If you ask the average consumer to cite a health concern about following a vegan diet, they might be inclined to say “not getting enough protein.” In fact, protein does top the list of “concerns about vegetarian diets,” according to Harvard Health.1 Protein is not the only concern, however.
Not getting enough Omega 3 essential fatty acids is another vegan diet health risk. Humans must ingest essential fatty acids, including Omega 3, from food because the body cannot produce them on its own. Omega 3s are a key family of polyunsaturated fats, which can help reduce bad cholesterol levels in your blood and lower your risk of heart disease and stroke, according to the American Heart Association.2
Polyunsaturated fats also provide nutrients to help develop and maintain the body’s cells. Plant-based oils rich in polyunsaturated fats are excellent sources of vitamin E, an antioxidant vitamin most Americans need more of.
Many consumers may not realize that plants only provide one of the essential fatty acids, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is commonly found in vegetable oils, nuts, seeds and seed oils, and leafy vegetables. Those who avoid all animal products may be lacking in the two other types of essential Omega 3 fatty acids that are important to human health, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which mainly come from fish and are often referred to as “marine” Omega 3s. ALA can convert to EPA and DHA, but the process is slow and inefficient, and is affected not only by dietary composition, but also by genetics, sex and age.3
The flowchart below depicts how Omega 6 and Omega 3 comprise the two classes of essential fatty acids, and how the parent compounds of each class, ALA and LA, give rise to longer-chain derivatives inside the body.4 Seeing the chain helps to understand why ALA converts with low efficiency to the long-chain Omega 3s, EPA and DHA.
Source: Oregon State University
Official dietary guidelines recommend 1.1 grams per day of ALA for women,5 but there are no official separate recommendations for intake of fatty acids by vegetarians.3 One study suggests that vegetarians double their current adequate intake of ALA if no direct sources of EPA and DHA are consumed.3 Studies have also suggested that the high amount of Omega 6 in the modern diet may reduce the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA.6 That’s all the more reason to seek out vegetables, nuts and seeds that are naturally high in Omega 3 relative to Omega 6.
It’s not that Omega 6 fatty acids are bad for your health; they’re good when consumed in moderation and balance with Omega 3 fatty acids. For example, the Omega 6 polyunsaturated fatty acid gamma linolenic acid (GLA) supports the normal function and growth of cells, nerves, muscles, and organs throughout the body. GLA also converts into the long-chain arachidonic acid, however, which is associated with inflammation. While pro-inflammatory eicosanoids are important chemicals in the immune system, overproduction can increase inflammation and inflammatory disease.7
Research suggests that the modern Western diet contains far more Omega 6 fatty acids than necessary and that most people in the developed world should aim to reduce their Omega 6 intake.7 For vegans and all consumers, that means choosing nuts and seeds that have a healthy balance of Omega 6 : Omega 3 fatty acids.
For example, hemp seed is almost entirely made up of polyunsaturated fatty acids, and while it’s rich in the Omega 6 fatty acid LA, it’s comprised of elevated concentrations of the Omega 3 fatty acid ALA. The LA : ALA ratio normally exists in hemp seed at between 2:1 and 3:1, which is ideal for a healthy diet.
In addition to Omega 3 deficiency, iron and zinc deficiencies are among the top health risks of being a vegetarian or vegan. Hemp is a nutrient-dense food that’s rich in both iron and zinc, as well as magnesium, and is frequently cited as one of the best seed sources of vegan protein, providing more protein per ounce than many popular nuts and seeds.
For instance, a 3-tablespoon serving of Shelled Hemp Seeds, or in one ounce of Victory Hemp Foods P50 hemp protein powder or hemp seed hearts offers 30-35% complete protein, as well as 20%-45% of the RDA (recommended daily allowance) of iron, zinc and magnesium. That is dense nutrition in a relatively small serving size.
Adding a superfood like hemp-seed based proteins and oils into their diet can certainly help vegetarians mitigate their nutrient deficiency risks.
It’s fair to assume that as an increasing number of consumers seek out plant-based foods, especially plant-based protein, they’ll become better-versed in plant-based nutrition, including their intake of essential fatty acids. Food producers and marketers can therefore expect all consumers, not just vegans, to seek out well-balanced sources of Omega 3.
Learn more at these sources:
- Saunders, Angela & Davis, Brenda & Garg, Manohar. (2013). Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and vegetarian diets. The Medical journal of Australia. 199. S22-6. 10.5694/mjao11.11507. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/267874531_Omega-3_polyunsaturated_fatty_acids_and_vegetarian_diets/citation/download