There are two essential fatty acids, linolenic acid and linoleic acid, which cannot be synthesized by the body and must be obtained from our food. These basic fats, found in plant foods, are used to build specialized fats called omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. We also need omega-9 fatty acid, but the body can synthesize it. Our ability to make it does diminish with age if the diet has not contained enough raw plant foods.
Deficiencies in these fatty acids lead to a host of symptoms and disorders including abnormalities in the liver and kidneys, reduced growth rates, decreased immune function, depression, and dryness of the skin.
Adequate intake of essential fatty acids results in numerous health benefits. Documented benefits include prevention of atherosclerosis, reduced incidence of heart disease and stroke, and relief from the symptoms associated with ulcerative colitis, menstrual pain, and joint pain. Omega-3 fatty acid levels have also been associated with decreased breast cancer risk.
It is not only important to incorporate good sources of omega-3 and omega-6s in your diet, but also to consume these fatty acids in the proper ratio. Omega-6 fatty acids compete with omega-3 fatty acids for use in the body, and therefore excessive intake of omega-6 fatty acids can inhibit omega-3s. Ideally, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids should be between 1:1 and 4:1.
Instead, most people consume these fatty acids at a ratio, of omega-6 to omega-3, between 10:1 and 25:1, and are consequently unable to reap the benefits of omega-3s. This imbalance is due to a reliance on processed foods and oils, which are now common in the Western diet. To combat this issue it is necessary to eat a low-fat diet with minimally processed foods, minimal cooking, and naturally occurring omega-3 fatty acids. A lower omega-6:omega-3 ratio is desirable for reducing the risk of many chronic diseases.
Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Omega-6 fats are derived from linoleic acid and are found in leafy vegetables, seeds, nuts, grains, and vegetable oils (corn, safflower, soybean, cottonseed, sesame, sunflower). Most diets provide adequate amounts of this fatty acid, and therefore planning is rarely required to ensure proper amounts of omega-6 fatty acids.
A less common omega-6 fatty acid, gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects along with other disease-fighting powers. GLA can be found in rare oils that have not been exposed to heat at cooking temperatures, such as black currant, borage, and hemp oils.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
It is vital for everyone to eat foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids on a daily basis. Unlike omega-6 fatty acids, it may take more planning in the diet to ensure adequate intake of these fatty acids. Omega-3s are used in the formation of cell walls and assist in improving circulation and oxygen intake. The recommended amount for adequate omega-3 intake is 1.1 grams for women and 1.6 grams per day for men over the age of 14.
Omega-3 fatty acids are derived from linolenic acid. The principal omega-3 is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is then converted into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) by the body. This makes ALA the only essential omega-3 fatty acid. ALA can be found in many vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and fruits.
Some of the best sources of ALA include flaxseeds and walnuts, along with different oils such as flaxseed, canola, soybean, walnut, and wheat germ. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in smaller quantities in other nuts, seeds, and soy products, as well as in beans, vegetables, and whole grains. Corn, safflower, sunflower, and cottonseed oils also contain omega-3s, though in lower levels than the previously mentioned oils.
Fish for Omega-3s?
While fish are frequently referenced as good sources of essential fatty acids, the high amounts of other fats and cholesterol and the lack of fiber make fish a poor dietary choice. Fish are also often high in mercury and other environmental toxins that pose dangers to the consumer. Eating higher on the food chain than plants exponentially concentrates toxins.
Fish oils have been popularized as an omega-3 supplemental option. However, the omega-3s found in fish oils (EPA and DHA) are actually highly unstable molecules that tend to decompose and unleash dangerous free radicals, making these supplements an unfavorable option. In addition, current research demonstrates that taking fish oil supplements does not actually produce significant protection for cardiovascular health.
Obtaining omega-3s from plant sources is more beneficial for one’s health. Research has shown that omega-3s are found in a more stable form, ALA, in vegetables, fruits, and beans. For healthy individuals, natural conversion of ALA to the longer chain omega-3s, DHA and EPA, should be sufficient to maintain tissue function. In fact, according to a European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study, women on vegan diets actually have more long-chain omega-3s in their blood compared with fish-eaters, meat-eaters, and lacto-ovo vegetarians.
