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The Alpha and The Omega: What Everyone Should Know About Essential Fatty Acids
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The Alpha and The Omega: What Everyone Should Know About Essential Fatty Acids

You may recognise that this picture has religious symbolism, as it is the Alpha (α)and Omega (ω) signs intertwined, meaning God, as the essence of everything! However these symbols are also relevant to this article, as they refer to the nutrients omega-3 and alpha-linolenic acid, essential to vegans, so I have used this eye-catching image to illustrate my point.

One of the nutritional concerns for vegans, besides having sufficient iron and vitamin B12 in our diets, is that we are getting adequate levels of omega-3 fatty acids (also called ω−3 fatty acids or n−3 fatty acids or polyunsaturated acids/PUFAs). These are fats which are found naturally in fish, seafood and some plant oils. They are considered essential for health, and normal metabolism, and in particular for the brain, eyes and nerves,and cannot be synthesised by the human body, so need to be included in the diet. The symptoms of omega-3 deficiency include fatigue, poor memory, dry skin, heart problems, poor circulation and mood swings or depression.

The best sources of these EFAs (essential fatty acids) from a plant-based diet are in flax seeds, canola oil, hemp seeds , soybeans, pumpkin seeds, purslane, perilla seed oil, chia sage, kiwi fruit seeds and walnuts. These foods are a good source of the parent fatty acid ALA (alpha-linolenic acid); however, this needs to be converted in the body into the forms eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) before it can be really beneficial, and the human body is only partly successful at this. You can improve the body's conversion capacity by eating protein, pyroxidine (vitamin B6), biotin (vitamin B7), calcium, copper, magnesium and zinc in combination with the above EFA-rich foods. The best way to get these is to eat a wide range of fresh whole foods, but if in doubt, take a multivitamin and mineral supplement. Alternatively take around 1 teaspoon of flax oil per day, which should provide sufficient omega-3. Sea plant life-forms such as algae are another good source of omega-3s. Additionally, some food products (vegan margarines, etc) have omega-3 added to them during the manufacturing process these days, just like vitamin B12, so look out for these, as the labels should say if they have been fortified in this way.

Other EFAs that we need in our diets are omega-6 acids, and it is also important to get the correct ratio of omega-3 acids to omega-6 acids. Most people eat too many omega- 6s and too few omega-3s! According to the health guidelines, it seems that the correct ratio to have of omega-6s to -3s is between 1:1 to 1:4. The omega-6s can interfere with your body's ability to absorb the omega -3s, so watch out for this. To prevent uneven absorption occurring as much as possible, limit your intake of corn, sunflower, safflower, peanut and other vegetable oils. Instead use olive or canola (rapeseed) oil. Whilst it is paramount to consume sufficient EFAS, maintain a balance and don't take too many of them: it is not considered advisable to consume more than around 3 grams of EPA and DHA each day, as this can cause certain health problems, for example haemorrhaging. Balance and moderation with everything you eat, that is the key!

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  1. LibbyTreats
    LibbyTreats
    Great article. Thanks for sharing this valuable information!
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    1. Veganara
      Veganara
      Thanks for your vote and comment Libby.
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  2. Carolyn
    Carolyn
    Vote #5! I didn't know that fatigue, poor memory, dry skin, heart problems, poor circulation, mood swings and depression are all related to Omega-3 deficiency. Thanks for the info!
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  3. Virtually Homemade
    Virtually Homemade
    Great info! Voted :)
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    1. Veganara
      Veganara
      Thanks for the votes and comments ladies! Btw, I made your quinoa recipe the other day, Virtually Homemade, the one with lemon and chives: delicious! A lovely light summery dish. I love quinoa, and I have one or two recipes using it that I will share soon.
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  4. SnakeWitch
    Wow, there are lots more sources of these fats than I thought! Great article! I have a new article out, and you can come check it out. 'Work Pressure... as a Vegan' is a story from my past that I chose to share. Please vote if you wish.
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  5. nezarynew
    nezarynew
    I love this article! This topic isn't addressed very often in our society, as research on it is (I believe) relatively new. However, from everything I've read, you're absolutely correct- as vegans/vegetarians, we have to make sure we're getting enough EFA's. Those lipids are so critical for practically every cell-process that occurs in the body. To your point about the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids, I've seen a couple of promising, peer-reviewed studies that are showing a correlation between increased levels of omega-3 (primarily achieved by REDUCING intake of omega-6 in the diet, in conjunction with supplementing the 3) and a decrease in symptoms of some personality disorders like depression, anxiety and even schizophrenia. We get an overload of omega-6 EFAs from seemingly benign oils present in most processed foods, so Americans and others consuming the SAD diet tend to get an overload of 6, which, as you state, competes for space with omega-3. Thanks for the great information on this important topic! The sources you suggest for EFAs are fabulous! :-) You have my vote!
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    1. Veganara
      Veganara
      Thanks a lot Eva for your vote and positive comments! I must try to follow my own advice now, after spending the time researching and writing this, and make sure I am getting enough omega-3s! For one thing I am going to change the vegetable oils I use for cooking.
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  6. Carolyn
    Carolyn
    Congrats on making Top Posts!
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  7. Fifi Leigh
    Fifi Leigh
    sounds good. i eat a lot of seeds, nut and olive oil. i hope i am getting enough omegas.
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  8. BuddhasDelight
    BuddhasDelight
    okay, officially voted! guess it did not go through the first time, glad i checked. thanks for the great info!!!
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  9. pftsusan
    pftsusan
    This is very good because it tells me how to get around it if I have too much omega 6 in food plan. Thank you. Voted.
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