I am sure you have been told you need to “get your Omega 3’s in” but what does this actually mean & where does the science sit? Do they help us avoid heart attacks? Do they reduce inflammation? Are they only found in fish? I was confused too so I’ve done the research, spoken to experts and summarised it below so you know the most important things about these nutrients.
Firstly a little bit of basic nutrition. Omega 3’s and Omega 6’s are known as Essential Fatty Acids. This means they are the only fats that our body does not produce and hence need to be consumed from foods in our diet.
On reviewing the literature I was pretty taken back to read that the average Western diet contains around 20 times more omega-6s than omega-3’s (1). This severely disproportioned ratio has massive health implications, as huge intakes of omega-6’s are directly linked to the rise of obesity, cancer, autoimmune disease and heart disease. In laymen terms, the Omega 3/6 ratios affect the outside fatty later of each cell (cell membrane) in the body and are what protects them, or is meant to protect them anyway.
So humans being humans have looked at this ratio, and rather than addressing the root cause of the Omega 3/6 imbalance, have discovered that manufacturing and selling Omega 3 supplements is more lucrative. Enter the fish oil market, now worth over 2.25 Billion dollars a year (2). The importance of supplementing omega-3’s in the diet has long been touted by the fish & fish oil industries but are their claims supported by science? Well it just so happens that the most comprehensive review ever done (Cochrane Review) of the research on Omega 3’s, published in July 2018, has found that the science does not support the vast majority of fish oil claims, particularly claims to suggest that consuming these essential fats reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity and early death (3, 4). This doesn’t mean that Omega 3’s do not have any health benefits but they are probably not the “secret nutrient to beating heart disease” that they have been long touted to be.
So step 1, before worrying about Omega 3 for anyone, vegan or not, should be to clean their processed food diet up and concentrate on more whole foods closer to how they look when freshly picked in nature so you can reduce your total Omega 6 intake. Practically speaking there are some ideas that you can implement:
Instead substitute such meals for meals that maximise the number of ingredients that are as close to their natural state as possible, like the below and cook with veggie broth, water or a tiny bit of unrefined olive oil rather than other processed oils (Omega’s aside, removing or limiting the number of processed oils in your diet is hugely beneficial. Instead focus on healthy fats from whole foods like avocado, nuts & seeds).
Secondly, if you still do want to supplement Omega 3’s and you’re on a plant-based diet, then those smelly little golden capsules full of fish, and who knows what, are well, less than appealing.
Luckily there are multiple plant-based foods, and more pure supplements, which are valuable sources of omega fatty acids, which I will cover shortly but first, it’s important to understand some basic nutrition & physiology here. Omega 3 fatty acids in fish are known as DHA & EPA. These long chain molecules are responsible for all of the above-listed health benefits. The fish get these long chain fatty acids by eating algae. In comparison, common plant food sources of Omega 3’s like chia, flaxseed & walnuts (you would have seen this heavily advertised) contain the Omega 3 ALA, which is a short chain Omega 3 and has to be converted by the body to DHA & EPA. Scientific studies have shown us that our bodies can only convert about 5% of ALA into EPA/DHA but in vegans, this is slightly higher (the body recognises no direct source of EPA/DHA and up-regulates conversion of ALA into these health-promoting Omega 3’s).
Now that you understand the difference between EPA/DHA & ALA let’s break this down further. If you are on a 100% plant-based diet or do not eat fish, you have two options for getting the recommended dietary intake of long chain Omega 3’s.
1. Eat enough plant-based foods that contain ALA. It is recommended you aim for 250-500mg of EPA/DHA a day. If we work on a worst case scenario you will convert about 5% of your ALA into EPA/DHA so it would be advisable to aim for 5,000mg of ALA per day. Below are some of the plant-based foods richest in ALA. You can see it’s not hard to get over 5,000mg of ALA per day!
2. Supplement with a DHA/EPA Algae supplement which cuts out the middleman (fish) and goes straight to the original source of the long chain Omega 3’s. You can pick up a 250-500mg supplement on Amazon or at most local health stores (if they don’t have an Algae Oil Omega 3, ask them to order one in and they usually can via one of their existing distributors).
Personally, I get my Omega 3’s through food when I am at home and using my own kitchen but when travelling I take an Omega 3 Algae supplement just to be sure!
I hope this information has been helpful and assists you in building the best plant-based diet to power your Space Suit.
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