Fatty acids play a major role in health. Amongst them the omega 3 type is of high importance. It is often problematic to get the right amount of vegan foods high in omega 3 or to find plant based omega 3 supplements. Let's have a closer understanding of the matter.
The importance of fatty acids
Fatty acids are the building blocks of fat in the body that are derived from the food we eat. They have a major part to play in health and their importance has long been underestimated. They are at the heart of energy production and play a major role in muscular function. But they are also the main component of cellular membranes and nerve cells and precursor to many chemical reactions (hormone production, prostaglandin production and inflammation control, etc). They are essential to healthy foetal development and healthy aging.
Fatty acids play a major role in vitamin absorption: fat-soluble vitamins are dependent on fat. It’s important to eat your carrots with a touch of oil, or your vitamin A will not make it to your eyes! And last but not least, fat enhances the taste of food, and makes it nice and yummy. Being a vegan also means eating plenty of good quality fatty acids and plant based omega 3s.
Essential and non-essential fatty acids
Our body can produce certain types of fatty acids on its own, from internal metabolic reactions. These are non-essential fatty acids.
On the other hand, our body is also dependent on “essential" fatty acids that it can’t synthesize alone. We are talking about omega 6 and omega 3 types that can only be brought by the food we eat, or supplementation.
Getting the right proportions
One of the main health issues today lies in an unbalance between our omega 6 (also referred to as linoleic acid) and omega 3 intakes. And vegan diets often lack sufficient omega 3 rich foods. Studies point to a 30 to 1 ratio while health authorities advise around a 4 to 1 ratio (or even lower in some specific cases). Intensive farming and the evolution of eating habits are one of the causes lying behind this change.
Understanding the importance of a proper balance
If consumed excessively, omega 6 fatty acids will activate pro-inflammatory prostaglandins, enhance platelet aggregation and vessel contraction.
Omega 3 fatty acids function in an opposite manner: they are anti-inflammatory, anti-aggregator and help blood vessels to dilate. They are of major importance and must be considered as so by anyone who has adopted a plant based diet. With this in mind it is easy to understand the current increase in chronic inflammation and associated inflammatory diseases.
It is currently observe an excess consumption of omega 6 food types amongst the vegan population. Integrating plant based omega 3 foods is quite an easy task, as we will show in the following.
Understanding omega 3 sources
When talking about omega 3 fatty acids, we are actually mentioning 3 different forms: ALA (Alpha Linolenic Acid) , EPA (Ecozapenaïonic acid) and DHA (docosahexaénoïc acid).
ALA naturally transforms into EPA and DHA in our bodies. And it is only under this converted form that they are efficient. Unfortunately our body can only transform a very small amount of ALA into DHA and even less into EPA. Studies suggest that only 2 to 10% of ALA is converted into EPA or DHA.
Concerning vegan diets, here is the issue at stake: ALA fatty acids are found in many vegetables and beans, but their intake is highly insufficient to meet the daily requirements in DHA and EPA. On the other hand EPA and DHA are easily found in fish sources (salmon, maquerel, sardines), which makes it simpler for a non-vegan to meet the nutritional requirements.
Fortunately there are means for vegans to get the right amount of EPA and DHA from non- fish omega 3 sources. Let's have a closer look!
Vegan alternatives to fish oil
Most vegetarian sources of omega 3 contain the ALA type fatty acid.
The plant based ALA form of omega 3 fatty acid can be found in a tremendous variety of sources, ranging from seeds, to plants and nuts.
1) Chia seeds and hemp seed are well known for being super important for ultra endurance efforts to any athlete who has read Born to Run. They are packed with ALA fatty acids and rich in highly digestible protein, a perfect combo for endurance nutrition.
30g of chia seeds provides around 5000mg of ALA omega-3 fatty acids. That is between 300 to 450% of the recommended daily intake. Both hemp seeds, hemp seed oil as well as flaxseeds and its oil contain approximately the same quantity of ALA omega 3 fatty acids.
All three should be part of any vegan or vegetarian daily diet.
2) Perilla oil is well known in traditional Chinese medicine for its anti- inflammatory effects. Some studies today highlight similitudes with fish oil in its effects on hepatic steatosis and inflammation. It is an interesting nutrient to consider for any vegan in need of omega 3 plant-based supplementation.
3) Walnuts, brussel sprouts, kale, and purslane are some examples of plant sources of omega 3 ALA type that should be part of any vegan or non-vegan diet.
Vegan sources of EPA and DHA omega 3 type
Luckily, nature is well orchestrated for vegans. Just as fish feed off algae to replenish in EPA and DHA, so can we. Because algae is lower in the food chain, it is an interesting source of omega 3 for vegans as it comes with fewer toxins than fish.
Algae and seaweed are just as rich in EPA and DHA as fish, so you may consume plenty of algae tartare for instance, or use alga oil in your dressings and other sauces.
Optimize your intake
As with all vitamins and minerals it is essential to consider interaction between nutrients. Nothing in the body works independently. Include good sources of the nutrients, which help essential fat conversion – zinc, magnesium, calcium, biotin and vitamins B6, B3 and C.
In the same way, avoid things that inhibit conversion: alcohol, saturated and trans fats, smoking, caffeine, viral infections, stress and excess intake of vitamin A and copper.
How much omega 3 should we consume?
The recommended daily intakes for EPA and DHA range around 1 to 2g. Most of us are way below these numbers. As an athlete the daily needs can rise to around 3g. In case of inflammation, boosting the daily requirements to 4g will help reduce inflammation.
Measuring our fatty acid levels is not yet common but part of the essential tests to be done, considering the impact of a deficiency on health. Several private laboratories can do blood tests.
Getting enough omega 3 type fatty acids is a major health issue, and all the more so amongst the vegan population. It is essential to integrate them daily by eating the above-mentioned foods.
As a nutritionist I can only advise regular omega 3 EPA and DHA vegan supplementation, as it is often difficult to reach our needs with food alone. And as an athlete, I would add that omega 3 EPA and DHA supplementation is absolutely necessary. The most interesting vegan supplement being algae oil.
As always, before rushing out to supplement on the latest plant based omega 3 supplement, consider your plate content. Do you get enough plant-based omega 3 from your daily meals and snacks? A nutritionist will be able to help you plan your meals and look out for signs of deficiency.
Author: Marie-Noëlle Bourgeois, Nutritionist at Bounce Up Micronutrition
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