A friend’s decision to eat plant-based foods made me consider the merits. Whether a 30-day fad diet or as a millennial planet-conscious lifestyle choice, the omega-3 nutrition debate grows: do plant-only diets have enough essential fatty acids to fuel a healthy body and mind?
Plant-based eating paired with restrictive animal-derived foods edge upwards in nutritional thinking as grave concerns over chronic diseases push lifestyle changes. The omega-3 debate on these nutrients’ catalytic properties both in and for a healthy body is as complex as the body’s workings.
Plant-based eating is current, and research states that it is not a single fatty acid in the omega-3 complex but rather the three fatty acids working in combination that allows us to function optimally and live free from chronic disease. This will also affect just how we go about our daily shopping.
You’re Greener Than You Think
Our health appears in a primary state greener than imagined as humans, animals, and fish can’t make the necessary omega-3s, but we have to ingest these. Just how this happens is like a fairy-tale taking place in a world deep yonder where the cycle of a healthy life starts that will forever affect our well-being. In reality, that is just what has been found.
Researchers know that the chloroplasts of grasses, leaves, green algae, and other plants are the basis for nutritional omega-3 types. Curiously, the high percentage of omega-3 in fish comes from these sea creatures nibbling, digesting, and converting green algae to nutritional essential fatty acids, and then we consume mackerel, salmon, anchovies, et cetera for eye, brain, and heart health.
This is just a part of the total picture as what is found in fish is but a section of the family of essential acids needed. This does not include other fatty acids in plants and fruits growing on the earth. Nor is this the full story of how the latter even can produce the fatty acids that were once thought were only found in oily fish.
Interestingly, too, in terms of how intricate the body’s workings are, omega-3 fats aren’t stored in the body but can only be eaten and then used to fuel ourselves. That’s it.
Is plant-based eating an option?
Our complex relationship with our immediate worlds is intriguing and sometimes borders on concern when we start to think about what we do or don’t do to be alive and well. And something as essential as nutrition, like nourishing ourselves or eating, is inventively complex on some levels or plain simple survival on another.
One is perpetually amazed to see the array of supplementary or pharmaceutically derived omega-3 supplements. From anti-inflammatory krill oil or green-lipped mussel oil to a world of omega-3 supplements, it is right back to plant-based eating.
A Pro-Plant Diet
Octogenarian biochemist and decades-long wholefood and pro-plant nutrition guru professor T Colin Campbell looks at health as related to the body’s complex mechanisms. The processes of and in the body that aid the assimilation of nutrients from what we eat, like the omega-3s that are essential to our health, is a symphony, he says.
His argument is opposed to ingrained thinking that nutrients can be eaten in isolation. Good nutrition is what our bodies do with the foods we eat, he says. This is part of the ‘wisdom’ of our bodies and we need omega-3 fatty acids.
He uses the analogy of an apple to show that we can’t extract one nutrient and expect it to be effective on its own; it needs the supporting nutrients in the apple itself to be of optimal nourishment. There are absorption processes in the body which he likens to ‘metabolic pathways’.
The truth is that plant-based eating is about assimilation. In the case of omega-3s, these depend on the body’s processes called homeostasis which refers to a stable and functional equilibrium. Just imagine a trillions of cells working together to nourish our bodies from the food we eat, says Campbell.
So for the plant-based diet, what’s nutritionally dense is not one specific nutrient from the omega triad but a combination. The most popular whole foods book on the plant-based (WFPB) diet (of which Campbell is the founder) includes mostly plants but fish and animal products are not off the menu.
Omega-3s are essential fatty acids (EFAs) that protect cell membranes and are ‘essential’ for critical biological processes in the body. We use these fatty acids for our health and well-being though we cannot manufacture these primary nutrients. We get these from what we eat.
Essential Fatty Acids
The three types of omega-3s are encrypted with acronyms ALA, EPA, and DHA, which respectively are:
- ALA alpha-linolenic acid (or α-linolenic acid)
- EPA eicosapentaenoic acid
- DHA docosahexaenoic acid.
ALA is the plant-based type in flaxseed oil, chia seeds, walnuts, and soybeans; EPA and DHA are in salmon, sardines, and other oily. Fascinatingly too, is that a small percentage of ALA in the body can be converted to EPA and DHA.
Omega-3s in foods
I have vivid images of friends pro-plant-based eating who harvest armfuls of seaweed and algae from the coastal shores and delight at markets in the large wicker baskets filled with kale, bags of fresh walnuts, sprouted legumes! But it’s mostly the freshest salmon that immediately ticks the best choice box for omega-3. Is this option true?
Here’s a table listing some of many omega-3 food sources and needs (measured in ounces & grams):
|Food source||Omega-3 content||3.5 ounces or /100g||Omega 3 type|
|Salted Mackerel||4 107mg||5 134mg||EPA & DHA|
|Cooked, farmed Atlantic Salmon||4 123mg||2 260mg||EPA & DHA|
|Codliver oil (tablespoon)||2 682mg||EPA & DHA|
|Kippered Atlantic Herring (40g)||946mg||2 366mg||EPA & DHA|
|Eastern Oysters (6)||370mg||435mg||EPA & DHA|
|Atlantic sardines (149g)||2 205mg||1 480mg||EPA & DHA|
|European anchovies (canned, 2 ounces / 45g)||951mg||2 113mg||EPA & DHA|
|Caviar 14.3g (tablespoon)||1 086mg||6,786 mg||EPA & DHA|
|Whole flax seeds (10.3g / tablespoon)||2 350mg||7,260 mg / tablespoon (13.6 grams) of oil||ALA|
|Chia seeds 28g||5 060 mg||ALA|
|Walnuts (28 grams / 14 walnut halves)||2 570 mg||ALA|
|Soybeans per serving||670mg||1 443 mg||ALA|
Omega-3 from plants, the alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) source, is the only essential omega-3 fatty acid that our bodies cannot make; we have to consume it. At the same time, science shows how the body can naturally convert ALA into longer chain omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
Therefore, as thought before, plant-based diets are not deficient in these longer-chain omega-3s. Studies by the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) amongst vegan women have found that long-chain omega-3 fats are significantly higher in these participants’ blood than fish or meat-eaters in the same study.
Thus despite a zero intake of long-chain omega-3s (EPA & DHA), vegan participants in the study could convert shorter-chain fatty acids into these long-chain fatty acids.
Responsible omega-3s intake
Currently a group of physicians punting ethical and responsible medicine have come out strongly pro-plant nutrition say: “you don’t need to turn to fish – or fish oil supplements – to get your omega-3s”.
This also is the conviction of another group of nutritional scientists who are pro-plant-eating.
Think deeper; for health’s sake, there’s enough plant-derived essential omega-3 to make and keep you healthy. It’s not the fatty fish but plant sources that are also pivotal to current thinking about good and sound nutrition. So whether a pescatarian, vegan, vegetarian, you can get essential omega-3s from plant-based whole foods.
The mind boggles at the range of dietary patterns and options for our bodies to be healthy, and we must start to take stock of findings that we need combinations of the omega-3 fatty acids to function optimally. At the same time, no need to eat plants only. Hold tight, there’s a new kid on the block … the millennial flexitarian!