nutrition advice for vegetarians and vegans EPA DHA & omega 3 essential fats

Nutrition advice on essential fats omega 3 & 6 and plant based vegan &  vegetarian DHA and EPA by certified nutritionist .

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Problems of Plant based sources of long chain Omega 3 vegan & vegetarian

by London Nutritionist Yvonne Bishop-Weston 

Docosahexaenoic acid - DHA and Eicosapentaenoic acid EPA & Essential Fatty Acids  EFAs

Problems of Conversion short chain omega 3 LNA to long chain  - DHA and EPA Omega 3 essential fatty acid

The Omega 3 benefit is now well known, with omega 3 6 9 and omega 3 supplements being shoved at us at every opportunity. Here London  Nutritionist Yvonne Bishop-Weston from Foods for Life looks at  diet options for vegetarians and vegans and those with ethical  and religious concerns surrounding seeking vegetarian and vegan EPA and DHA alternatives to omega 3  fish oil and fish with omega 3 fatty oil . She investigates some of the problems that create barriers to converting basic short chain omega 3 fatty acid to longer chain EPA and DHA that we need for brain function, optimum pregnancy nutrition and foetal development and general cell membrane integrity for vital organs.     

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Omega 3 Fatty Acid

Many factors can hinder the body’s ability to convert omega 3 fatty acid ALA/LNA EFAs  to DHA and EPA. These include:

Genetic Problems. Some people may have less of the conversion enzymes needed to convert omega 3 fatty acid EFAs to DHA and EPA. These people include those with atopic allergies (asthma, eczema and hay fever which run in the family) and those with diabetes.
Saturated Fats and Sugar. There has been a lot of education about avoiding saturated fat unfortunately this has resulted in the mistaken belief sugar is good/fat is bad when the opposite is true. Many low fat products are ironically full of sugar.  Fats compete for the conversion pathways. If you consume saturated and hydrogenated fats (often in cheap vegetarian sausages and Burgers) you will cause a double whammy to your body’s ability to convert good fats to DHA and EPA. (Pathways blocked and not enough in the first place.
Supporting Vitamins * Some people lack sufficient levels of the nutrients which aid omega 3 fatty acid conversion – zinc, magnesium, calcium, biotin and vitamins B6, B3 and C. There are often fewer of these nutrients in intensively grown, highly processed food and our modern lifestyles often lead to these nutrients being used up more quickly.
Balance Due to the widespread use of sunflower oil in our diets we tend to have a much greater intake of omega 6 to 3 fats. This imbalance can lead to the conversion enzymes getting used up for omega 6, restricting omega 3 conversion. The ideal balance is (depending who you talk to) around 3 to 4 parts omega 6 to one of omega 3. In the USA average intake of omega 6:3 is said to be often as high as 16:1
Excess intake of vitamin A and copper. Excess copper and vitamin A are EFA conversion antagonists. Excess copper levels (possibly from contraceptives or water) are becoming more regularly seen in patients. Sadly, too many people self diagnose rather than see a qualified nutritionist to ensure a synergistic balance of nutrients often resulting in high levels of odd vitamins or minerals.
Freshness. Delicate polyunsaturated oils such as flax and linseed can be damaging to health if not fresh. Omega 3 & 6 fatty acid rich seed oils need to be cold-pressed and bought from the fridge in your health shop. They should be bought as fresh as possible in small quantities and kept away from light and heat to avoid them going rancid otherwise you’ll end up doing yourself more harm than good. Never fry or roast with essential fats, have them as raw and natural as possible
Stress. *  Stress is a total catch 22 situation for your body, you need more but can’t get it. Not only do you eventually feel constantly tired and fatigued with energy levels that that can leave some eighty year olds embarrassing you, but the constant state of emergency diverts the body’s focus from digestion absorption, and complex nutrient conversion.  The result is no matter how much flax you eat, your body could be too busy keeping you awake, heart beating, blood flowing with eyes open and ears listening to be bothered with converting omega 3 fatty acid ALA to DHA and EPA. It’s as much as your body can do from keeping you from being constipated.
Drugs. * Too much caffeine from coffee and tea and nicotine from smoking cigarettes and even sugar can set the body into a downward spiral of artificial stimulus that just results in an ever increasing psychological and eventual physiological addiction. The result is just more stress on your body and reduced chance of optimal conversion of DHA and EPA. They can lead to higher levels of insulin in the body another potential stumbling block for conversion.
Alcohol. Alcohol also affects our ability to convert essential fats.
Viruses and illness. * Obviously any virus or illness that your immune system is struggling to deal with may distract the body’s focus from producing DHA and EPA. Usually your body would rely on stored reserves but it you haven’t been building these up you could find yourself paddling up the wrong river (without a decent paddle)
Constipation. If the body is constipated there is a tendency for the re-circulating of waste. If this is happening it could be that the liver’s ability to 
Gender. *Although there are some studies that have shown groups of women are able to convert ALA (alpha linolenic acid) to DHA, few studies so far have proven men’s ability to always process omega 3 fatty acid effectively. Some would argue that men have less need for a developed brain to maintain the species, whilst women on the other hand need to be able to optimally process omega 3 for their far more complicated role in making and developing their baby.
Pregnancy and Breastfeeding.* Adequate levels of omega 3 essential fatty acids are vital before conception, during pregnancy and to ensure the most perfect start to life whilst breastfeeding. Mothers need to produce not just enough vital DHA and EPA for themselves and their own body but also enough for the new life and vital organs of their baby too, particularly the brain, nervous system and eyes.

