While vegetarians may have generally lower intakes of cholesterol and saturated fat, are they getting enough omega-3?
What is omega-3?
Omega-3 is a family of polyunsaturated fatty acids that the body cannot manufacture, so we must obtain it from our diet. As fish is the primary source of the potent omega-3s called DHA and EPA, vegetarians need to make them from the alpha linolenic acid (ALA) in plant foods.
There’s just one problem: a family of omega-6 fats also exists, which competes for the same enzyme that makes it possible for the body to use ALA. Worse, vegetarian diets usually provide from 14 to 20 times more omega-6 than omega-3, putting the odds of enzyme use in favour of omega-6 rather than omega-3.
Why is omega-3 important?
Omega-3s get incorporated into the walls of every cell in our bodies. They exert anti-inflammatory effects to prevent or better manage arthritis, asthma, psoriasis and other inflammatory conditions. They also keep the heart pumping in rhythm and guard against cancer, diabetes and even depression. In babies, omega-3s are vital for optimal development of the brain and vision.
Four ways to get enough
- Include ALA in your diet regularly. The best sources are chia and flaxseed, purslane seeds, walnuts, wheatgerm, legumes and leafy greens. Some omega-3 enriched eggs can also be used, if acceptable.
- Avoid fast foods, processed snacks, fatty meats and full-fat dairy products. These hide saturated/trans fats, which block the conversion enzyme.
- Use olive or macadamia oil as your primary cooking oil instead of omega-6 rich vegetable oils such as sunflower, corn and margarine. Instead, get most of your fats from whole plant foods. Think nuts, seeds, olives and avocados here.
- Consider a direct source of DHA through a microalgae supplement. Algae are the original source of omega-3, which get incorporated into the flesh of fish.