Glad you all like the look of the peanut noodles. This week’s Question of the Week comes from reader Callie, who asks,
I have a quick question for you. I am a young dietitian and I am very curious about exploring all different eating styles and patterns and raw food is very interesting to me. I am currently doing some “summer research” on omega three fatty acids and I was just wondering what your take on the subject is. I know you can get all your essential fatty acids from plant sources of omega-3’s but I was wondering about EPA and DHA (found in fatty fish) specifically. I am currently reading a book called the Ultimate Omega 3 diet. The book and much research I have read states that although our bodies can convert ALA to EPA and DHA, it is a very slow conversion . . . I was wondering what research you know of that supports or does not support the need for supplement and if you do not mind disclosing whether you take a supplement . . . Not sure if you eat seafood and you may get all the EPA/DHA you need, but just wondering for those that do not eat seafood.
Thanks so much, Callie
This is a great question, and I’m grateful to Callie for asking.
Omega-3 fatty acids are indeed an important part of the human diet; there’s good research to show that they play a role in combating conditions from allergies and arthritis to diabetes, eczema, stroke, and weight gain. It’s also true that while most Americans get a good number of Omega-6 fatty acids in their diets, most of us don’t get enough Omega-3s; an ideal dietary ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6s would be 1:4. It’s not uncommon, though, for Americans to have a ratio of 1:20 instead.
The most commonly known plant-based Omega-3 is alpha-linolenic acid (or ALA). When it’s broken down in the human body (with the aid of certain vitamins), ALA can be converted into two other acids: EPA (eicosapentanoic acid) and DHA (docosahexanoic acid). Callie’s concern – and that of others who are considering veganism – is that it isn’t always easy for the body to convert ALA to EPA and DHA. To get DHA directly—without the body’s conversion—one would have to rely on a fish source (salmon oil and other fish oils are most common) or an algae source, usually found in supplemental form. All the more reason why it was smart of you, Callie, to ask!
No, I don’t take a supplement on a daily basis. I recognize that it can be helpful to those who are eager to get DHAs in a reliable and hassle free form, but I don’t personally feel compelled to seek a supplement out. I do, though, get a great deal of flax oil and other ALA rich oils in my diet. And as far as direct DHA consumption goes, I occasionally have algae in smoothies and (more significantly) enjoy a number of oil blends that are EFA and DHA rich (more on this is a moment).
I’m not a big proponent of supplements. For the most part, I believe that a varied, plant-based diet will supply the body’s needs. Every so often, as we all know, a nutrient craze sweeps the newspapers and magazines, be it omega-3s, antioxidants, B vitamins, or probiotics. I tend to chuckle at these waves of interest, if only for their suddenness and their capacity to cause undue fretting. Becoming paranoid about specific nutrients is time-consuming, often unnecessary, and often lends itself to obsessiveness.
Naturally, though, there’s no need to be careless. Sometimes supplements are necessary: anyone with particular health concerns should talk to their doctor about supplementation and act in accordance with unique needs. I do recommend that all vegans get their vitamin B-12 and D tested with their yearly bloodwork, and that they take a supplement if those vitamins ever appear low.
But whenever possible, I like to rely on whole foods for nutritional needs. I get a lot of B-12, for example, in dulse, which you know by now is a favorite of mine, and iron (which I’m also frequently asked about) in the form of dark greens, legumes, and carob. As for Omega-3s, I try to seek them out in oils and the occasional helping of algae.
Lately, I’ve been enjoying the Vega EFA oil blend, with I asked to sample a few weeks ago (and the kind folks at Vega obliged). It’s delicious: like all hemp and flax oil blends, it has rich, nutty undertones. It works beautifully on massaged kale salad or drizzled into blended soups.
For DHA needs, Udo’s Oils makes a DHA oil blend that is also very high quality.
So the answer is no – as a vegan, I don’t eat seafood or take a fish supplement, and I keep a relaxed attitude about DHAs. But I do try to stay informed—knowledge is power, even when one chooses to maintain an ultimately calm position. I really appreciate your conscientious efforts to stay in the know about your nutritional needs, Callie, and your candor and curiosity in writing to me.