Flaxseeds for Omega-3s
Flaxseed oil and ground flaxseeds are particularly good choices to meet your needs for omega-3 fatty acids. One teaspoon of fresh flaxseed oil or one tablespoon of fresh ground flaxseed will supply the daily requirement of ALA. Flax seeds must be ground in order for you to absorb the proper nutrients, and flaxseed oil or ground flax seeds must be stored in the refrigerator or the freezer to protect them from oxygen damage (oxidation). Also, keep in mind that heat will damage the omega-3s, so it is important not to heat this oil or any other foods with omega-3s. A spoonful of fresh ground flax seeds can be added to a smoothie or sprinkled on breakfast cereal, a salad, or other dishes for easy and efficient incorporation of omega-3s into the diet.
|Plant Foods Rich in Omega-3 Fatty Acids||Omega-3 Content of Natural Oils|
It is especially important to obtain adequate essential fatty acids from the diet during pregnancy and lactation. Recent research suggests that these fatty acids are needed for fetal growth and fetal brain development. Essential fatty acids are important for infants to ensure proper growth, development, and functioning of all tissues in the body. Increased omega-3 fatty acid intake in the immediate postnatal period is associated with improved cognitive outcomes in the child and reduces the likelihood of postpartum depression for the mother.
Pregnancy and Lactation
It is important that the mother’s diet contain a good supply of omega-3s because infants receive essential fatty acids through breast milk. Pregnant women and lactating mothers may also opt to take a DHA supplement. A DHA supplement based on cultured microalgae is available in many natural food stores.
MAIN POINTS FOR ESSENTIAL FATTY ACIDS:
- Fatty acids play critical roles in numerous bodily processes.
- The human body is capable of taking the omega-3 essential fatty acid, ALA, and converting it into longer and more unsaturated members of the omega-3 family, such as EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).
- Unsaturated fats are curved, fluid, and flexible. They react easily and are not stable.
- There are two essential fatty acids that we must consume from our diet: omega-6 fat, linolenic acid, omega-3 fat, alpha-linolenic acid.
- In general, omega-3 fats reduce inflammation (chronic inflammation is considered to be one of the main underlying causes of cancer and other chronic diseases) and omega-6 fats promote inflammation.
- Most people eat far too many omega-6 fats and not enough omega-3 fats.
- High omega-6 fat ratio foods are found in animal foods and processed junk food.
- High omega-3 fat ratio foods are found in flax, Salba (chia), hemp, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
- DHA is essential for the proper functioning of our brains as adults and for the development of our nervous system and visual abilities during the first six months of life. In addition, omega-3 fatty acids are part of a healthy diet that helps lower the risk of heart disease.
- Our bodies naturally produce small amounts of DHA, but we must get the amounts we need from our diet or supplements. Most people in the Western world do not get enough omega-3 fatty acids in their diet.
- Saturated fats have been given a bad rap as “bad fats.” This is only true for cooked saturated fats. Any cooked fats undergo a structural change and become carcinogenic in various degrees. Saturated fats are straight, stiff, and rigid. They are stable and don’t react.
- Trans fat (fried fats), cooked saturated fat, too high of an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, too much fat in general, and alcohol are known to inhibit the conversion process.
- DHA is extremely important to pregnant and nursing women, as well as for infant and childhood development. There are several sources of DHA available from coldwater algae and seaweed.
- Fish contains unhealthful levels of environmental contaminants such as mercury, dioxin, PCBs due to biological concentration, and is not a recommended option.
Whether you are interested in promoting heart health, ensuring the proper growth and development of your child, or relieving pain, adequate intake of the essential fatty acids can help you achieve your goal. A well-planned plant-based diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes will allow you to obtain plenty of these omega-6s and omega-3s for optimal health benefits.
- Brian Clement, Killer Fish