Are you concerned about getting enough essential fats on a raw vegan diet? It is actually fairly easy once you learn some basic information about the sources of essential fatty acids in a plant-based diet. Read on to discover how.
What are Essential Fats?
Certain types of fats are called essential fats because our bodies are unable to synthesize them in amounts adequate for optimal health. According to Udo Erasmus who is the leader in the field of research into fats and health, all fresh and unprocessed foods contain some essential fatty acids.
There are two major types of essential fatty acids; omega-3 and omega-6. Omega-3 fatty acids act like the nutritional equivalent of aspirin, helping to calm inflammation and infection in the body. They are associated with a whole range of health benefits including a reduced risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and arthritis.
When most people hear the term omega, they may assume that omega-6 fats also need to be emphasized in the diet and are related to the omega-3 fats. However, while both types of fats are necessary, they actually have almost opposite effects in the body.
An excessive intake of omega-6 fats can trigger an increase in all of the health problems that omega-3 fats help to alleviate. Studies also indicate that omega-6 fats have a remarkable ability to trigger fat storage.
In addition when you consume too many of the omega-6 fats this can neutralize all of the benefits of the omega-3’s. So the main thing to be aware of with your intake of essential omega fats is that the ratio between them is in the amounts that are ideal for supporting optimal health.
Balancing Your Intake of Essential Fats
When we look at the diet of our ancient ancestors it is estimated that their total fat content was actually very similar to what most people eat today. What was very different was the quality and composition of the fats they consumed. Of particular note is the balance between the omega-6 and omega-3 fats, which is estimated to be in the ratio of between 4:1 and 1:1 (omega-6 to omega-3). In contrast our modern diet can contain a ratio of up to 20:1 in favor of omega-6 fats.
We can also learn about the probable optimal balance of essential fats from native populations who live in temperate and tropical regions. These communities consume approximately 1.5% of their calories as omega-3 fats and 2.5% as omega-6, which are obtained from legumes, grains, nuts, green vegetables, fish, olive oil and animal fats. Interestingly this is the same as the estimated ratio that has been determined in many of the studies on Paleolithic diets.
Many raw foodists and strict vegans may potentially have difficulty with maintaining the ideal balance between the omega-3 and omega-6 fats than even those eating a cooked food diet containing animal products. This is because the foods high in omega-3 fats are limited in variety and those high in omega-6 are often consumed in large amounts.
Sources of Inflammatory Omega-6 Fats in Vegan Diets
Although there are a few exceptions, nuts and seeds generally have a very high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3. Some nuts such as macadamias, almonds and pecans contain predominantly monounsaturated fats, like those found in olive oil or avocado, which do not greatly affect the balance between the omega fats.
However, most of the nuts and seeds that are good sources of omega-3, such as walnuts and pumpkin seeds, contain proportionately more omega-6 and cannot be relied on to create balance in your intake of essential fatty acids.
Tahini, sunflower seeds and peanuts contain large amounts of omega-6 fats but only trace amounts of omega-3. In order to correct this imbalance it is a good idea to make a point to add flax or hemp seeds or their oils to meals whenever they contain those nuts and seeds that are high in omega-6 fats.
Raw Vegan Sources of Omega-3 Fats
There are many plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
Flaxseed oil and flaxseed meal
Flaxseeds are one of the best sources of omega-3 fats and are also very low in the omega-6 fats. They must be finely ground in order for you to absorb the fats effectively because otherwise the whole seeds will pass right through you without being digested.
Just three quarters of a tablespoon of ground flaxseeds will supply your minimum daily requirement for ALA.
Flaxseed oil is another alternative and it contains 16% omega-6 fats and 57% omega-3. One teaspoon of flaxseed oil provides 2.6 grams of ALA, which is significantly more than the minimum daily intake.
A little more than half a tablespoon of chia seeds provides your daily requirement for ALA. Chia seeds also have antioxidant properties and promote digestive health as well as being a very good source of calcium.
Hemp seeds contain a high amount of ALA and they are also one of the few foods that contain the short chain omega-3 fat, stearidonic acid. Studies show that this fat is up to ten times more easily converted into the long chain omega-3 fat, EPA, than other plant based sources of omega-3.
One and a half tablespoons of hemp seeds or half a tablespoon of hempseed oil will provide your daily requirement for omega-3 fats.
Walnuts and Pumpkin Seeds
These nuts and seeds do contain omega-3 fats, however they are proportionately much higher in omega-6. While they are good sources of omega-3 fats for occasional use, they still have a tendency to raise the ratio of omega-6 fats if consumed in large amounts.
Green Leafy Vegetables
Yet another reason to eat your greens! More than half of the fat that is contained in green leafy vegetables such as spinach, parsley and romaine lettuce is omega-3.
However, because greens are relatively low in fat you will need to consume these foods in relatively large amounts in order to meet your daily requirement for the omega-3 fat, ALA.
Five cups of leafy green vegetables provides almost half of your daily needs.
This edible weed contains the most ALA of any green vegetable. Of great interest is the fact that it is one of the very few plants known to contain the long chain omega-3 fat, EPA, which is generally only found in fish, seaweed and algae.
You may not have considered fruit as a source of essential fat. However, many fruits contain omega-3 fats. Some of the best sources include: berries, guava, cherries, cantaloupe, honeydew, kiwi, papaya, mangoes, grapes and lemon.
As an example just one medium cantaloupe provides a third of the recommended daily intake for omega-3 fats.
For this reason, people eating a raw food diet consisting primarily of fruit with leafy greens are usually getting an adequate intake of omega-3 fats. As long as you are not eating nuts and seeds containing high levels of omega-6 fats it generally isn’t necessary to supplement with omega-3 or even to focus on foods like flax or chia.
I hope this article has helped increase your knowledge and confidence about sources of essential fats in a raw vegan diet. If you have any comments or questions please leave them below.