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Healthy Fats for Vegans | Plant-based Omega-3 and 6 Sources

While it is perfectly possible to consume a healthy and balanced diet derived solely from plants, there are some essential nutrients that are harder to come by in a plant-based diet. Two such nutrients are omega-3 and omega- 6. But what are good sources of these healthy fats for vegans?

Fats have long been demonised by the diet industry, but the reality is that they are an essential macronutrient vital for numerous functions across the human body. Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are two of the most biologically significant fats, with both forming vital components of cell membranes and playing key roles in a range of physiological processes across the body, including gene expression, the nervous system and our immune and inflammatory responses.1

Created by Paulina Cerna-Fraga

The Importance Of Omega-3 

Whilst our bodies can synthesise many of these fats, there are just two which are classed as ‘essential’, meaning that they can be obtained through diet alone: linoleic Acid (LA), which is part of the omega-6 family, and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3.

Studies show that it is not just the consumption of these fats that is important, but that achieving balance between omega-3s and omega-6 consumption is key: the optimal fatty acid ratio (FAR) is said to be between 3:1 and 1:1 of omega-6 to omega-3s. Today, the FAR in the Western world is thought to be closer to 25:1. Unfortunately, whilst omega-6 consumption is typically relatively high, omega-3s are harder to come by in the modern Western diet, with intake having consistently declined over the last three decades.2,3,4

Created by Paulina Cerna-Fraga

This lack of omega-3 highlights the need for each of us to identify foods high in these healthy fats and to try to increase our consumption accordingly. Unfortunately for vegans, however, the most fruitful source of omega-3 fats is oily fish, such as salmon, herring and mackerel.2

Created by Paulina Cerna-Fraga

Read more about omega-3 and omega-6 and how they are used in the body.

Plant-based Omega-3 Sources

Luckily, there are plant-based omega-3 sources for those of us who don’t eat fish. Whilst certain plant oils are extremely rich in omega-6, some (like flax and rapeseed oils) are also good sources of omega-3. They also contain just a fraction of the amount of omega-6 found in other cooking oils, so switching out your existing oil for the comparably priced rapeseed oil should help tip your balance of consumption ever closer to that optimal FAR.3,5

It is also possible to obtain omega-3s from the whole forms of many nuts and seeds rather than relying on extracted oils. Flax, chia, walnuts and hemp seeds are all good sources of ALA. 

Each of the following should provide you with the minimum recommended daily ALA intake:

     - 2 tablespoons of hemp seeds
     - 6 walnut halves
     - half a tablespoon of chia seeds
     - One tablespoon of milled flaxseeds3,5,7

There are also a number of vegetables that contain omega-3s, albeit in significantly lower quantities. Leafy greens such as spinach, romaine and rocket, as well as some cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, Brussels sprouts and broccoli and even herbs, including parsley and mint, are all sources of ALA. While lower in omega-3s than oils, nuts and seeds, they are also much lower in omega-6, helping you to boost your intake of the former without adding to your (likely already high) intake of the latter.

You could eat the equivalent of the following to help reach your daily ALA goal:

     - 850g spinach
     - 1kg broccoli
     - 560g mint

Clearly, given the vast quantities of greens you would have to eat to hit the minimum daily intake, it’s not advisable to rely on these vegetables alone for your omega-3.6,8,9

Plant-based Omega-3 Supplements

Despite ALA being the only omega-3 considered truly ‘essential’, it is the other main members of the omega-3 family, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), that are typically considered to be more important when it comes to their role in human health. While both EPA and DHA can be synthesised in the body from ALA, this conversion process is both slow and has a limited capacity.10

Rather than relying on this conversion process, experts recommend trying to eat some of all three types of omega-3 in our diet - particularly for infants or women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Unfortunately, EPA and DHA – often referred to as the ‘marine fats’ - are found almost exclusively in fish, meaning that including them in a plant-based diet is tricky.5,11

There is, however, one exception; EPA and DHA are not made by the fish themselves but are instead produced by microalgae that the fish consume. Whilst we can’t grow microalgae in our back garden or pick it up in the salad section of the supermarket, most health stores will stock microalgae capsules - giving anyone the option of supplementing their diet with these otherwise hard-to-come-by healthy fats.12

What about Omega-6?

Omega-6 also plays many important roles in the body, and like ALA, we rely on food as our only source of the essential omega-6, LA. Unlike omega-3s, however, omega-6 fats are prevalent in many commonly consumed foods such as plant oils (including sunflower, safflower and corn oils), nuts and seeds, certain cereals and animal fat. As a result, the typical Western diet is rich in omega-6 fats, meaning that few people – vegan or otherwise - need to concern themselves with actively increasing the amount of omega-6 they consume.2,3

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  1. Simopoulos (2016); “An Increase in the Omega-6/Omega-3 Fatty Acid Ratio Increases the Risk for Obesity”. Accessed 27 June 2020.
  2. Lane; Derbyshire (2017). “Omega-3 fatty acids – A review of existing and innovative delivery methods”. Accessed 30 June 2020.
  3. Office of Dietary Supplements (2019). “Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Fact Sheet for Health Professionals”. Accessed 28 June 2020.
  4. Johnson; Pace; McElhenney (2018). “Green leafy vegetables in diets with a 25:1 omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid ratio modify the erythrocyte fatty acid profile of spontaneously hypertensive rats”. Accessed 30 June 2020.
  5. Taylor (2020). “British Heart Foundation: Are flax seeds good for me?”. Accessed 30 June 2020.
  6. Lands (2014). “Dietary omega-3 and omega-6 Fatty Acids Compete in Producing Tissue Compositions and Tissue Responses”. Accessed 30 June 2020.
  7. Pereira; Sincalir (2001). “The alpha linoleic-acid content of green vegetables commonly available in Australia”. Accessed 16 July 2020.
  8. Clancy; Hinde; Rutherford (2013). “Building Babies; Primate Development in Proximate and Ultimate Perspective”. Accessed 31 June 2020.
  9. EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (2010). “Scientific Opinion on Dietary Reference Values for fats, including saturated fatty acids, polyunsaturated fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids… and cholesterol”. Accessed 31 June 2020.
  10. Peltomaa; Johnson; Taipale (2018). “Marine Cryptophytes Are Great Sources of EPA and DHA”. Accessed 31 June 2020.
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