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!