Healthy Fats For Vegetarian and Vegan Diets

How To Get The Right Balance of Omega 3 & Omega 6 In Your Diet

By Dr. Linda Posch, MS SLP ND

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One of the biggest challenges for the vegan and vegetarian diet is getting a proper balance of healthy fats. With our contemporary, industrialized diet, it's easy to become deficient in essential fatty acids (EFA), derived from healthy Omega 3 fats.

When properly combined with other essential fatty acids, Omega 3's help to produce abundant health and prevent some degenerative diseases. This article explains the critical role of Omega 3's and other EFA's in human health.

We all benefit from an overall healthy diet, but the right ratio of healthy fats is vital to our health and well being.

This is especially relevant to people in wealthy and industrialized countries with rich, but not-so-healthy diets. These diets typically have lots of polyunsaturated, or 'bad fats'.

Most of the degenerative diseases involve eating the wrong kind and the wrong amounts of dietary fats.

Eating healthy fats lowers the risks of cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes, and improves our chances of living a healthful life. And it's easy to get Omega 3 fatty acids in our diet.

What Are Omega Fatty Acids?

Omega 3 and Omega 6 are the two main categories of Essential Fatty Acids (EFA's), which are important for good health. They are not made by our bodies and must be obtained from foods or supplements. Omega 9's are necessary to health, but aren't called 'essential', because the body can produce Omega 9.

Omega 3 Fatty Acids are obtained from Linolenic Acid, Omega 6 from Linoleic Acid, and Omega 9 from Oleic Acid.

  • EFA's have been enjoying a heyday for several years since research has proven that they play a major role in helping to maintain good health.
  • EFA's boost the nervous, immune, reproductive and cardiovascular systems.
  • EFA's are vital in cell membrane formation and function, through which nutrients are absorbed into the cells and waste excreted.
  • EFA's are important for everybody, from babies to the elderly.

Americans are generally low in essential Omega 3 fats. Our national diet of processed foods, fast foods, and skipping meals altogether has played a major role. For the most part, we don't understand our body's need for EFA's, and don't know how to include them in our diet. Surprisingly, it seems that vegetarians and vegans are particularly vulnerable to Omega 3 fatty acid deficiencies.

Vegetarians, Vegans, and Omega 3

Research Shows Vegetarians Deficient in Omega 3 Fatty Acids.

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The Department of Food Science at the Australian RMIT University has indicated that typical omnivores have higher Omega 3 blood levels than vegetarians.

Another study, performed at the Research Institute of Nutrition in Slovakia studied a group of children ages 11-15 years over an average length of 3.4 years:

10 were semi-vegetarians, 15 were lacto-ovo vegetarians and seven were pure vegans. This group was compared to a group of 19 omnivores. Whereas the lacto-ovo vegetarians and the omnivore group showed exactly the same amount of Omega 3 in their blood, the semi-vegetarian group was somewhat deficient. The vegan group was most deficient and was found to have substantially lower blood levels of Omega 3, compared to the later groups.

In America, where Omega 3's are usually obtained through cold-water fish and flax oil, many vegetarians don't have the right amount of Omega 3 in their food. The disproportionate amount of Omega 6 in their diet may accumulate in the body tissues, which according to research, could lead to degenerative diseases - such as heart attack and stroke, cancer and arthritis.

Benefits of Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Other research reveals that Omega 3 fatty acids actually minimize inflammatory responses, lowering the risk factors for heart disease and cancer.

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Omega 3 is necessary for cell wall manufacture and pliability; which allows for optimal intake of nutrients and oxygen, and the excretion of wastes. Omega 3 is necessary for the healthy development of nerves and eyesight.

Since Omega 3's are highly concentrated in the brain, this helps: memory, brain performance, mood & behavior (depression, Schizophrenia, bipolar, ADHD), learning, thinking, cognition, and brain development in children.

Omega 3 also helps to treat conditions such as: diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, high cholesterol, hypertension, weight loss, asthma, burns, skin problems, eating disorders, nerve myelin sheathing, hormone maintenance, energy, and allergies.

Sources of Omega 3 Fatty Acids

The three chief omega 3's that we get from our food sources are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

EPA is connected to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and DHA to proper nerve and brain development and function.

Our bodies should convert ALA to EPA and DHA, but some people may have trouble with this conversion, due to some unique aspect of their physiology.

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To get EPA and DHA in their diets, vegetarians should concentrate on leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, walnuts and spirulina.

We don't often think of vegetables as sources rich in fatty acids, but the sum of the parts quickly add up in a vegetarian diet.

