Plant-based guide to omega 3s

Omega 3s are a form of polyunsaturated fatty acids, and alongside omega 6 fatty acids are considered essential in the diet, as we cannot synthesise them ourselves. Omega 6 fatty acids are readily available in various forms, including most vegetable oils, poultry, eggs and evening primrose oils. Omega 3s however, are less commonly consumed in a modern western diet. Higher consumption of omega 3s -or a higher omega 3 to 6 ratio -is associated with a lowered risk of heart disease. With omega 3 being most associated with oily fish, how should you get your omega 3s in on a plant based diet? Nutritionist Sarah Jackson is here to explain all:

Omega 3 and Omega 6 are biologically active, contributing to growth and development, brain function and inflammation. Inflammation is vital for us as it helps to fight against infection. However, it can also cause damage to the body, but I explain more on this later.  

Omega 6 is found in oils such as sunflower oil and due to the Western world increasingly using processed oil (whether that be in the food industry or in your kitchen) it is causing a large difference in the Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratio.

So what actually is Omega 3?

As mentioned, Omega 3 comes in different forms; ALA, EPA and DHA. ALA must be included in our diet as it has a range of important functions. It is also compulsory for making Omega 3 fats but unfortunately our bodies cannot make it on its own. You can find ALA in rapeseed oil, nuts and green leafy vegetables. Once we have ALA in our bodies it then starts to produce long-chain fatty acids, EPA and DHA. EPA and DHA are seen to have the most health benefits, however are only made in small amounts from ALA. To ensure you are getting enough of these fats it is important to consume foods rich in them. Oily fish is a great source of EPA and DHA. Whilst white fish does contain them it is at much lower levels. Government guidance is to aim to consume fish twice a week with one being oily fish (preferably MSC certified products).

Vegetarian and vegan sources of Omega 3

The BDA (British Dietetic Association) advise those who cannot get their Omega 3 EPA and DHA from fish sources should maximise conversion by avoiding high in saturated fat foods, focusing on plant foods that contains ALA. You can consider a supplement from algae derived DHA as well as including sea vegetables into your diet.  However, it is important to speak to a Registered Nutritionist or Dietitian before adding supplements into your diet.

Other vegetarian sources of Omega 3 are flaxseeds, walnuts, soy, leafy green vegetables and seaweed. There are now Omega 3 enriched foods such as milks, yogurts and breads this may contribute to your Omega 3 intake. However, it is important to note that this is usually just small amounts.

How is Omega 6 different to Omega 3?

Omega 6 is largely found in processed foods within the Western world. Although it has benefits when it small amounts comes from plant foods it can contribute to health risks if we consume too much from vegetables oils. It is thought that our Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio has considerably increased over the past few decades. Diets that are high in Omega 6 compared to Omega 3 are more likely to produce inflammation, which can contribute to heart disease and obesity.

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Elle: A note on algal sources of omega 3. Fish, crustaceans and molluscs obtain their omega fatty acids content from algae, which grow in the mineral-rich waters of our oceans. In theory, eating these algae is a way of consuming omega 3 (including the useful DHA type) direct from the source, but the taste of seaweeds doesn’t appeal to all palates! Vegan omega 3 supplements will often be based on algae, typically microalgae cultivated in controlled conditions.

Sarah Jackson is an AFN registered nutritionist and yoga teacher based in Manchester. She founded the consultancy NutriBloom, which focuses on helping her clients to learn about nutrition and health in an evidenced based way. You can find her online, and on social media.

Liked this post? Find more informative articles in the nutrition section, including a low-down on celery juice. And if you’re vegetarian or vegan, there is lots of recipe inspiration -try my squash and coconut curry, or nutty quinoa salad. And don’t forget to pin this post to save it for later and share with others.

This post was originally published on 14/11/2017 on Enlivening Elle. It has been updated for 2020.

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