There is confusion about dietary fat and especially whether or not we have to work to get the essential fatty acids omega 6 and omega 3 in our diet. These are called “essential” fats because they are not made by the body, but they work hand in hand to reduce inflammation, fight heart disease, and stop dangerous clots from forming in the bloodstream. Most of us get plenty of omega-6s in the vegetable oils we use in cooking, but omega-3s are harder to come by, but no less important.
Instead of avoiding healthy fats from plant-based foods, your body needs polyunsaturated fats to thrive and survive, so your cells can build strong membranes and brain cells to connect and function at warp speeds. And while our bodies can make most of what we need, we can’t make the important omega-3s ourselves, so we have to get them through our food instead. The best sources of omega-3 fatty acids are either oily fish like sardines, salmon, and mackerel, or fish oil. However, if you avoid fish and oil, you can find omega-3 fatty acids in nuts like walnuts and seeds like flaxseed and chia seeds, but the question is, are you getting enough?
Omega-3 fatty acids are important to your health, including your brain and heart
A diet high in omega-3s has been linked to improved cardiovascular health as well as improved brain function, according to a major review study from July 2021 that found that among nearly 150,000 participants in dozen of studies, daily doses of omega were obtained – 3 helped reduce the risk of cardiovascular mortality. However, if you try a plant-based diet, omega-3s are harder to come by because if you don’t eat fish, you may not get enough by just eating nuts and seeds. Should you be taking a dietary supplement in this case? This is what experts say about omega-3s and how to get enough with a plant-based diet.
What are omega-3 fatty acids?
There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids in food: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). While ALA is a short-chain omega-3 fatty acid, the other two are long-chain omega-3 fatty acids.
You can only get ALA through your diet by eating chia seeds, hemp seeds, flax or flax seeds, and canola oil and walnuts. Your body then converts ALA to EPA and DPA, which have most of the health benefits. “EPA is thought to play a role in heart health, while DHA is a major part of the brain’s gray matter and is found in the retina and cell membranes,” says Andrea Rymer, RD of the Vegan Society in the UK.
Because DHA plays an important role in the health of the brain and eyes, especially during the growth and development phases, it is especially important to get enough food during pregnancy, breastfeeding, and childhood. Indeed, compelling research from Cochrane shows that consuming omega-3s during pregnancy helps reduce the risk of premature births and low birth weight babies, says Elana Natker, RD, director of consumer and health communications at the Global Organization for EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids.
Can you get enough omega-3 fatty acids through diet alone?
This is a tricky question as it also depends on how well your body can convert ALA to DHA and EPA. “The conversion rate is variable and usually depends on genetics,” says Natker. The conversion is made even more difficult because your body needs enzymes to carry out this conversion. However, to maintain them, it has to compete with other processes in the body, namely the conversion of omega-6 fatty acids, which are typically found in oils like sunflower and corn, which are commonly used in processed foods.
There is a lack of research as to whether our bodies can absorb sufficient EPA and DHA from our food through natural conversion rates. Most of the research has been done on dietary supplements or on the meat and fish-eating population, Rymer says, but a study by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition Giving vegans the confidence that plants provide what they need.
The study came to the conclusion that women on a plant-based diet have significantly more omega-3 fatty acids in their blood than lacto-ovo-vegetarians and fish and meat eaters. “Despite the zero intake of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and a significantly lower intake of its plant precursor alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), vegan participants converted robust amounts of shorter-chain fatty acids into these long-chain fatty acids, ”says it in an opinion of the Medical Commission for Responsible Medicine.
For this reason, the Vegan Society has not issued a general recommendation for all vegans to take a separate supplement. “Dietary supplements (EPA and DHA) don’t seem essential for vegan health because our bodies can make these fatty acids from ALA,” says Rymer. About two grams of ALA per day has been linked to a modest reduction in the risk of heart disease, which you can get from consuming six walnut halves, two tablespoons of hemp seeds, or one tablespoon of chia seeds or ground flaxseed every day.
There are exceptions, however, and if diet isn’t meeting your ALA needs, Rymer recommends consuming a long-chain omega-3 fat (EPA and DHA) made from microalgae. You can also consider supplementation if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or going through a childhood.
However, Natker believes that supplementation is best. “It’s better to rely on a vegan EPA and DHA omega-3 supplement than plant-based sources of ALA to give you the EPA and DHA you need,” she says. If you are planning a nutritional supplement, Natker recommends sending by current researchthat adults take 1000 milligrams (mg) of combined omega-3 fatty acids from EPA and DHA daily. Most vegan omega-3 supplements are made from marine microalgae, but check the labels to make sure you are choosing a vegan product.
Regardless of your dietary supplement decision, you should avoid consuming a lot of short-chain omega-6 fatty acids called linoleic acid, as this can reduce the amount of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids your body gets from the ALA you eat manufactures, says Rymer. Some tips from the Vegan Society to counter this: If you consume oil, choose vegetable oils instead of sunflower, corn, and sesame oils, all of which contain high amounts of LA, and limit the amount of pumpkin and sunflower seeds you eat up to about a quarter cup per serving.
Bottom line: Plant eaters can get enough omega-3 fatty acids from plant sources such as walnuts, seeds, algae and algae. If you can’t get enough omega-3s from diet alone, consider adding a supplement to your routine to fill in the gaps. Always consult your doctor before starting any new dietary supplement.
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