The Omega 3 benefit is now well known, with omega 3 6 9 and omega 3 supplements being recommended to at us at every opportunity. Here Nutritionist Yvonne Bishop-Weston looks at diet options for vegetarians and vegans and those with ethical and religious concerns surrounding seeking vegetarian and vegan EPA and DHA sustainable alternatives to omega 3 fish oil and fish with omega 3 fatty oil.
What are essential fats?
Essential fats are defined as vital for, but cannot be made by, the human body. Only plants can make the vital omega 3 and 6 parent fatty acids, human enzymes can then convert these to other fatty acids such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) which are building blocks of the brain and nervous system. They are needed for the integrity of every cell membrane in the body so particularly important for the health of vital organs such as the heart and brain.
How essential fats are processed in the body
The essential fats start with the dietary omega 3 and 6 parents. They are then converted into long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids. The omega 3 parent fatty acid is called alpha-linolenic acid (LNA or ALA) and comes from seeds such as flax, hemp and pumpkin, from nuts such as walnuts, and to a lesser extent from soya and green vegetables. Through a series of enzyme-controlled reactions, the body converts this LNA into a number of vital fatty acids, including EPA and DHA.
Among their many roles, EPA is needed for brain function, concentration, and vision, and is also converted into a powerful anti-inflammatory agent. DHA is needed as a building material , particularly for brain structure and so is especially important in pregnancy for the baby’s brain and nervous system development. Optimum nutritional sources of EPA and DHA come from oily fish as the fish consume the essential fats from algae concentrating into these fats and then accumulating them up the food chain. Now we have the opportunity to cut out the middle man and just consume algae-based EPA and DHA ourselves. There are a number of algal oils with DHA V-Pure was the first to have DHA and EPA
The omega-6 parent fat is called linoleic acid (LA) and is found in seeds such as hemp, flax, sunflower, sesame and nuts. Sunflower oil is probably the most well-used source. This is converted by the body into GLA, also found in borage, evening primrose and blackcurrant seed oils, well known for it’s anti-inflammatory properties and use in female hormone balance. LA is also converted into arachidonic acid (AA), which although is needed by the body, also acts as an inflammatory agent and in excess can contribute to inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and cardiovascular problems. AA is found in meat and dairy and is often consumed in excess.
The more complicated longer chain omega-6 GLA and the longer chain omega-3 SDA have recently been discovered in Echium oil. These longer-chain essential fats save the body from having to complete the first hurdle in the conversion chain and thus in research Echium oil has been shown to be 5 times more effective than flax at being converted to EPA (but not DHA) than Flax oil. Several products are now available with Echium oil, the first of which is Echiomega
What are the functions of essential fats?
Essential fats and other fats they are converted to, have a wide range of functions in the body.
They are vital for the structure of cell membranes, making them flexible and allowing nutrients into, and toxins out of cells so body processes can function correctly.
They also play roles in
- cardiovascular health,
- immunity and
- nervous system functions.
Good omega-3 food sources
Nuts, seeds and their oils are good sources of the omega 3 and 6 parent fats and hemp seed also contain some pre-converted GLA. They do not, however contain the vital EPA and DHA. Fish with omega 3 fatty oil are able to make these fats from the algae they eat and so provide an excellent source to those who eat omega 3 fish oil. We can of course eat the algae ourselves and chlorella and spirulina provide valuable sources of these converted fats as well as a whole host of other nutrients. If you don’t eat algae then you need to rely on your body’s efficiency in converting the fats itself. There are many ways you can support this conversion.
Optimise your omega-3 essential fatty acid levels
- Have a daily intake of nuts, seeds and their omega 3, 6 & 9 oils.
- Include an algae/alga (spirulina or chlorella) drink four times a week.
- Include good sources of the nutrients which aid essential fat conversion – zinc, magnesium, calcium, biotin and vitamins B6, B3 and C.
- Avoid things which inhibit conversion; alcohol, saturated and trans fats (from animal foods and processed foods), smoking, caffeine, viral infections, stress and excess intake of vitamin A and copper.
- Balance your intake of omega 3 and 6 fatty acids. Due to the widespread use of sunflower oil in food manufacturing, we tend to have a much greater intake of omega-6 to 3 fats in our diets. This imbalance can lead to the conversion enzymes getting used up for omega 6, restricting omega 3 conversion. The ideal balance is around 3 to 4 parts omega 6 to one of omega 3.
- Buy your seed oils cold-pressed and from the fridge in your health shop. Also buy in small quantities so it remains fresh. At home, store them in the fridge and use them cold. If heating oils, use olive or coconut oil.
- Some people may have less of the conversion enzymes and may need to be strict with the above nutrient supporters and inhibitors. These people include those with atopic allergies (asthma, eczema and hay fever which run in the family) and those with diabetics.
- Take an algae-based DHA supplement when planning a pregnancy, pregnant or breast-feeding.
- Have an essential fatty acid test to determine your specific needs and if your diet is meeting these.
Do you need oily fish?
If you optimise your intake of essential fats, and their conversion, the majority of people can achieve good health without fish. Oily fish also has a number of drawbacks in addition to ethical considerations. The seas are increasingly polluted and unacceptable levels of toxicity such as dioxins and PCP’s as well as mercury have often been found in fish destined for the food chain. Farmed fish is also not the answer as this unnatural method of rearing fish not only relies on a processed diet which may not convert to the same nutrients in the fish, but also requires the use of antibiotics and other harmful agents to prevent the spread of disease.
Algae-sourced DHA supplementation is however recommended in pregnancy as studies have shown lower levels in babies born to vegan mothers. Finally, if you have a health condition such as diabetes or atopic allergies or even if you are mildly stressed you may be limited in your ability to convert your own fats so you’ll need to consider an algae-based DHA EPA supplement.
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