Even The Flax Council of Canada admit conversion of  ALA to DHA is very hit and miss. On their website they reported;

“The fact that omega 3 fatty acid ALA conversion to EPA, DPA, and DHA is affected by gender, smoking, and diet suggests that people differ in their metabolic capacity for ALA  conversion. Clearly, ALA conversion is more complex  than was originally thought. Studies are needed to determine the diet and lifestyle patterns that enhance ALA conversion to the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids.

Efficiency of Conversion of ALA. Conversion of ALA to EPA in humans reportedly ranges from as low as 0.2%. The amount of ALA converted to DHA in humans remains controversial, with some studies showing small amounts converted to DHA,10,11 and other studies showing virtually no conversion to DHA”

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Long-chain n-3 PUFA: plant v. marine sources.

Williams CM, Burdge G.

Hihj Sinclair Unit Human Nutrition, School of Food Biosciences, University of Reading, UK

Increasing recognition of the importance of the long-chain n-3 PUFA, EPA and DHA, to cardiovascular health, and in the case of DHA to normal neurological development in the fetus and the newborn, has focused greater attention on the dietary supply of these fatty acids. The reason for low intakes of EPA and DHA in most developed countries (0.1-0.5 g/d) is the low consumption of oily fish, the richest dietary source of these fatty acids. An important question is whether dietary intake of the precursor n-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (alphaLNA), can provide sufficient amounts of tissue EPA and DHA by conversion through the n-3 PUFA elongation-desaturation pathway. alphaLNA is present in marked amounts in plant sources, including green leafy vegetables and commonly-consumed oils such as rape-seed and soyabean oils, so that increased intake of this fatty acid would be easier to achieve than via increased fish consumption. However, alphaLNA-feeding studies and stable-isotope studies using alphaLNA, which have addressed the question of bioconversion of alphaLNA to EPA and DHA, have concluded that in adult men conversion to EPA is limited (approximately 8%) and conversion to DHA is extremely low (<0.1%). In women fractional conversion to DHA appears to be greater (9%), which may partly be a result of a lower rate of utilisation of alphaLNA for beta-oxidation in women. However, up-regulation of the conversion of EPA to DHA has also been suggested, as a result of the actions of oestrogen on Delta6-desaturase, and may be of particular importance in maintaining adequate provision of DHA in pregnancy. The effect of oestrogen on DHA concentration in pregnant and lactating women awaits confirmation.

PMID: 16441943 - Proc Nutr Soc. 2006 Feb;65(1):42-50.

Docosahexaenoic acid is selectively enriched in plasma phospholipids during pregnancy in Trinidadian women--results of a pilot study.

Burdge GC, Sherman RC, Ali Z, Wootton SA, Jackson AA.

Institute of Human Nutrition, Biomedical Sciences Building, University of Southampton, Bassett Crescent East, Southampton, SO16 7PX, UK. 

The fetal demand for docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) has to be satisfied by the mother. We determined the fatty acids in maternal plasma non-esterified fatty acid (NEFA), triacylglycerol (TAG) and phosphatidylcholine (PC), in a cross-sectional study of non-pregnant (n = 10), pregnant (n = 19), and postpartum (n = 9) women. There were lipid class-dependent differences in plasma polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) concentrations between groups. During pregnancy, DHA was most highly enriched in PC, about 230%, with more modest enrichment for linoleic acid (LA) and arachidonic acid (AA), and no enrichment of alpha-linolenic acid (alpha-LNA). There was relative enrichment of LA, AA and alpha-LNA in TAG, but not of DHA. There was no specific enrichment of any PUFA in the NEFA pool. These data accord with the suggestion that the enrichment of alpha-LNA in TAG and of DHA in phospholipids reflects hepatic regulation of n-3 PUFA metabolism which potentially enhances the delivery of DHA to the placenta.

PMID: 16438916 Reprod Nutr Dev. 2006 Jan-Feb;46(1):63-7.

Conversion of alpha-linolenic acid to longer-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in human adults.

Burdge GC, Calder PC.

Institute of Human Nutrition, University of Southampton, Southampton, UK.

The principal biological role of alpha-linolenic acid (alphaLNA; 18:3n-3) appears to be as a precursor for the synthesis of longer chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA). Increasing alpha LNA intake for a period of weeks to months results in an increase in the proportion of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA; 20:5n-3) in plasma lipids, in erythrocytes, leukocytes, platelets and in breast milk but there is no increase in docosahexaenoic acid (DHA; 22:6n-3), which may even decline in some pools at high alphaLNA intakes. Stable isotope tracer studies indicate that conversion of alpha LNA to EPA occurs but is limited in men and that further transformation to DHA is very low. The fractional conversion of alphaLNA to the longer chain n-3 PUFA is greater in women which may be due to a regulatory effect of oestrogen. A lower proportion of alphaLNA is used for beta-oxidation in women compared with men. Overall, alphaLNA appears to be a limited source of longer chain n-3 PUFA in humans. Thus, adequate intakes of preformed long chain n-3 PUFA, in particular DHA, may be important for maintaining optimal tissue function. Capacity to up-regulate alphaLNA conversion in women may be important for meeting the demands of the fetus and neonate for DHA.

Publication Types:
PMID: 16188209 Reprod Nutr Dev. 2005 Sep-Oct;45(5):581-97

 For more about problems with converting DHA and EPA from vegan and vegetarian sources of omega 3 LNA see here

 More about  vegetarian and vegan nutrition and nutrient sources

London Nutritionists

British Nutrition Foundation

Vegetarian Resource Group - Nutrition

The Vegan Society - Nutrition

The Vegetarian Society - - Nutrition and Health

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine - Health

Vegan Health - Vegan Outreach

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