Omega 3 and omega 6 are both types of dietary fats, each with their own health benefits. Omega 3s are a type of polyunsaturated fat that your body can’t make on its own, meaning you need to get it from your diet or from supplements. Fish is probably what most people picture when they think about omega 3, which might make it seem like it’s not possible to meet the reference daily intake (RDI) on a vegan diet. Here’s the truth: You can get enough healthy fats like omega 3 and omega 6 on a vegan diet. Read on as we dispel the top myths about omegas.
What Are Omega 3 and Omega 6?
There are a few different types of omega 3. The body uses alpha-linoleic acid, a type of omega 3 fatty acid found in plant-based sources, mainly for energy. The other two types are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
“The two essential fatty acids that must be obtained from the diet are linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid,” Jodi Bergeron, an RN at Cape Cod Healthcare tells LIVEKINDLY. “The typical Western diet is higher in omega-6 fatty acids compared to omega 3 fatty acids. Both omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids are essential to normal growth and development and neurological function.”
Omega 3 fatty acids are beneficial for heart health. They can help increase “good” high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and reduce arterial plaque. Studies have also shown that EPA can improve mental health by reducing the symptoms of depression; it also helps reduce inflammation, which can exacerbate the symptoms of a number of chronic diseases.
DHA supports healthy brain development in infants, can help improve memory with age, and it can aid in healthy weight management.
Omega 6, another type of polyunsaturated fatty acids are also essential. The body uses them primarily for energy; the most common type is linoleic acid.
Now, let’s break down the myths.
MYTH #1: You Can Only Get Omega 3 From Fish
Fatty fish like salmon and tuna are well-known sources of omega 3, which may sound like bad news for vegans and people who don’t like fish. But, it’s possible to get enough omega 3 on a plant-based diet; the American Heart Association recommends getting at 1.5 to three grams of ALA omega 3 per day. EPA and DHA intake range from 0.5 to 1.8 per day.
Plant-Based Sources of Omega 3
Chia seeds: One ounce of chia contains 4,915 mg of ALA, up to 447 percent of the recommended daily intake (RDI).
Hemp seeds: One ounce provides 6,000 mg of ALA, between 375 to 545 percent of the RDI.
Flaxseeds: An ounce of flaxseeds contains 6,388 mg of ALA, an impressive 400–580 percent of the RDI.
Walnuts: A single serving (one ounce) delivers 2,542 mg of ALA, about 159–231 percent of what you need in a day.
However, it might be tricky for some to meet their daily requirements through whole food sources alone. Plus, these sources lack EPA and DHA. Men and women ages 19 to 50 need 12 grams and 17 grams of omega 6 fatty acids per day, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
A vegan omega 3 supplement that contains algal oil can be a source of EPA and DHA (and some supplements provide both omega 3 and omega 6), but you should always consult your doctor before adding a supplement to your diet.
Plant-Based Sources of Omega 6
Walnuts: One ounce contains 10,800 mg, 64 percent of the RDI.
Tofu: 3.5 ounces will give you 4,970 mg, 29 percent of the RDI.
Hemp seeds: Three tablespoons will add 8,240 mg to your diet, 47 percent of the RDI.
Sunflower seeds: An ounce packs 10,600 mg, 62 percent of the RDI.
Peanut butter: One tablespoon of peanut butter contains 1,960 mg, about 11 percent of the RDI.
Almonds: One ounce has 3,490 mg, 20 percent of the RDI.
Cashews: An ounce contains 2,210 mg, 13 percent of the RDI.
Certain vegetable oils like avocado and safflower also contain omega 6.
MYTH #2: Omega 6 Causes Inflammation
A common misconception is that omega 6 causes inflammation. Specifically, a diet where you get more omega 6 than omega 3.
“Linoleic acid (LA) is a major omega 6 fatty acid in the diet and is converted to arachidonic acid (AA) which can be associated with inflammation,” Bergeron explains. But, not to worry: the body converts very little LA into AA. Bergeron adds that omega-6 polyunsaturated fats actually have anti-inflammatory properties, so eating more can help reduce inflammation. Omega-6 can even help reduce the risk of heart disease.
“It is well known that chronic low-grade inflammation and oxidative stress are associated with cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other chronic conditions,” she adds. It comes down to diet. The Mediterranean diet, which typically includes fish, but can also be plant-based, focuses on plenty of “anti-inflammatory and nutrient-dense foods,” like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
“It has a higher omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acid ratio, which leads to decreased inflammation,” she adds. “The diet’s high quantity of phytonutrients and fiber, along with its low glycemic load and low content of saturated fat, contributes to less inflammation in the body.”
The real fats you should minimize are saturated, trans fatty acids, and partially hydrogenated oils.
Trans fatty acids and partially hydrogenated oils are commonly used for fried foods. These include fried chicken, french fries, packaged cakes and cookies, pie crusts, donuts, and fried snacks. Both of these can be detrimental to heart health and should be minimized.
MYTH #3: Omega 3 Supplements Lower Cholesterol
Contrary to what many of us have read, there is little evidence supporting that omega 3 supplements lower cholesterol. However, the thought process behind taking omega 3 supplements for heart health isn’t wrong.
Research has shown that omega 3 can significantly reduce elevated triglycerides, a fat that increases the risk of heart disease. A more effective way of reducing your cholesterol is replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats, like omega 3.
Foods like beef, lamb, pork, poultry with the skin, lard, cheese, and full-fat dairy products contain saturated fat. A plant-based diet can lower cholesterol—the American Heart Association even recommends it.
Despite the myth that omega 3 comes from fish, getting enough of it (and omega 6) on a vegan diet is easy if you regularly eat the foods listed above.
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