Vegetarian diet and all its variations (f.e. vegan) provides you with plenty of health benefits, if done correctly. When on this diet, you need to pay extra attention to the following vitamins, minerals and microelements to avoid their deficiency: calcium, iron, zinc, iodine, vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids and sufficient amount of protein.
This post is about omega-3 fatty acids.
The role of omega-3 fatty acids in the body
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for our body to work properly. They are an integral part of cell walls throughout the body and affect the function of the cell receptors in these walls. They are also a basis for hormones that regulate the work of our arteries, and the levels of inflammation, keeping our heart, blood vessels, lungs and immune system functioning well. Besides, omega-3 fatty acids are critical to our nervous system. Significant amount of recent studies showed that people with ADHD, autism, aging-associated memory loss, migraines, and depression could benefit from supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids.
What are the main sources of omega-3s for vegetarians and vegans?
The omega-3 fatty acids represent 3 specific fatty acids, namely:
- alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), found in plant oils and nuts (mainly, walnuts). Our body can convert ALA to DHA
- eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) is an intermediate along the way from ALA to DHA. The food source of this omega-3 is fish. EPA prevents the formation of blood clots and maintains good function of your heart and blood vessels
- docosohexaenoic acid (DHA), found mainly in fish, liver, and egg yolk. You need DHA for eye, brain, and heart health and the good state of your blood vessels.
Besides reducing risk of heart problems, all omega-3 fatty acids also help regulate gut microbiota and immunity, and reduce the risk of inflammatory diseases.
The main source of omega-3s for vegetarians and vegans is most of the time ALA. The richest sources of ALA are flaxseeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, chia seeds, and their oils, with smaller amounts present in canola and soy oils, and green leafy vegetables.
The conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA seems to be more efficient in vegetarians and vegans than in omnivores, although the levels of EPA in DHA are higher in omnivores. However, there is no evidence that the lower levels of EPA and DHA have any negative effects on heart or brain health in vegetarians or vegans.
The conversion of ALA is affected by health status, age, gender, and dietary composition. The last one is quite intriguing. Only small amounts of ALA are converted to the EPA, and to a less degree DHA, especially if you eat food, high in omega-6 linoleic acid (LA). The main dietary sources of the linoleic acid are vegetable oils such as sunflower, safflower, corn, and canola oils. To other sources belong grain-based desserts, salad dressing, potato and corn chips, pizza, bread, french fries and pasta dishes, mayonnaise, eggs, and popcorn. So, vegetarians and vegans, be conscious about your food combinations!
Another source of omega-3s for vegetarians are omega-3-rich eggs and DHA-fortified foods.
How much omega-3 do we need?
As written earlier, we can get DHA through conversion from ALA or EPA, but that requires good genetics, healthy insulin function, a low total omega-6 intake, and enough B6, biotin, carbs, calories, protein, calcium, and zinc. And in general, many people fail to meet these simple requirements. That is why our needs for DHA might be increased. And for sure, pregnant and lactating women require higher doses of omega-3 (particularly DHA).
Currently the National Academy of Medicine (USA) has not established recommendations for EPA and DHA, while the European Food Safety Authority has recommended an intake of 250 mg/day for EPA and DHA. To give you an example: you need to eat 8 egg yolks per day or 1.5 serving of fatty fish per week to achive the recommended amounts.
For the vegetarians, a regular use of an algal DHA supplement is advised to increase their DHA levels effectively. Fish oil or cod liver oil are good examples of DHA supplements. They vary in their DHA and EPA content, but cod liver oil has the benefit of extra vitamin A and D.
To date, an adequate intake of ALA has been specified as 1.6 g for men and 1.1 g for women.
The ideal omega-6/omega-3 ratio for optimal health has not been defined, although various researchers have debated the issue.
Curious? HERE is the source