Despite the rather negative reputation fats have gotten over the years, they are an essential part of our diet. The problem with fats arises from the fact that most people today not only eat foods with too many fats, but also foods with the wrong types of fats. The right quantity and quality of foods that contain fat are what is critical for good health.
This is where the importance of the omega-3 group of fats comes in. Wether we are vegan or not, given the right diet, our bodies are capable of making all of the fatty acids – the components of fats – needed for proper health and development. All, except for the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
These two fats are therefore known as essential fats. This means that they must come directly from our diet. When it comes to omega-6 fatty acids, these are very abundant in the typical modern diet, to the point that we are actually eating too much of them. On the contrary, the omega-3 fatty acids are not as abundant in foods and also not consumed enough within modern diets. This results in increased inflammation and risk factors for our heart and cardiovascular system health, as well as our brain and nervous system health.
To help you make the best choices therefore, where your diet and health are concerned, the following article will explain the different types of omega-3 fatty acids, their functions, their evolutionary mechanism, recommended intakes, societal influences and applications in your lifestyle. You will also learn about the omega-6 fatty acids, as a proper understanding of the omega-3 fats would be incomplete without mentioning these. And you will also get guidance on how to approach omega-3 within a vegan diet.
Types and Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 is a group of fats within the polyunsaturated fats. Within this group is the essential fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). There are also two other, very important fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
ALA is found in most plant foods, where as EPA and DHA are found predominantly in fish, and other seafood. The original source of the EPA and DHA however, this being where fish get their ALA from, is seaweed, algae, and plankton. Fish themselves are not a source of ALA and contrary to popular belief fish are not a health food.
When it comes to other animal foods, meat, dairy or eggs only contain omega-3 fatty acids, if the animals themselves have been fed natural diets of fresh grass or diets fortified with omega-3 fatty acids. This pretty much excludes most animal foods, which come from conventional and factory farms. Most animal foods instead, are very high in omega-6 fatty acids. It is interesting to note too that farmed fish do not contain omega 3, unless they were given a diet fortified with it.
Some processed foods today are also fortified with the different omega-3 fatty acids.
The ALA to EPA to DHA Conversion
The reason EPA and DHA are not essential on their own, but rather considered important, is that given a proper amount of ALA in the diet, our body can make these two for us. In healthy individuals, the body will convert ALA to EPA, and then the EPA to DHA, as needed to maintain its own balance. This will happen adequately under 2 conditions:
- Our diet has enough foods rich in ALA omega-3.
- Our diet does not have too many foods rich in omega-6 fatty acids.
If this pathway is compromised in any way, EPA and DHA then have to come directly from the diet or supplements.
The Right Omega-3 Diet
The right omega-3 diet, which provides lots of ALA and not too much omega-6 fatty acids is perfectly illustrated by a whole-food, plant-based diet.
First, ALA can be found abundantly in nuts and seeds, like walnuts, flax, chia, hemp; beans, like mungo beans (black gram / urad dal); many vegetables, especially leafy greens and winter squash; and sea vegetables, like dulse and kelp. In fact, nearly all whole plant foods contain at least a little bit of it, including grains like quinoa and legumes like soy, so eating a whole-food, plant-based diet will normally supply everything we need in this regard.
Second, a whole-food, plant-based diet is largely or completely devoid of processed foods, oils, and animal foods, like meat, eggs, dairy. All three of these food groups contribute high levels of omega-6 fatty acids to the diet, and are highly inflammatory.
Third, a whole-food, plant-based diet is the most anti-inflammatory and protective, offering the best healing, support and regenerative benefits for our cells, tissues and organs.
The Omega-6 Oil Problem
Aside from animal foods, oils are the most inflammatory causing substances. Given that today almost all processed foods and restaurant foods contain oils, this applies to them as well. This is in addition to them containing high levels of omega-6 fatty acids, which become inflammatory themselves when not balanced with omega-3 fatty acids.
Here is a table sharing the omega-3 and omega-6 values of common oils. You will notice that aside from flax oil, all other oils contain more omega-6 than omega-3, varying from a little to a lot more. Keep in mind here too, that just because flax oil contains a good amount and ratio of omega-3, does not mean that it is recommended. What is recommended and a smart food option as a source of omega-3 and in general, are whole or ground flax seeds, which provide the complete food and nutrient integrity of the food. Extracts and isolates like oils, are not ideal foods.
|Type of oil||Omega-3||Omega-6||Monounsaturated fat**||Saturated fat|
|Olive oil (extra virgin)||1||8||77||14|
|Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture|
Functions of Omega-3 Fats
Overall, the omega-3 fats are considered to be highly protective against cardiovascular disease and they possess excellent anti-inflammatory properties. Among these, specific functions and benefits include:
- Decrease the risk of arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat)
- Reduce heart rate
- Lower plasma triglyceride levels (blood fats)
- Decrease levels of compounds that cause inflammation
- Reduce platelet aggregation to help reduce blood clotting
- Help development of proper cell membranes
- Help in the regulation of proper blood pressure
In addition to these, DHA fatty acid, has specifically important functions related to proper brain development and nervous system activity, retinal function, immune function and possibly even proper reproduction.
Omega-3 From an Evolutionary Perspective
Even though, by design, our bodies have the ability to produce both EPA and DHA fatty acids given the right intake of ALA, many experts today insist that eating ALA alone is not enough. They claim that the conversion rate in the body is not efficient or sufficient, and therefore not adequate to give us enough protection to maintain good health. This is one of the top excuses which opponents of vegan or vegetarian diets and/or proponents of supplements use to insist that plant-based diets are not natural for us if they require supplements.
