Omega-3 and omega-6 fats

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» Omega-3 and omega-6 fats

We all need some fat in our diets. A couple of fats are classed as essential because our bodies cannot make them. The essential omega-3 fat is called alpha-linoleic acid (ALA). The essential omega-6 fat is called linoleic acid (LA). Omega-3 and omega-6 fats affect our immune system, brain, nerves and eyes.

If you are eating a varied and balanced plant-based diet, it is likely that you are consuming good sources of LA on a regular basis. These include hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts and soya spread. However, eating enough ALA may require more planning.

How can vegans get enough omega-3 fat?

Include good sources of ALA in your daily diet, such as chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds and walnuts, and use vegetable (rapeseed) oil as your main cooking oil. To meet the ALA recommendations of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), you would need to eat about a tablespoon of chia seeds or ground linseed, two tablespoons of hemp seeds or six walnut halves daily.

It's all about balance

Getting the right balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fats is important. Your body can make ALA into other omega-3 fats, including eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). However, if you eat a lot of LA, your body may convert less ALA into EPA and DHA, reducing the amount of omega-3 fat in your blood. There are some simple ways to help your body make ALA into EPA and DHA:

  • Use vegetable (rapeseed) oil instead of oils containing a lot of LA, such as sunflower, corn or sesame oils
  • Take care with the serving size of sunflower and pumpkin seeds

What about omega-3 fat supplements?

The FAO and EFSA suggest a long-chain omega-3 fat (EPA and DHA) intake of 250 milligrams per day for adults. Vegans consume almost none of these fats from natural sources. It is possible to supplement a vegan diet with EPA and DHA from microalgae, which may be a particularly important consideration for infants and those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, due to the role of omega-3 fat in brain health. However, we require more research into how supplementation affects the health of vegans.

Another option is to increase your intake of ALA, which may boost the amount of omega-3 fat in your blood. Some experts suggest that vegans should eat double the recommended amount of ALA. For instance, you could include both a tablespoon of ground linseed and six walnut halves in your daily diet.

Take-away tips

  • Make sure that your daily diet includes good sources of ALA, such as chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds and walnuts
  • Consider using vegetable (rapeseed) oil as your main cooking oil
  • Supplementation with omega-3 fats from microalgae may be a particularly important consideration for infants and those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, due to the role of omega-3 fats in brain health (please discuss the use of supplements with a health professional).

Want to know more? Read our PDF.

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