OMEGA-3; a nutrient many people believe is only found in fish and animal products and therefore vegans and people following plant-based diets must be deficient. Omega-3 is an "essential fat" which means we are unable to make it ourselves so it must be present in our diets.
There are three types of Omega-3 we'll focus on today that are important for human health; ALA, DHA and EPA. These essential fats are involved in a number of important processes in our bodies including neurological development, hormones, brain health and heart health.
Fats as a whole are vital macronnutrients. Our bodies utilise fat to protect our organs, it helps us regulate our body temperature and allows us to store essential vitamins A, D, E and K.
This is why it is recommended 30-35% of the total energy we consume should be from fats. Eating a balanced diet including nuts, seeds, olives, avocados and small quantities of vegetables oils should provide enough fat to meet this target.
What are they?
Essential fatty acids
Plant omega-3 is called ALA
DHA + EPA are animal sources of omega-3
Why do we need them?
Build healthy cell membranes
Involved in numerous physiological processes
Beneficial for heart health
Your body needs ALA, EPA and DHA to function properly. Research shows vegans have adequate levels of EPA and DHA in their blood despite only consuming ALA.Luckily for us the body is able to convert ALA into DHA and EPA. This means we do not require animal foods to provide DHA and EPA.
However vegan diets tend to be naturally high in Omega 6 because we eat nuts, seeds, plant oils and avocados, for example, which are all rich sources. This is potentially problematic because too much Omega 6 can reduce the body's ability to convert plant Omega-3 into the very useful DHA and EPA omegas.
The answer isn't to rid our diets of these Omega-6 nutritious foods but to increase the amount of omega-3 we consume, as it's the ratio of the two which seems to be important. Both Omega-3 and Omega 6 are beneficial for heart health, they just need to be present in the correct ratios.
You can increase the amount of Omega-3 in your diet quite drastically by incorporating flaxseeds into your daily routine. Aim for for 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseed a day. Sprinkle flaxseed on your morning cereal or porridge, drizzle flax oil into salads, use ground flaxseed as an egg replacer (one egg = 1tbsp ground flaxseed + 1tbsp water) when baking or making nut roasts, or simply take a supplement.
Another easy way to get more Omega-3 would be to use vegetable oil when cooking. Also known as rapeseed oil or canola oil. This is not only the cheapest and most readily available oil it also has one of the best ratios of Omega-3 to Omega-6 compared to others (roughly 1:2 ratio of O-3 to O-6). Most standard vegetable oils in the supermarket are 100% rapeseed so no need to buy expensive cold-pressed varieties. They are usually free from palm oil but to be sure just check the label at the back for a breakdown of the ingredients.
In comparison coconut oil contains no Omega-3 and small amounts of Omega 6. It's mainly comprised of saturated fats and is less heat stable at high temperatures than vegetable oil. This is important, as high temperatures can destroy the nutritional value of oils which also contain nutrients such as Vitamin E. Heating unstable oils can also encourage the production of trans fats which we know are dangerous to cardiac health.
It could be argued that although coconut oil contains no Omega-3 it is also not particularly high in Omega-6, therefore if used alongside flaxseed provides a good ratio. However, if your diet is void of an Omega-3 source you will not be getting any from using coconut oil as your fat or choice.
And bear in mind Omega-6 is still needed by the body to function properly, so that's why, for me, Rapeseed is a winner all round.
By our resident registered dietitian: Sam Gould RD PgDip BSc @the.vegan.dietitian
Skeaff & Mann (2012) Essentials of Human Nutrition, 4th Edition. Chapter 4: Lipids p50-69.