Omega-3 – Still a Hot Topic
Omega 3 is an essential fatty acid critical for heart health, brain development, reducing inflammation and joint pain, managing depression, preventing dry eyes, lowering cholesterol, controlling high blood pressure, protecting bone health and more. There are 3 types of omega 3 fatty acids, each of which are needed in the diet and have unique beneficial qualities:
ALA – Alpha-linolenic alcid is the omega 3 found in our power seeds, chia, hemp and flax, as well as other sources such as English walnuts and some fruits and vegetables. This is the omega 3 that you get from plant sources.
EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are generally found in fish and some algae and are said to be the most beneficial of the omega 3 fatty acids. These fatty acids are especially critical during pregnancy for the development of the baby’s brain, nervous system and retinas. Studies have shown that pregnant women whose diets were higher in DHA had offspring with higher IQ scores.
The body partially converts plant ALA omega 3 to EPA and DHA. Where the debate lies is whether or not vegans, especially pregnant or lactating vegans, can count of this conversion to get sufficient amounts of EPA and DHA. Some studies show the conversion rate to be extremely small. Information given at an Integrative Mental Health conference I attended indicated that some people were unable to make the conversion at all. If you avoid fish, I personally wouldn’t count on getting everything you need from plant sources. Here’s what you can do.
What’s a Vegan to do?
- Eating power seeds like chia, flax and hemp which contain plant based ALA omega 3 fatty acids is still very beneficial. Besides the conversion to DHA and EPA, albeit small, they are an excellent source of energy and other nutrients. We’ll discuss their individual benefits later.
Vegans should be very conscious of how much omega 6 they consume. Conversion of ALA to DHA and EPA is greatly diminished when you consume too many plant foods containing omega 6. Although in the past a 4 to 1 omega 6 to omega 3 ratio has been recommended to vegans for optimal conversion, some experts now recommend a ratio closer to 1 to 1. Unfortunately, the American diet is closer to 14 or 20 to 1. We’ll talk more about this in a bit.
Comparing Power Seeds
|Chia seeds per ounce||Flaxseeds per ounce||Hemp seeds per ounce|
|Omega 3||4.9 g||6.4 g||2.8 g|
|Omega 6||1.6 g||1.7 g||7.0 g|
|Omega 6 to omega 3 ratio||0.33 to 1||0.26 to 1||2.5 to 1|
|Fiber||11 g||8 g||1 g|
|Calcium||177 mg||71.4 mg||38.9 mg|
Omega 3 winner
Flaxseeds are the clear winner in both the amount of omega 3 and the ratio to omega 6. Each ounce (approximately 3 tablespoons) provides over 6 grams of ALA omega 3 and has 4 times the amount of omega 3 as omega 6. Although you actually need more omega 6 than omega 3, you are probably eating other foods that tip the scale the other way so overall, by eating flaxseeds, you will get closer to where you need to be.
Flaxseeds are also the least expensive of the three. They are also pretty high in fiber and a very good source of thiamin and manganese. Try making Raw Crackers with flaxseeds or just throw ground flaxseeds in your smoothies or over hot oatmeal.
The High Fiber Champion
Chia seeds have the most fiber with a whopping 11 grams of dietary fiber per ounce. A diet high in fiber helps you lose weight, lowers cholesterol, stabilizes blood sugar levels and helps prevent constipation. I love creating chia seed recipes. They make great desserts (like Vegan Chocolate Chia Pudding), salad dressings (see Raw Vegan Waldorf Salad with Apple Chia Dressing ) and you can use them in smoothies (try Apple Cinnamon Smoothie with Chia Seeds and Goji Berries).
They are also extremely high in omega 3, providing almost 5 grams per ounce, with three times as much omega 3 as omega 6. They certainly give flaxseeds a run for their money in this department. Chia seeds are also an excellent source of calcium so for all of us who avoid dairy, this is an important food.
The Protein Powerhouse
Although hemp seeds are also a very good source of omega 3, providing nearly 3 grams per ounce, they are known for their high protein content weighing in at 10.3 grams of quality protein per ounce of hemp seeds. Nutiva makes an excellent Organic Shelled Hempseed product that we enjoy. Another company that makes some wonderful hemp products, like hempmilk and hemp ice cream, is Living Harvest.
They are All Winners!
All three of these power seeds are winners. I include at least one and sometimes all of them in my diet daily, especially if I’m eating foods high in omega 6.
Foods Rich in Omega 6
The reason the balance of omega 6 to omega 3 is so high in the American diet is because our diets are filled with nuts, seeds and oils high in omega 6. If you are a vegan who doesn’t supplement with DHA and EPA, this can be a real problem.
