5-fold greater rate than healthy men.

This conversion obviously contributes to the body’s pool of EPA and DHA, which play a key role in, amongst other things, maintaining cardiovascular health.

“Because fish and fish oils are the most concentrated sources of EPA and DHA, individuals who do not eat fish or fish oil (eg. vegans and non-fish-eating vegetarians and meat eaters) could be at risk of low or inadequate n-3 PUFA status,” wrote the researchers.

“In addition, because the supply of wild fish is under threat and supplies are compromised, if the maintenance of adequate n-3 PUFA status via conversion of plant-derived ALA was possible this could reduce the requirements for fish and help preserve the fish supply,” they added.

Study details

Dr Welch and her co-workers analyzed intakes of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), and correlated with blood levels of ALA, EPA, and DHA in fish-eaters and non-fish-eating meat-eaters, vegetarians, or vegans. The researchers included 14,422 men and women aged between 39 and 78 participating in the EPIC-Norfolk cohort. Blood levels of fatty acids were measured in 4,902 people.

Read the rest of the article here


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