Omega 3 fats are so important for physical health and mental wellbeing and are known as essential fatty acids as they cannot be made by the body and need to be obtained from dietary sources. There are three main types of omega 3 fats; alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) which are polyunsaturated fats. Saturated and monounsaturated fats, as well as the omega 9 polyunsaturated fatty acids are not classed as essential as these can be made by the body.
Function in the Body
Omega 3 fats have an anti-inflammatory effect in the body, so help to protect the heart, blood vessels and joints, and play an important structural role in cell membranes. They are crucial for cognitive function and development and can protect us against chronic disease such as heart disease, cancer and arthritis. Our brains are mainly composed of fat and omega 3 fats are highly concentrated in the brain. Symptoms of omega 3 fatty acid deficiency can include heart and joint problems, fatigue, poor memory, dry skin and depression.
ALA omega 3 fatty acids are mainly found in plant based sources whereas EPA and DHA are mainly found in animal based foods, especially oily fish. All fish are unable to make any omega 3 fats and must, like us, obtain them from their diet. Where do fish get their omega 3? Microscopic algae in the water, and other smaller fish when eaten by larger fish.
However when we consume fish, we are also ingesting heavy metals and toxins that have accumulated in their flesh, especially when larger fish higher up the food chain are eaten such as tuna, salmon and swordfish. Many fish are now farmed and fed an artificial diet of food pellets which are much higher in saturated fat and omega 6 fats, and can be much lower in omega 3 fat. Also due to the fish being kept in confined net-cages this leads to disease and infection, and so antibiotics are given to manage this, which end up in our food chain.
Omega 6: Omega 3 Ratio
Getting enough omega 3 fat is only one part of the story, we also need to make sure our ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids are balanced. The ideal ratio is 2:1 up to 4:1 (omega 6:omega3), but nowadays with high consumptions of vegetable oils and processed foods and low intakes of omega 3 rich foods, our current intake ratio is closer to 16:1, meaning we are consuming far too much of the pro-inflammatory omega 6 fats which can supress the action of anti-inflammatory omega 3 fats. Vegans and non-vegans/fish eaters alike tend to get too much omega 6 fats which negatively impact the ratio of omega fats.
ALA can be converted in the body to EPA and DHA, however too much of the omega 6 fats can supress this conversion. As vegans primarily consume ALA omega 3 fats it’s important to avoid overconsumption of omega 6 fats to allow a better conversion of ALA to the important EPA and DHA. To do this, up your intake of omega 3 fats, limit your intake of omega 6 fats and consider a microalgae supplement if these foods don’t make it into your daily diet in plentiful amounts.
The suggested amounts of ALA omega 3 for adult vegans is 2.2-3.2g per day.
Plant-Based Sources of Omega 3 Fats – Eat these daily
- Chia Seeds
- Hemp Seeds
- Soybeans and products such as tofu and tempeh
- Green Leafy Vegetables and Sea Vegetables
Rich Sources of Omega 6 Fats – Avoid or limit your intake of these foods which also tend to be highly processed and unhealthy
- All oils including sunflower, sesame and safflower oil. If you are going to use an oil, choose olive oil for salads and dressings, and rapeseed or coconut oil depending on the recipe and desired flavour for cooking and baking, but use all sparingly. (Remember that coconut oil is high in saturated fat and despite mass media confusion, saturated fats are not off the hook when it comes to health).
- Processed high fat foods such as pastries, ready meals and margarine
- Animal products
Other Sources of Omega 6 Fats – Eat these in moderation as they provide other health benefits and nutrients but too much can upset the omega 6: omega 3 ratio
- Nuts and Seeds including almonds, pumpkin seeds and brazil nuts (no more than a small handful/40-60g per day in total for all nuts and seeds. Choose the unsalted versions with no added sugar or flavouring)
If you are concerned as to whether you are getting enough omega 3 fatty acids in your diet you could consider taking a microalgae (vegan omega 3 EPA and DHA) supplement to support your health, whilst still aiming for a balanced diet that includes omega 3 rich foods and limits too much omega 6 rich foods.
A great option is Opti 3 by Vegetology which is approved by the Vegan Society and contains additional plant-based vitamin D3.
What sources do you include in your diet for omega 3 fats? Do you take a supplement and which ones have you tried? Let me know in the comments below!