Nuts and Seeds and their Omega 6 Content
|Nuts and Seeds||Omega 6 per ounce||Omega 3 per ounce||Ratio of omega 6 to omega 3|
|English walnuts||10,666 mg||2,542 mg||4 to 1|
|Pecans||5,777 mg||276 mg||21 to 1|
|Pistachio nuts||3,818 mg||73 mg||52 to 1|
|Sesame seeds||7,063 mg||74 mg||96 to 1|
|Poppy seeds||7,921 mg||76 mg||104 to 1|
|Pumpkin seeds*||5,797 mg||51 mg||114 to 1|
|Pine nuts||9,410 mg||31 mg||300 to 1|
|Brazil nuts||5,758 mg||5 mg||1,150 to 1|
|Almonds||3,378 mg||2 mg||1,987 to 1|
|Peanuts||4,393 mg||<1 mg||5,500 to 1|
- Pumpkin seed values vary widely across several sources, some of which showing them to have a much more favorable omega 6 to omega 3 ratio. To be consistent, all information here is from SELFNutritionData.
All nuts are very high in omega 6 fatty acid which can prevent your body from converting ALA omega 3 fatty acid to the more beneficial DHA and EPA fatty acids. English walnuts are extremely high in omega 6 but have the best “balance” of omega 6 to omega 3. Peanuts are the absolute worst because they have practically no omega 3 to balance out the omega 6. If almond and peanut butter are staples in your diet, and you avoid fish, you are at risk for being deficient in DHA and EPA. I’m certainly not suggesting that all vegans should avoid eating nuts as there are many Health Benefits of Nuts and Seeds. Just make sure you eat plenty of omega 3 power seeds to balance out the omega 6 and you supplement with an algae derived omega 3 supplement.
Oils and their Omega 6 Content
|Oils||Omega 6 per ounce||Omega 3 per ounce||Ratio of omega 6 to omega 3|
|Coconut oil||504 mg||0 mg|
|Flaxseed oil||3,556 mg||14,925 mg||0.24 to 1|
|Canola oil||5,221 mg||2,559 mg||2 to 1|
|Walnut oil||14,810 mg||2,912 mg||5 to 1|
|Olive oil||21,088 mg||1,644 mg||13 to 1|
|Sunflower oil||1,010 mg||54 mg||19 to 1|
|Corn oil||14,983 mg||325 mg||46 to 1|
|Peanut oil||8,961 mg||0 mg|
|Sesame oil||11,565 mg||84 mg||138 to 1|
|Grapeseed oil||19,485 mg||28 mg||696 to 1|
|Safflower oil||20,892 mg||0 mg|
Looking at this chart, you can understand why the American diet has such a poor omega 6 to omega 3 ratio. Many baked goods, pre-made salad dressings and chips are made with safflower oil which has the highest content of omega 6 and has no omega 3. Corn oil is also popular and has an unfavorable 46 to 1 ratio. Flaxseed oil, with its stellar content of omega 3, unfortunately cannot be used for cooking but it can be used in salad dressings. To get the best flavor and omega 3 benefits, mix some flaxseed oil in with extra virgin olive oil when making a salad dressing. Canola oil has a good ratio but make sure you buy one that is organic and GMO free. Most of them are not! Coconut oil is very low in omega 6 and makes a good substitute for butter when baking. It also is a good oil to use in raw food dessert recipes as it firms up when chilled.
Should I supplement?
Most DHA and EPA Omega 3 supplements contain fish oil and vegans, of course, avoid fish. But now there are products that contain both EPA and DHA that are derived from algae. The reason fish contain omega 3 is because they eat algae so why not go directly to the source! Check out V-Pure Omega 3. Whether you are pregnant or not, adding a DHA and EPA source of omega 3 to your diet would be a good addition to eating power seeds.
Here’s a Quick Summary
- Plant based omega 3 fatty acids are critical to your health so eat lots of chia, flax and hemp seeds.
- Your body may be able to make some EPA and DHA from these plant based omega 3’s if you are healthy and VERY careful about your omega 6 to omega 3 balance.
- HOWEVER, vegans still may be at risk for EPA and DHA deficiency so it’s wise to take a daily supplement.
- If you are a pregnant vegan, supplementation is extremely important for the development of your baby’s brain, nervous system and retinas.
- If you are not vegan and eat fish rich in omega 3, DHA and EPA conversion is not an issue but eating plant based omega 3 fatty acids still provides additional health benefits.
Source: Food For Long Life