Can Vegetarians Convert ALA More than Fish Eaters?

November 15, 2010

New findings from a cohort of 14,422 adults.

As research continues to weigh on the importance of omega-3 fatty acids eicopsapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), there is concern that vegetarians and vegans could be deficient in these nutrients primarily derived from fish. But research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition this month suggests otherwise.

Researchers analyzed dietary polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) intake in 14,422 adults (age 39 to 78 years) from the government-funded European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition-Norfolk (EPIC Norfolk) cohort. Blood levels of PUFAs were also measured in a substudy of 4902 individuals.

Not surprisingly, the researchers determined that EPA and DHA intake was 57–80% lower in non-fish eaters than fish eaters. But “status” of PUFAs in the bodies was considerably smaller, suggesting that non-fish eaters could convert alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) more efficiently than fish eaters.

“Substantial differences in intakes and in sources of n–3 PUFAs existed between the dietary-habit groups, but the differences in status were smaller than expected, possiblybecause the precursor-product ratio was greater in non-fish eaters than in fish eaters, potentially indicating increased estimatedconversion of ALA,” wrote the study’s author. “If intervention studies were to confirm thesefindings, it could have implications for fish requirements.”

An abstract of the study on omega-3 conversion in vegetarians and non-vegetarians can be read here.