As vegans, we’ve all batted away the questions about where we get our protein from and had a good think about the need for a B12 supplement, but have you stopped to consider if you are getting enough omega-3?
Traditionally when people think of omega-3 their mind jumps to eating oily fish. As a vegan, this is obviously not an option but this doesn’t mean that we should dismiss omega-3 out of hand. There are a number of plant based sources of omega-3 which are actually more beneficial then supplementing with fish oil. Read on to find out just what omega-3 is, why it is important for your overall health and well being, and how you can add it into your diet.
WHAT IS OMEGA-3?
Omega-3 is a polyunsaturated fatty acid that is a crucial nutrient for our overall health. Known as an essential fatty acid, omega-3 cannot be produced by the human body. This means to achieve optimum health as a vegan, your omega-3 intake needs a little pre-planning.
There are 3 types of omega-3
Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA) – This plant based omega 3 is found in green leafy vegetables, flax and chia seeds. Known as short-chain omega-3, your body is able to convert ALA into longer chain EPA and DHA. This process is quite inefficient with only 8%-20% converted to EPA and 1%-9% converted to DHA. Women are somewhat more able to convert ALA due to the role of estrogen in this process.
Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) – This 20-carbon molecule fatty acid is found in fish, algae and krill oil. Along with the longer chain DHA, this where many of the benefits of Omega-3 come from
Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) – A 22-carbon molecule fattyacid, DHA is also found in fish, krill and algae. Your body is capable of converting DHA into EPA to keep these two compounds at a fairly even level.
What about Omega-6?
Omega-6 are also essential fatty acids necessary for survival, however they are not nearly as beneficial as omega-3 and are much more abundant in a modern western diet. Without getting overly scientific, omega-3 and omega-6 compete for the same conversion enzymes. The bad news for us vegans is that omega-6 directly inhibits the conversion of plant based ALA into the more beneficial long chain EPA and DHA.
If you are consuming a wholefood diet, there is no need to worry about too much omega-6. If however you are a “junk food vegan” and consuming large amounts of processed food, you may wish to dig a little deeper into the negative effects of consuming too much omega-6
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF OMEGA-3?
Reduction of Inflammation
One of the key benefits of omega-3 is its ability to fight inflammation. Doctors are beginning to suggest that excessive inflammation may be the cause of many chronic diseases. An anti-inflammatory diet rich in omega-3 gives your body its best chance of fighting of these diseases.
Supports Healthy Hair and Skin
Omega-3 is a natural emollient meaning it helps to moisturise and revitalise dry skin from the inside out. The powerful anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3 can help to reduce redness and swelling as well as limiting skin irritation. The DHA and EPA contained in omega-3 help to provide nourishment to the hair follicles helping to keep hair strong and healthy.
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Depression and anxiety are two of the most prevalent mental health conditions in the modern world. Studies have shown that people who consume omega-3’s regularly are less likely to suffer from depression. There is also evidence that people who suffer from anxiety can benefit from supplementing their diet with additional omega-3.
Omega-3 has also been linked with an increase in the ability to concentrate, particularly among children and adolescents. One theory behind this suggests that DHA omega-3 makes up part of the cell membrane in brain neurons. If DHA is unavailable, the body substitutes it with a different fatty acid which hinders the control of electrical impulses entering the cell.
HOW CAN I ADD OMEGA-3 TO MY DIET?
Chia Seeds – As well as being a fantastic source of vegan protein, chia seeds are a brilliant source of omega-3
Hemp Seeds – High in protein, iron magnesium and zinc, hemp seeds are also a fantastic source of plant based omega-3. Just 10 grams of hemp seed will meet your RDI of ALA
Walnuts – Walnuts have been shown to improve neurogenesis in the brain and help to boost your mood. This can be attributed to their high levels of omega-3
Flaxseeds – A true nutritional powerhouse, flaxseeds have been consumed for up to 9000 years. One of the world’s oldest superfoods, flaxseeds are an excellent source of omega 3 for vegans.
DHA and EPA
The FAO and EFSA recommend that you get 250mg of DHA and EPA per day. The bad news for vegans is that there is no vegan wholefood source of DHA or EPA. The good news is that it is possible for vegans to boost their DHA and EPA from the same source that fish do – Microalgae.
Microalgae are microscopic algae found in freshwater and marine ecosystems. One of the earth’s oldest plant organisms, microalgae are now grown commercially and are used to make vegan friendly omega-3 supplements high in DHA. Microalgae based omega-3 supplements are much more beneficial for your health then traditional fish oil omega-3 as they do not contain the high levels of mercury and other toxins that are unfortunately present in fish.
As you can see, omega-3 is another essential thing to consider as a vegan. Whilst you can survive happily just eating wholefoods, it may be beneficial for you to consider taking an omega-3 supplement.
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