Essential Fatty Acids
Essential fatty acids are vital nutrients that the body must obtain through diet to maintain good health.
When we talk about essential fatty acids, we refer to two fatty acids from the group of polyunsaturated fatty acids:
- Alpha-linolenic acid (Omega-3 fatty acid)
- Linoleic acid (Omega-6 fatty acid)
With the exception of these two essential fatty acids, the body can synthesize all other fatty acids it needs. Once alpha-linolenic acid and linoleic acid are ingested, the body can convert them into all other omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids with the help of enzymes 1.
Fatty acids are generally carboxylic acids (COOH) with a chain of carbon atoms to which hydrogen atoms are attached. At the end of each chain is a methyl group (CH3). This end of the chain is also known as the omega end (ω-end), which is where the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids get their name.
Chemically, the human body cannot synthesize carbon-carbon double bonds at the third and/or sixth carbon atom of the carbon chain starting from the omega end of the fatty acid 2.
The body requires essential fatty acids to produce other fatty acids. For example, arachidonic acid is produced from linoleic acid, and eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid are produced from alpha-linolenic acid. The body then forms eicosanoids (prostaglandins, thromboxanes, leukotrienes, and prostacyclins) from these substances. These substances are involved in metabolic processes, blood clotting, healthy skin, healthy hair, the immune system, muscle contraction and relaxation, as well as the regulation of blood pressure, hormone secretion, and inflammation 3 4.
In addition, essential fatty acids are needed as a component of the retina, brain, and nervous system 5. The body also requires essential fatty acids for the formation of cell membranes, as anti-inflammatory agents, and for the transport and breakdown of cholesterol.
Essential fatty acids are also associated with a lower susceptibility to cardiovascular disease and a lower risk of type 2 diabetes 6.
The general intake recommendation (DRI) for alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) for adults is 1.6 g per day for men over 19 years of age and 1.1 g per day for women. However, vegans should aim for slightly higher values (2 to 4 g), as ALA is needed for the conversion to eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, which are hardly or not present in plant-based foods (see omega-3 requirements) 7. Since a healthy ratio of 1:1 to 1:4 between omega-3 and omega-6 is relevant to health, it is recommended to consume no more than 10 g of omega-6 fatty acids per day.
To avoid harming the mental development of the growing child, pregnant women and mothers should pay attention to sufficient and slightly higher intake of essential fatty acids (especially omega-3) 8.
A deficiency in essential fatty acids can lead to hair loss, dry skin, an increased number of inflammations and infections. Depression and disorders of the liver and kidneys are also possible 9.
Healthy fats are particularly important for children, as a deficiency can lead to developmental brain damage and growth disorders.
Protecting Essential Fatty Acids from Oxidation
Because essential fatty acids are sensitive to oxygen, light, and heat, they should be kept closed, dark, and cool to prevent oxidation. Oxidation causes the corresponding foods to become rancid, which changes the taste and can also cause health problems. The best example is flaxseed oil, which should not be used for frying and should always be stored in the refrigerator.
Alpha-linolenic acid is particularly sensitive to light, oxygen, and heat 10. If the fatty acid is not protected, it will be destroyed and become toxic. Additionally, according to scientists, alpha-linolenic acid is destroyed 5 times faster than linoleic acid.
To protect the fatty acids in cell membranes, the body needs vitamin E, which acts as an antioxidant 11. Scientists say that for every gram of polyunsaturated fatty acids consumed, at least 0.6 mg of vitamin E is needed 12. Therefore, it is also important to ensure adequate consumption of foods and drinks high in vitamin E.
Foods with essential fatty acids
According to Harvard University, at least one very good source of omega-3 should be consumed per day 13. Omega-3 rich foods include flaxseed (preferably ground), chia seeds, hemp seeds, as well as herbs like chives and parsley. Flaxseed oil is also an important addition to a vegan diet.
By the way, plant-based foods do not contain cholesterol.
What should vegans be aware of?
It is important for vegans to not only consume essential fatty acids but also pay attention to a balanced ratio. Many plant-based foods are dominated by omega-6 fatty acids, which can quickly lead to an imbalance with negative consequences for health (such as cardiovascular disease and inflammatory reactions) 14. According to a study, too many omega-6 fatty acids that are active in the body can also cause numerous chronic physical and mental illnesses.
Therefore, the focus of a vegan diet should be on consuming foods that are rich in omega-3s.