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The fats of life

We get the lowdown on essential fatty acids, plus we take a look at some plant-based sources

Essential fatty acids, or EFAs, are so called because our bodies can't make them naturally and it's therefore essential that we get them from our diet.

The two main types are omega-3 and omega-6 and they have different effects in the body. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in oily fish such as mackerel, herring and sardines, as well as algae and nuts and seeds. Omega-6 fatty acids tend to be found in palm, soybean, rapeseed, and sunflower oils.

The long-chain omega-3 fatty acids are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and these are well known for their health benefits, particularly in terms of brain, joint and cardiovascular health. Studies have also shown that they have a natural anti-inflammatory effect. Omega-3 tends to reduce inflammation in the body whereas omega-6 has a tendency to increase it. Due to the nature of our modern diets, a lot of people are deficient in omega-3s and tend to consume too much omega-6.

If you are eating a diet high in omega-6 then this is likely to lead to a more inflammatory state and various health conditions that end in 'it is', such as arthritis, cellulitis, dermatitis etc.

By eating more omega-3-rich foods, or through supplementation, we can help to address that imbalance and reduce inflammation in the body.

Omega-3-rich plant foods

"Omega-3 is a type of fat often associated with fish," says Rohini Bajekal, a nutritionist and a Board-Certified Lifestyle Medicine Professional at Plant Based Health Professionals ( "But anyone following a plant-based diet can meet the optimum intakes needed for good health. Alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) is a plant-based source of omega-3. Our bodies convert ALA into the more biologically active long-chain omega-3 fats EPA and DHA."

However, several studies have shown that the conversion rates are quite low so you would need to have quite a large intake of ALA foods in your diet. As Rohini explains: "Around half the fat in leafy greens is omega-3 but you would need around 30 cups every day to get enough ALA, which is not exactly achievable!"

She suggests eating at least one of the following every day to get your plant-based quota of omega-3:

Smart supplementation

Many vegetarians and vegans opt to take a supplement to ensure they have good levels of omega-3. You might want to consider taking a daily microalgae supplement containing at least 200 to 300mg of pollutant-free EPA/DHA. Rohini says: "This could be a good choice if you are a woman of reproductive age, as it is especially important during pregnancy, breastfeeding and for small infants as they develop and grow rapidly. Older adults might also want to consider taking a supplement as they could be less efficient at converting ALA due to a decline in overall intake. Always speak to your doctor for individualised advice regarding supplementation."

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