By Heather Nicholds
There are plenty of foods with essential fatty acids out there, but getting the right ones - and in the right ratio - is really important.
Fatty acids are the most basic form of a fat. They’re what fat gets broken down into by your body, and they’re what your body uses for its various functions.
Most of the fatty acids your body needs it can make from the wide variety of healthy foods you eat. But there are two fatty acids that your body can’t make, and so you need to eat them in the right form.
That’s why they’re called essential. It’s not that the other fatty acids are less important, you just don’t need to eat them in any particular form.
So - those two essential fatty acids are called omega-3 and omega-6. I won’t bore you with the chemistry today, but if you’re interested there’s a really good (and detailed) description of all this at Vegan Health.
The most important thing to know about these two essential fatty acids is that it’s the ratio between them that your body’s looking for. The ratio is more important than the quantity of either one, because they compete for spots. So if you have too much omega-6, it will take up a spot where there should be an omega-3.
The ideal ratio is somewhere between 2:1 and 5:1 (omega-6:omega-3). The ratio in an average Western diet is 15-16:1. (Source - www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12442909)
I’m sure you’ve all heard of omega-3, but you don’t hear much about omega-6. Why? Because omega-6 is in pretty much every food, and it’s in a higher ratio than what your body wants. So you don’t need to worry too much about getting enough of it.
You do need to worry about getting high quality forms of it though, since a lot of it comes from rancid polyunsaturated oils, like canola or sunflower. The word rancid doesn’t sound very nice, and it doesn’t refer to a nice situation. Rancid means that the fat has become unstable and created toxins.
The best source of all your fats is a wide variety of healthy whole plant foods. The top foods with essential fatty acids are:
By reducing the amount of oils you use, you reduce the amount of omega-6 and make it easier for you to get the ratio back towards a healthy balance with omega-3.
Getting enough omega-3 is much more difficult than getting enough omega-6. Because so many foods have way more omega-6 than we need, you need to make sure that you’re also eating foods that have a lot more omega-3 to tip the ratio back a bit.
The highest-quality sources of omega-3 are whole foods, and the foods with the highest ratio of omega-3 are:
Hemp seeds and walnuts are a good source of both essential fatty acids, but since they have more omega-6 than omega-3 (3-5:1 ratio) they don’t offset an excess of omega-6 quite as much. Flax, chia and sacha inchi have more omega-3 than 6, so they’re the ones to go for to tip the balance of your diet back.
Fish are another source of omega-3, but with overfishing and polluted waters they can cause other problems in your body and in the global ecosystem so plant sources are a good choice for vegetarians and meat-eaters alike.
Although whole foods are the best source for an unstable oil like omega-3, they aren’t always enough to get the ratio in line. Not to mention that the foods that are richest in omega-3 aren’t the easiest for our digestive systems to break down and absorb.
There are also some specific forms of omega-3 (DHA, GLA) that are super important for your brain and nerves that aren’t in your average foods - especially as the quality of our food supply declines.
So I think it’s a good idea to take a supplement or oil for omega-3, but because it’s really unstable as an oil you have to make sure you get a high-quality one.
There’s a vegan DHA supplement made by Deva, sourced from algae. Spirulina or chlorella supplements (powder or capsules) have very small amounts of DHA and GLA. If you’re not vegan or vegetarian, fish oil capsules are another DHA supplement but you may risk mercury contamination.
For a general essential fatty acid supplement, you can find liquid oils or capsules from various brands in the refrigerated section of your grocery or health food store.
Do you eat lots of foods with essential fatty acids? Let me know below.