Omega 3 in a vegan diet
Those who follow vegan or plant based diets rely significantly on the conversion of essential fatty acids (EFA) and alpha-linolenic acids (ALA) from plants to supply their EPA and DHA. The conversion can be slowed by genetics, age, and individual health status.
Poor diet can further slow the conversion process. High intakes of Omega-6 fatty acids can have a dramatic effect on Omega-3 fatty acid conversion, reducing it by as much as 40% - 50%. Too much fat, especially trans fatty acids and saturated fats can inhibit conversion. Deficiencies of certain essential amino acids can further decrease the activity of conversion enzymes, as can an excess of glucose or alcohol.
Deficiencies of vitamins B3 and B6 and of the minerals magnesium, and zinc, can inhibit the process of conversion to DHA and EPA. Conversion enzymes may not function as well in people with diabetes, those with metabolic syndromes, hypertension, or certain metabolic disorders. While the conversion of Linoleic Acid (LA) to Arachidonic Acid (AA) is usually efficient, the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA tends to be less efficient.
EPA and DHA are vital nutrients to support brain function, cardiovascular health, and provide support during pregnancy and breastfeeding. They also aid chronic inflammation. We require both of them throughout all stages of life and every cell in our body requires Omega 3 for healthy functioning.
To maintain a healthy balance of Omega 3 ALA/ EPA/ DHA we should aim to include daily sources of Omega 3 ALA in our diet. The richest sources of ALA are seeds such as chia seeds, flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, hempseeds, hempseed oil and walnuts. A portion of 2.2 - 4.4 grams per day should be sufficient on a typical diet. Flaxseeds and hempseeds are both a rich and economical source of Omega-3 fatty acids. However, they tend to go through the intestinal tract undigested if they are not ground.
To achieve a healthy index of Omega 3 / Omega 6 ratios we should also be mindful of our intake of Omega-6 fatty acids. It is easy to overdo Omega-6 fatty acids, especially when we introduce a lot of foods cooked in omega 3 LA rich oils such as corn and rapeseed – they are also a high source of Omega-6 LA.
The only plant sources of long-chain Omega-3 fatty acids are seaweed and microalgae. These are consumed and concentrated by fish, hence the reason fish are rich in Omega 3 DHA and EPA. Supplementation of at least 200mg of DHA daily has shown to increase lipid profile of DHA and EPA in less than 3 months.
With some consideration it is perfectly possible to achieve a healthy balance of lipids in a vegan diet. A combination of diet adjustment and an increase in the consumption of Omega 3 rich foods together with supplementation of vegan Omega 3 is the simplest way to achieve this.