Fat is an important and often misunderstood part of our diet. It is garnered much attention as of late with the idea that there are good fats and bad fats and that good fats generally come from fish sources. Vegetarians and vegans are often challenged with the question, am I getting enough fats? Recent investigations into healthy eating practices have shed some significant light on the issue of fats in our diet with particular emphasis on comparative studies between fat intake in vegetarians/vegans with that of omnivores. With ever-changing understanding of nutrition, I ask what is the latest skinny on fats in plant-based diets? Do vegetarians/vegans need to start thinking about consuming another popular F-word – Fish oils?
Fats are important. Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are by name and function crucial to our health. They come in two varieties – Linoleic Acid (LA) and Alpha -linolenic acid (ALA) and both must be consumed and converted to their healthful derivatives EPA and DHA for proper functioning of every organ system in our body. In order to gain the healthful effects of these fats they must meet certain criteria. These criteria include both eating the optimal ratio of omega-6 (LA) to omega-3 (ALA) and their proper conversion in the body via enzymes. The optimal dietary ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is roughly 2:1. The human body is a poor converter of ALA to EPA/DHA, deriving at most a mere 10% of EPA/DHA from ALA. When eating fish oils converting these fats is not a problem because we are consuming them directly. In addition, LA competes with ALA for precious enzymes in the conversion process which adds another hurdle.
Vegetarians and vegans who consume large quantities of LA and not enough ALA are therefore on the wrong side of the equation. Vegans especially intake more than twice the amount of omega-6 fats which causes the ratio to tilt into a more dis-ease producing direction which includes heart disease, cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, and immune disorders. Sources of LA include: cereals, breads, and evening primrose oil. Sources of ALA include: Chia, Kiwifruit and Flax. Knowing all of these challenges vegetarians/vegans face in getting the right amounts of essential fatty acids, what can we do to keep ourselves full of the right fats?
When done right, vegetarian and vegan diets are incomparably healthy. Improving EFA status is relatively easy without having to consume fish oils. We must ensure that the conversion of ALA to EPA/DHA is high. We can do this by eating adequate amounts of protein to guarantee the production of enzymes that take part in the conversion process. Also. we need to limit our intake of alcohol and trans fats as they depress the enzymes function. We can also decrease LA intake by cooking less with safflower, grapeseed, sunflower, corn and soybean oils. Instead, monounsaturated fats in olive and canola oils and whole foods such as avocados and most nuts are preferred in our diets. Processed foods and deep fried foods have high omega-6 and trans fat content and should be kept in dietary moderation in order to sustain a healthful fats balance. Recommended intake of ALA rich foods is roughly 3 grams per day. Most importantly, we need to keep the VEG in vegetarian/vegan and eat a diverse amount of whole foods and vegetables to ensure that we are maintaining a solid foundation.
Being a vegetarian/vegan is not as difficult a challenge as some believe it to be. With the right information and guidance the equation for health/dis-ease balances right into place. Furthermore, it is always prudent to consult a qualified health practitioner for support and a fresh perspective.