Other vegetarian food sources provide ALA, the indirect form of Omega 3 fatty acids. 1 tablespoon of flax oil per day seems to provide enough ALA for conversion to daily therapeutic amounts of EPA and DHA. Hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds are also good sources of ALA. Brazil nuts, wheat germ, wheat germ oil, soybean oil and canola oil also contain significant amounts. There is no reason for vegetarians to be deficient in Omega 3 fatty acids, especially EPA and DHA.

What Is Omega 6?

The major omega 6 is Linoleic Acid, which is converted by the body into Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA). This provides another natural defense against such diseases as cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, eczema, psoriasis, diabetic neuropathy and PMS.

Although most Americans consume a disproportionate amount of Omega 6, it may not be converted to GLA because of metabolic problems associated with diabetes, alcohol consumption, trans fatty acids in processed foods, smoking, stress, or illness.

Eliminating the above mentioned stressors is necessary for building health and wellness. Taking capsules of evening primrose oil, borage oil, and black currant seed oil can supplement food sources of GLA listed below.

Food Sources of Omega 6 Fatty Acids

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Only nature could function so perfectly offering the right balance of Omega 6 and Omega 3 fatty acids in foods such as: flax seeds, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds and grape seeds. Food sources of Omega 6 fatty acids include pistachios, olive oil, chestnut oil and olives.

Many of the oils we use for cooking are comprised of linoleic acid, which is one reason why our Omega ratios are off kilter. Soybean oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, and cottonseed oil are routinely used in processed foods. Many of these oils are refined. To avoid over-consumption of Omega 6 fatty acids, reduce or eliminate refined oils and processed foods, and read ingredient labels.

Food Sources of Omega 6 Fatty Acids

Omega 9 Fatty Acids are monounsaturated oleic acid, rather than polyunsaturated, that is beneficial in reducing risk factors of heart disease, arteriosclerosis, and cancer. 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil daily is a good way of getting Omega 9 fatty acids in the diet.

Some may be familiar with the low levels of heart disease in the Mediterranean region, which has a lot of olive oil in the daily diet. Other foods rich in Omega 9 fatty acids are: olives, avocados and nuts: macadamia, pistachio, peanuts, almonds, sesame, cashew, pecan and hazelnuts.

Omega 3 and Omega 6 Fatty Acids Together

Omega 3 and Omega 6 are involved in a large number of metabolic processes, and they need to be in the right balance for healthy functioning. In the last century or longer, proper dietary ratios have been disrupted by 'progress'. Abundant food, with emphasis on animal products, and food processing, have stripped away the healthy foods and fats which are a basic biological need.

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When Omega 3 fatty acids are out of balance, with too much Omega 6, the typical result is inflammation. This is a silent inflammation that you can't feel. Unfortunately, many people have chronic inflammation because of less than optimal levels of Omega 3 fatty acids along with abundant Omega 6. This imbalance has long-term term disastrous effects, resulting in conditions such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, arthritis and auto-immune disease.

The proper ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 is between 1:1 and 1:4. A typical American diet may have 10 - 30 times as much Omega 6 as Omega 3. This is due to heavy consumption of grain-fed meats, beef, pork and poultry - and polyunsaturated oils, high in Omega 6, which are often used in fast food restaurants, processed food, and home cooking.

To prevent fatty acid deficiencies, vegans must be careful to get Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an essential fatty acid, from food or supplements. For female adult vegans, 1800-4400 milligrams of ALA is recommended, and for male adult vegans, 2250-5300 mil. Vegetarian sources of ALA should include the following foods: ground flaxseed and flaxseed oil, various soy products, soybean oil, hemp and canola oil. These are the quickest and most concentrated sources of Omega 3 available.

There is no reason for any vegetarian or vegan to be deficient in healthy Omega 3 fatty acids, if they consume the dietary sources of Omega 3 listed above.

DHA is especially useful for pregnant and breastfeeding vegans, as well as diabetics and those troubled with high blood pressure or other forms of heart disease. To reduce the risk of heart disease, dosages of DHA are recommended at between 500 and 1800 milligrams. Pregnant and breastfeeding women are recommended dosages between 200-300 milligrams.

Dr. Linda Posch MS SLP ND is a strong advocate of whole food and phytonutrient rich diet as the first line of defense and safeguard for health and wellness. While certain supplements such as liquid natural vitamins may prove helpful, Dr. Posch contends that nothing can replace a healthful diet which is abundant in phytonutrient rich fruits and vegetables.

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