However, an independent Swedish testing organization on omega-3 research, offers a more balanced view of this, as they share the following:
It is not known how efficient this transformation is, studies have shown different results. A limiting factor is that the same enzymes are used to transform both omega-6 and ALA (omega-3), and it can not be done simultaneously.
The second line in their quote leads us to the key evolutionary aspect that we need to consider when it comes to the omega-3 intake, sources and conversion. This revolves around the delicate balance of the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio in our diets.
What we know today for certain is that we eat too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3. This should make you question right away the absurd concept of supplement companies offering and selling omega-6 supplements. This is without a doubt one substance that we definitely have no problem getting not only enough of, but furthermore too much of via our diets alone.
The Ideal Omega-3 to Omega-6 Ratio
Some sources state that the optimum ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 is 3:1. However, anthropological, epidemiological and studies at the molecular level indicate that human beings evolved on a diet with a ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 of approximately 1:1. Here is an excellent document on the fatty acid ratios, which presents the scientific side of this data.
Since omega-6 makes up a high composition of cooking and salad oils, animal foods, fried foods, processed foods and convenience foods, it is no surprise most people are getting too much given what common diets are mostly composed of today. Researchers estimate that we are eating on average a whopping 20:1 omega-6 to omega-3 ratio to upwards of 50:1 omega-6 to omega-3 ratio!
So at first glance it appears logical that so much of the health advice keeps pushing us to get more omega-3 in our diets, whether through foods or supplements. However, such is the obsession with more approach of our profit-driven culture to get us to consume more of something, when the more logical solution is to consume less of the problematic factor.
If the ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is 1:1, then imagine how much omega-3 you have to put into your diet to offset those unnaturally high values of omega-6. No wonder so many fall back on supplements thinking that their diet could never adequately provide what they need. But alas, if we simply shift our perspective and approach a problem from the root, rather than the surface, an easier and more elegant solution is always available. This is where removing the wrong foods and focusing our diets on the right foods is the key!
Societal and Health Implications of Omega-3
Our bodies are intelligent systems, capable of amazing things from producing what they need to complete self-healing. We have to understand and remember that our health is very multi-factorial. It is never one food or one substance that will be our savior or our downfall. Our skyrocketing heart disease rates therefore, are not because we don’t have enough omega-3, or have too much omega-6 in our diets. Regardless if you eat fish, take fish oils or other omega-3 supplements, none of this will adequately protect against or treat heart disease. Heart disease rates today are what they are, first and foremost, due to the immense and unnatural amounts of animal and processed foods that people eat. In addition to diet, too many people have lifestyles full of chronic stress, inadequate physical activity and outdoor time, with a great degree of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual disconnection. So we cannot miss the elephant in the room, while we focus on a fly.
There is no doubt that omega-3 fatty acids are essential for optimal health, and do help maintain a properly functioning cardiovascular and nervous system, but if we want to prevent or heal heart disease, we need to consider our overall lifestyle habits. Yes, increasing our omega-3 foods can prove very beneficial, but don’t forget that more focus on the reduction of omega-6 fatty acids will be just as important, if nor more so.
If we want the most effective solutions today and want to make the best choices for our health, we must be conscious and discerning human beings who take responsibility for their choices. Don’t just do something because “someone” out there said you should. Don’t let fear or fads trap you into making the wrong choices for your wellbeing. There is no coincidence why the whole omega-3 topic has been blown out of proportion and become a very biased topic. It has unfortunately become a big industry that directly supports both the fishing and supplement industries, and indirectly the pharmaceutical industry. Thus it has a lot riding on your compliance.
When we do our homework however, we begin to see the cracks and inconsistencies. We begin to learn how amazing our bodies are and how perfectly healing, protective and health promoting the right diet is. We also begin to discover the many stakes and financial ties a particular expert or organization has to a product or corporation, and why they are so focused on spreading that certain message that will sell a product. Here is one such example. The DHA/EPA Omega 3 Institute, looks and sounds like a professional and credible source from which to perhaps learn about omega-3 fatty acids further. However, upon closer inspection we can learn that they are directly linked to marine-derived omega-3 supplement formulas. So what do you think their health message or advice to you will be?
This is why when it comes to our health, we need to see past the profit bias and financial stakes. We need to see past the fear and insecurity tactics. We need to see past the credible sounding, yet highly biased research studies. We need to go past the band-aid approach and get to the root of the problem.
In the end, you will need to make your own choice as to what you feel is right for you when it comes to your diet and health. But my hope is that having read this guide you will proceed with a lot more understanding and clarity where this topic is concerned.
Here is some concluding advice:
- Focus on eating the right diet — whole-food, plant-based. Rather than split hairs about this food or that nutrient, know that the overall dietary foundation will be your best source of protection or biggest source of problems.
- If you feel or have medically-sound information that you should supplement with an omega-3, then be sure to use plant sources of DHA, which do not come with the risks of fish oil supplements.
- Remember that ALA is essential to our health and a healthy body, eating the right diet is equipped to adequately convert and produce what it needs when it comes to the EPA and DHA fatty acids.
- Be conscious of your overall lifestyle, which plays the biggest role in your health. You always gain even more overall health benefits when you have adequate physical activity, sleep, water, fresh air and sun, and focus on organic products, non-toxic products, effective stress management and living with a high degree of connectedness, gratitude and joy.