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This post is a follow-up to a previous article about Essential Fats and the Raw Vegan Diet.
A reader asked the question:
I’ve been confused lately by information from different sources. The Paleo community is producing a lot of information backed by research that shows that only 5% of ALA gets turned into EPA, and .5% into DHA, and that these long-chain acids are the ones needed most.
Based on this they claim that Omega 3 intake from plant source never produces adequate amounts of Omega 3 to fulfill the body’s needs and maintain the 3/6 balance.
I would be very interested to hear your perspective on this.
Although omega-3 fatty acids are found in a wide variety of plant sources, these foods generally only supply the short-chain omega-3 fat, ALA. The body also has a requirement for the long-chain omega-3 fats EPA and DHA, which primarily are found in fish, but also occur in grass-fed beef, organ meats, eggs, and a few rare plant sources. If we are not consuming these foods on a regular basis then we must rely on our body’s ability to create these long-chain fats.
While theoretically, the body can construct the long-chain omega-3 fats such as EPA and DHA from the plant-derived ALA, in reality, this conversion is often very inefficient.
According to Mary Enig, author of “Know Your Fats”, there are some situations where our requirement for EPA and DHA may increase. As indicated by her research, this can occur in people who have a damaged intestinal tract due to antibiotic use or chronic illnesses.
Genetic Variations in Conversion Ability
Other studies suggest that many of us have a very poor ability to convert the short-chain omega-3 fats such as ALA into the long-chain omega-3’s. This may apply particularly to those with an ancestral heritage in which fish has been a large component of the diet for many generations and thus there has been a genetic adaptation to these fats in the diet. Since EPA and DHA were in abundance in the diet it is possible that these genetic types may have lost the ability to produce their own effectively.
In one study when 1000 mg of ALA was consumed, only 27 mg of long-chain omega-3 fats were produced. The implication of this is that even if you are consuming the recommended daily intake of ALA, your body may only be producing around 1 or 2% of your daily requirement for EPA and DHA.
This knowledge has prompted some nutrition experts to state that it is impossible for those eating a vegan diet to get enough EPA and DHA. So does this mean that a vegan must eat fish or take fish oil capsules or otherwise accept that they will be deficient in these essential fats?
Absolutely not. With careful attention to the dietary intake of fats, it is entirely possible to achieve a level and balance of omega fats that even exceeds that of those who eat fish on a regular basis, while consuming a completely plant-based diet.
Additionally, with the level of contaminants found in the ocean that make their way into fish and fish oil products, it is wise for everyone to seek an alternative source of EPA and DHA.
How To Enhance Production of Long-Chain Essential Fats on a Vegan Diet
By making some adjustments in our intake of fat-containing foods it is actually possible to enhance the conversion of the short-chain omega-3 fat, ALA, into the longer chain fats, EPA, and DHA. One very simple way to achieve this is to consume coconut at the same time as one of the omega-3 rich seeds such as flax seeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, or chia seeds. This has been demonstrated to increase the conversion from 1-3% up to 10%.
To keep things simple I like Vega Antioxidant Omega Oil because contains a blend of oils – including pumpkin seed and coconut – that provide the perfect balance of omega-3 to omega-6. This works well as a replacement for olive oil in salad dressings or added to other foods to enhance the flavor and nutrition.
An additional advantage of consuming hemp seeds and hemp oil is that they contain the short-chain omega-3 fat, stearidonic acid, of which 10% is similarly converted to long-chain fats. This fat is also present in smaller amounts in blackcurrant and spirulina.
Recent research indicates that the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA is optimal when the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats in the diet is 1:1. The conversion of short-chain essential fats into the long-chain forms can also be impaired with a high dietary intake of sugar and alcohol.
Studies suggest that limiting our total fat intake to 20% of calories or less can enhance the conversion of ALA to DHA at a rate that equals that of directly consuming DHA.
Vegan Sources of EPA and DHA
Direct sources of EPA and DHA in a vegan diet include algae and seaweed, which makes sense considering that fish contain high levels of these fatty acids. Unfortunately it is becoming more difficult to obtain pure sources for sea vegetables due to the contamination of the ocean with pollutants and radiation.
Consequently the safest and most reliable source of these fats is in the form of a microalgae supplement such as Algae Omega. Because the algae is grown in the laboratory, not collected in the wild, it has no mercury or other toxins commonly found in foods from the sea.
Should You Take a Vegan EPA/DHA Supplement?
If you have a history of depression, anxiety, or a family history of Alzheimer’s disease you may be a candidate for supplementation. A low level of DHA has also been associated with an increased incidence of depression; the lower the rate, the more severe the depression.
DHA helps to lower the stress response in the brain, protecting it from the damaging effects of specific chemicals that are released when stress is high. This effect also reduces the emotions of anxiety and hostility, which are independent risk factors for heart disease. Additionally, it prevents the build-up of toxins in the brain, which protects against the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
Are You Getting Enough Long-Chain Essential Fatty Acids?
Since each person is unique in regards to genetics and individual health it is impossible to determine the ideal dietary intake to create the optimal balance of essential fatty acids for everyone.
However, tests are available that check your levels of EPA and DHA to compare them with the recommended amounts for disease prevention. Since DHA supplements can be expensive you may consider this a valuable investment before going ahead with supplementation as a preventative measure. Some vegans produce adequate levels of DHA and EPA on their own so supplementation may not be necessarily be required.