When talking about omega-3 fatty acids, many think of oily fish as the ideal source. But how do you get these essential fatty acids if you eat a plant-based diet? And what does essential even mean and shouldn’t we basically avoid fat? That’s what this little blog post will be about.
SO WHAT EXACTLY ARE THESE OMINOUS OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS NOW?
Omega-3, just like omega-6, belongs to the long-chain unsaturated fatty acids. This describes their chemical structure: their basic structure consists of at least 12 carbon atoms and has double bonds. These double bonds make the fatty acids susceptible to the formation of radicals when they are strongly heated. That’s why you shouldn’t use omega-3-containing oils for frying. Instead, you can resort to saturated fats. The double bonds of unsaturated fatty acids also cause the molecules to bend spatially, making them more flexible, so to speak, and the oil more fluid. In addition, the two fatty acids are “essential”, which means nothing other than that our body cannot produce them itself, but we must take them in through our food. The chain length represents a time-consuming splitting process for which our body needs bile acids. Consequently, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are not fast energy suppliers.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS AND OMEGA-6 FATTY ACIDS?
Structurally, the difference is actually only in the position of the double bond. Nevertheless, completely different “semi-essential” fatty acids can then be produced from them, which differ quite significantly in their effects or can even be contradictory. Because some of the same enzymes are needed to break them down, the ratio of the two to each other is very crucial, because we need them both. In our diets (whether you eat vegan or whole foods), the ratio is very much skewed toward omega-6. That’s the real reason why it’s especially important to make sure we have adequate omega-3 intake. A 5:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is recommended.
WHY DO I NEED OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS?
From the omega-3 fatty acids ingested with food, our body can produce a-linolenic acid (ALA), the building material for eicosanoids. So a little digression for those who want to know exactly. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are active forms of omega-3 fatty acids. They are found more abundantly in animal products, but can also be made by our bodies from ALA. So if you decide to supplement your diet with omega-3, make sure that EPA and DHA are included in your supplement.
Even if you are not familiar with the name, the positive effects of eicosanoids are on everyone’s lips: they have a vasodilatory and anti-inflammatory effect – ideal for our cardiovascular system. The opposite effect is produced by the arachnoidonic acid degradation substances derived from omega-6. These, on the other hand, are pro-inflammatory and constrict the blood vessels. Even though both functions are important for our body in certain situations, it shows us why we should pay attention to a good balance. Both fatty acids also serve to produce energy and are an important component of our membranes.
WHAT ARE THE SIGNS OF AN OMEGA-3 FATTY ACID DEFICIENCY?
A deficiency usually causes very unspecific complaints, which can also be the result of other deficiency conditions. These include, for example, muscle weakness, concentration, sleep or growth disorders, straw-like hair, dry or flaky skin. Omega-3 fatty acids are also needed for our brain. A deficiency also has a negative effect on our cardiovascular system and promotes inflammation. You guessed it, of course, this is again due to the balance between omega-3 and omega-6, so I wouldn’t wait for that to happen, but as a general rule, make sure to include omega-3 rich sources in my recipes.
WHERE ARE OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS FOUND IN FOOD?
Again, as a quick reminder, all food sources generally have both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, it’s just that the proportions vary. Probably the most well-known source of omega-3 fatty acids is tuna – but don’t worry, I’m not going to recommend that you chow down on lots of tuna starting today. That’s because there are also a variety of plant-based sources. For example, the seeds and oil of hemp, flaxseed, chia and walnuts have a very favorable ratio of the two fatty acids to each other. So you’re going to have a very hard time getting around that. Even at breakfast, I usually have a good portion of omega fatty acids.
If you like it a little more exotic, you can also try microalgae oil. Oils that are rich in omega-6 and better used in moderation are, for example, sunflower, safflower, corn germ and soybean oil. But again, I want to specifically say that these oils are not bad. However, since our diet contains an excess of omega-6 fatty acids and we should pay special attention to the intake of omega-3 to create an ideal balance for our body, you can somewhat neglect these oils.
SUPPLEMENTS I CAN RECOMMEND
My personal experience has been that deficiencies occur because either the omega-6 intake is too high or the conversion of EPA and DHA, which are important for us, is not really happening or is happening at too low a level. My test turned out not good, although I make sure to include mainly omega-3 foods in my diet and consume omega-6 containing foods only in very small doses. I currently supplement with Vivo* algae oil and take 1 pipette daily in conjunction with my diet.
I hope I was able to shed a little light on this. If you want to know what supplements I take myself, feel free to stop by on Instagram. I’ve saved the info there as a highlight. I’m looking forward to it!
- Goodbye vegan cliché! Scientific answers to critical questions about vegan nutrition. Expanded edition, Niko Rittenau March 2020, ISBN 9783954531899.
- https://www.dge.de/wissenschaft/referenzwerte/fett/?L=0 (11/30/2020, 09:00)