7th Oct, 2022
What are Omegas?
Put simply, the omegas are a type of fat known as polyunsaturated fats – “poly-“ just refers to the number of carbon bonds in the fatty acid chain. There are several members of this group, but some of the most recognisable are omega-3 and 6. In the most generalised terms, omega-3s have powerful anti-inflammatory properties, whilst omega-6s are pro-inflammatory. Both are needed for healthy body functioning, allowing vital short- and long-term biochemical processes to take place. There are 3 main omega-3 fats in the food we eat:
ALA - Alpha-linolenic acid
DHA - Docosahexaenoic acid
EPA - Eicosapentaenoic acid
Of these 3, only ALA is classed as ‘essential’ – meaning can solely be obtained through the diet – where EPA and DHA can be produced from ALA by the body. However, the conversion rate is not wildly efficient, meaning it can be more effective to consume DHA and EPA directly. Unfortunately, there are very few plant foods that contain a substantial amount of these 2 fatty acids compared to animal foods.
Plant Based: 1. Seeds (grinding these are better for their digestion and absorption): Chia, Flex, Hemp 2. Walnuts 3. Algae 4. Rapeseed oil 5. Soybean oil 6. Dark leafy greens
Animal Based: 1. Oily fish: Salmon, Sardines, Mackerel, Anchovies 2. Cod liver oils 3. Krill oil – may be better absorbed than fish oil but more studies are needed to confirm this
If you are looking to use diet only to meet your daily needs, try sprinkling the above nuts and seeds over salad and soups or you could make a pesto using hemp seeds and walnuts instead of pine nuts. Just one tablespoon of flax or chia seeds or 6 walnut halves will significantly contribute to your daily ALA targets.
Algae is a particularly good source of omega-3 as not only does it provide ALA, but it is one of few plant-based foods that also deliver EPA and DHA. This is in addition to its wider nutritional benefits including its high micronutrient and protein content.
The health benefits of omega-3 span the body’s cardiovascular, pulmonary, immune, and endocrine systems due to the pluripotent function of the molecule.
An area of research that is still in its infancy but is particularly exciting is the link between omega-3 intake and mood, mental health disorders and cognitive decline. Considering the brain is made up of around 60% fat, it is no surprise that fatty acids like omega-3 are vital to its maintenance and longevity.
Another more distinguished area of research is the relationship between omega-3 intake and risk of heart disease and related conditions. There are several landmark studies (REDUCE-IT and meta-analyses) that have shown a distinct link between long-term omega-3 intake and the reduced risk of heart attacks and strokes.
As a vegan or vegetarian, you may need to supplement your diet with a plant based source of DHA and EPA if you are not taking in sufficient ALA as a substrate. However, my approach would be to prioritise getting them through the diet first as you benefit from all the additional nutritional components of whole foods.
Note: **Nutraceuticals (food nutrient supplements) are not always necessary, or even safe, for everyone. It is important that you seek professional advice prior to adding any supplements to your diet if you are unsure. And especially if you are on existing medication as certain nutrients can interact with drugs to change the way that they work. Excessive intake is also detrimental for many reasons, so stick to suggested intake unless otherwise advised.
by Lulu Gibbons