There has been a lot of press and marketing in recent years about the benefits of omega 3 fatty acids. There has also been much ado about the difficulty of converting omega 3s in plants (also known as alpha-linolenic acid) into the forms that have anti-inflammatory and brain supportive effects in the body (EPA and DHA respectively).
Research suggests that a diet high in omega 6 fatty acids (linoleic acid) makes it more difficult for the body to convert omega 3 to EPA and DHA due to competition for enzymes. ie: when you eat foods high in omega 6, then enzymes in your body get used up to convert the 6s to arachidonic acid and pro-inflammatory chemicals, leading to an enzyme deficiency when it comes to converting the omega 3s. High intake of omega 6 is also linked to inflammatory processes such as arthritis, pain, vascular disease, alzheimer’s and more.
With me so far?
So, the thing is, pretty much all of us have a far higher intake of omega 6s to omega 3s (not to mention too much saturated, trans fats and cholesterol, but that is another story). Most oils are very high in omega 6, the notable exception being Flax seed oil and next in line, hemp oil. Ideally, we’d like to ingest foods in a way that we have approximately a 3:1 ratio of 6 to 3 fats, but most of us are around 20:1. Here is a select list of omega 6:3 content in oils and nuts:
Omega 6:3 ratio of select oils and nuts:
Flax oil: 1:4.2 Hemp oil: 2.7:1 Sunflower: 781:1 Safflower: ~3000:1 Canola: 2.5:1 Olive: 13:1 Coconut: no omega 3 Chia seed: 1:3 Walnuts: 4.2:1 Macadamia: 6.3:1 Almonds: 2,011:1 Cashews: 126:1 Peanuts: 5,162:1 Sunflower seeds: 312:1 FYI: Leafy greens, while not high in fat, have very good ratios of 6:3. For example, a head of green leaf lettuce has 2.4 times more omega 3 than omega 6. Spinach has 5.3 times more 3 and arugula has 1.3 times more 3.
Until recently, I’ve never been overly concerned with how much oil I’m using, or how many nuts and seeds I’m eating, but with the recent research and reading I’ve been doing, I’ve decided that it’s time to be more conscientious. I’m decreasing, or even eliminating the oils I use in cooking dinners. I may use a small amount of flax oil on a salad, but even then, I’m looking at oil-free dressing alternatives. I am being more conscious of the omega 3/6 content in the nuts and seeds I eat and as such, have come up with a yummy Omega-3 Ball recipe that I’ll share with you below. But first, a little bit more research on the absorption of plant omega 3s:
So, it seems that a lot of studies are suggesting a very poor conversion of plant omega 3 to EPA and DHA, leaving us vegans in somewhat of a quandry. Now, there are plant-dervied EPA and DHA supplements, derived from marine algae, so no need to run out and buy fish oil or risk a deficiency of these important fatty acids (check out NuTru for more info). But on an even more optimistic note, check out this large-scale article I found, published in the respected American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. I highly suggest you read it, but the bottom line is this:
There were four groups: fish eaters, non-fish eating meat-eaters, vegetarians and vegans. Non-fish eaters were found to have much lower intake (ingestion) of omega-3 compared to the fish-eaters. However, the difference between plasma (blood) levels of DHA and EPA between the groups were much smaller.
Group EPA in plasma DHA in plasma (umol/L) (micromoles per litre) fish-eaters 64.7 271 non-fish eating meat eaters 57.1 241.3 vegetarians 55.1 223.5 vegans 50 286.4
Would you look at that! While the EPA dropped a bit, (but nothing critical) as animal-intake declined, vegans actually had the highest amount of DHA compared to any other group!! And yet there is so much negative press (likely from fish oil supplement companies) going on about how hard, nay, impossible it is for people to convert plant omega 3s to DHA!
So, just what am I trying to get across in this article? I think we should become more conscious of how much oil, nuts and seeds we are consuming and work on mostly eliminating oils (because they are nothing but fat, and thus nutrient deficient) and limiting nuts and seeds to 1 to 2 ounces a day, with an emphasis on the omega-3 heavy-hitters (flax, hemp, chia and walnut). So, in consideration of this, here’s the recipe for my Omega-3 Balls for you to try. Stick to 2-3 balls a day. Let me know how you like them:
THE VEGAN NATUROPATH'S OMEGA-3 BALLS 1 ½ cups walnuts – ground coarsely in food processor 1 ½ cups pitted dates – soaked for 1/2hr in warm water then drained and mashed in processor or with fork ½ cup ground flax seeds ½ cup hemp seeds/hearts 2 ½ tbsp raw cacao powder 2 tbsps unsweetened shredded coconut (optional) 2 tbsps cacao nibs or 2 tbsp sprouted buckwheat kernels (optional – for crunchy texture) Add all ingredients into a large mixing bowl and use hand to mix thoroughly. If seems too dry, add a little water (1 tbsp at a time). With hands, make approx 25 balls. Store in container in fridge. Approximate Nutritional Profile for one ball, based on a batch of 25: Calories: 97 Fat total: 6.1g Omega 3: 1,173mg ***almost a 1:1 ratio of Omega 3:6, with a little more 3!! Omega 6: 1,130mg Carbs: 8.9g Protein: 2.5 Iron: .85mg (4.7% of RDA) Calcium: 32 (3.2% of RDA)