ESSENTIAL FATTY ACIDS
The Omega-6 to Omega-3 Ratio and why vegans get heart disease too
There are two essential fatty acids to humans; Alfa-linolenic acid (ALA) and linoleic acid (LA). “Essential” in this case means that our bodies are not capable of synthesizing them, so we need to get them from our diets. This is where is gets a little technical: ALA and LA are both short-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) that have two or more pairs of double bonds in their carbon chains.
EPA AND DHA
ALA, an omega-3 fatty acid, is converted into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and later into docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) by enzymes delta-6-desaturase and delta-6-elongase. EPA and DHA are long-chain fatty acids that are extremely important for proper brain function and cardiovascular health. These same enzymes are used by LA, an omega-6 fatty acid, in order to be converted into arachidonic acid.
Both ALA and LA compete for the same enzymes so if we have too much omega-6 in the body then the enzymes available will be used up in order to form arachidonic acid and not enough EPA or DHA will be formed.
Arachidonic acid (AA) in not considered an essential acid because it is produced in the body, however it is vital for our health as it forms part of our cell membranes, our brain tissue, promotes muscle growth and repair, and has a large role in the inflammation process, stomach protection, and many other processes in the body.
Having too much AA however can be dangerous as it is turned into leukotrienes which are responsible for the bronchoconstriction in asthma attacks, prostaglandins which cause pain, thromboxane A2 which induces platelet aggregation (inhibited by aspirin) which is vital for when you cut yourself so you don’t continue bleeding, but can cause the formation of blood clots.
The conversion from AA to prostaglandins is what occurs when we take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, by inhibiting an enzyme called cyclooxygenase (COX). This explains why NSAIDs reduce inflammation and pain, however, they also can cause gastrointestinal bleeding because they inhibit the prostaglandins that protect the stomach lining as well.
OMEGA-6 TO OMEGA-3 RATIO
An ideal omega-6:3 ratio is around 1, meaning we should get the same amount of omega-3’s as we do omega-6’s. In Western diets, the ratio is about 16-20 to 1 which shows us that we tend to have a diet very high in omega-6’s and very low in omega-3’s. This means that not only do we need to eat more omega-3’s, but we need to eat less omega-6’s since omega 6’s block the conversion of EPA and DHA.
The best way to lower our consumption of omega-6’s is with a whole food plant based diet, eating food as unprocessed as possible.
HIGH OMEGA 6:3 RATIO
A high omega ratio promotes cardiovascular disease, cancer growth, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, allergies, joint and muscle pain, depression, cognitive decline.
The omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is one area where vegans actually tend to be worse off than vegetarians and meat eaters. After no longer consuming animal products, many vegans continue to eat processed foods with lots of oil, maintaining omega ratios of over 20. This is the reason that vegans can still have cardiovascular disease and suffer from ischemic heart disease (heart attacks) at a young age.
Having an omega ratio of 4:1 has proven to lower total mortality by 70%, although the gold standard is having a ratio of 1:1.
SOURCES OF OMEGA 3
The single best source of omega-3 fatty acids known to man; a serving of 2 tablespoons (Tbsp) contains 4,225 mg of ALA, 5 grams of fiber, 4 grams of protein, along with manganese, magnesium, selenium, vitamin B1, B6, iron, copper, zinc and potassium.
Flax seeds have a hard exterior so it is best to consume them ground in order to be able to absorb them. If you eat them whole, they will go through your body undigested. They can be purchased preground and then kept in the refrigerator or you can grind them up yourself.
Flax seed oil is an option, however, it is expensive, goes rancid quickly and does not taste very good. During the process of making the oil the fiber, protein, and many micronutrients are removed, so I recommend just adding ground flax seeds to whatever you eat. They are great in oatmeal, soups, salad dressing, hummus, you name it.
Consuming ground flax seeds has been proven to help prevent inflammation in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, lower AA in the body and subsequently lowering the amount or eliminating the need to take aspirin in patients with heart disease.
Ground flax seeds can be cooked without losing nutritional value. They can also be used to make an egg replacer in recipes by making a “flax egg”: 1 Tbsp ground flax seeds + 3 Tbsp of room temperature water. Mix them together and let them sit for ten minutes and it will have the same texture as a whisked egg.
It is said that if we can only make one single change to anyone’s diet, for health purposes, it should be to add 1 or 2 tablespoons of ground flax seed to their food per day.
Other good sources of omega-3’s
Chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, greens, beans, avocado, cabbage, berries and wild rice.
If you have an omega ratio of less than four, then your body should be producing an adequate amount of EPA and DHA and supplements should not be necessary. However, there are supplement forms of vegan DHA that come from algae, which I recommend to women who are trying to conceive, to women who are already pregnant or breastfeeding, as well as people who have a high omega ratio. The recommended daily dose is 200 mg.
The Pure Doctor’s Recommendations:
- Incorporate ground flax seeds into your diet. Depending on your energy requirements, getting about 1-2 tablespoons a day should be enough to meet ALA requirements.
- Adopt a whole food, plant-based diet without refined oils, especially oils high in LA and saturated fatty acids.
- Include other healthy fats in your diet such as chia seeds, avocados, olives, nuts, and seeds.