Who says vegetarians are missing top sources of essential fatty acids–the “good” fats known as omega-3 and omega-6?

We know the body manufactures most of the fats it needs from other nutrients. However, essential fatty acids (EFAs)–sometimes referred to by their derivatives, alpha linolenic and linoleic acids–are essential because the body needs but cannot make them. They control every cell of the body on a second-by-second basis, providing everything from energy, red blood cells, antioxidant activity and cardiovascular protection to soft and healthy skin, anti-microbial action and tumour inhibition. The brain simply does not function without EFAs.

Some people believe we need to eat fish to get essential fats. It’s easier than that! Strict vegans or vegetarians can get ample EFAs from well-chosen plant foods alone–even fruit. This actually matches mankind’s earliest diet, when the food supply was mostly fruit, leaves and nuts.

Humans are poorly adapted to digesting animals and processed vegetable oils. Most degenerative diseases are at least partly due to our departure from our ancestral diets. A typical omnivorous diet is short in many nutrients. But a vegan diet (with vitamin B12 supplied by sea greens) can easily meet or exceed all needs–including a sufficient supply of EFAs. All our essential amino acids, vitamins and fatty acids are synthesized by plants, not animals.

The body requires at least one part omega-3 to every six parts omega-6 we consume. The ratio found in the typical modern diet is much higher. Omega-6 fatty acids are easy to get; omega-3s, the most polyunsaturated or “liquid” form of all the fats, are more difficult. Most of us don’t get enough omega-3s for optimal health (only 40 per cent do while 20 percent of us have undetectably low levels). It’s crucial to know what foods contain them.

The world’s richest source of omega-3s is not fish or fish oil, as is commonly believed. In fact, gram for gram, the best plant sources are up to to 100 times higher than fish oils! These include the seeds of perilla (Chinese basil), flax and hemp as well as soybeans, brazil nuts and walnuts. Even lima beans and lentils have more omega-3s than fish or other animal products. Omega-3s keep these plants’ cell membranes fluid and protected during freezing or high heat. They keep us supple, too.

The Numbers Add Up

About five percent of our caloric intake should be essential fatty acids. For a man needing 2,700 calories daily (this varies according to build and activity levels), a proper EFA ratio would translate into about nine grams of omega-6 and 1.5 grams of omega-3 fatty acids. A 2,000-calorie diet for the average woman would require a little less.

To get enough omega-3s, you need only about a tablespoon of flax seeds, containing a whopping 1.6 grams of omega-3s. There are 1.4 grams of omega-3s in a cup of firm tofu. The leaves of salad and other greens as well as marine plants like phyto-plankton, algae and seaweed aren’t bad sources. Greens and even berries contain about half a gram of omega-3s per cup. Purslane, a common garden “weed,” is one of the best sources, so don’t weed it out–eat it!

Another good way to get both types of EFA but especially omega-3s is to use cold-pressed, non-hydrogenated oils from perilla seed (Chinese basil–new to the Canadian market), flax seed, hemp seed, canola, black currant seed, borage, walnut, chestnut, soybean and wheat germ. All oils must be organic, untreated, unrefined, cold-pressed and non-hydrogenated. They should be refrigerated in opaque containers away from light and oxygen and never heated or they will become saturated and cause free radical damage–essentially aging–in the body.

Essential fatty acids work best in the presence of ample amounts of vitamins A, B3, B6, C and E and the minerals magnesium and zinc. A vegetarian diet of whole foods supplies them well.

For more in-depth information on essential fatty acids, read Good Fats and Oils by Siegfried Gursche, number 17 in the alive Natural Health Guide series, available at your health food store (or call alive books—800-663-6513).

An Ounce of Prevention...

A proper essential fatty acid balance helps prevent and treat:

  • Cardiovascular disease, stroke, atherosclerosis, poor blood circulation, abnormal cholesterol, high triglycerides, hypertension, coagulation disorders;
  • Diabetes, kidney disease;
  • Arthritis, cystic fibrosis;
  • Inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease;
  • Neurological and psychological abnormalities such as Alzheimer’s disease, depression, reduced brain function associated with aging, impaired vision;
  • Abnormalities in children fed diets or breast milk low in EFAs, such as hyperactivity, slow growth, attention deficit disorder (proper EFA intake can help children to grow better brains);
  • Premenstrual syndrome, pregnancy complications such as pre-eclampsia and prematurity;
  • Malnutrition, wasting states;
  • Seborrheoic dermatitis, dry skin;
  • AIDS and other immune deficiencies;
  • Reduced cell survival; impaired wound healing;
  • Allergies and asthma;
  • High cholesterol.

PDF Table of Foods Containing Quality EFAs

About the Author

Michael Downey is a freelance health writer living in Toronto, ON.