Studies show that typical vegans eat almost twice as much pro-inflammatory omega 6 than typical meat eaters relative to the amount of omega 3 they consume. Why is this? First, there is a bit more omega 3 in even commercial meats, eggs and dairy products than in grains and beans. But, the main culprit is vegetable oils. Is your diet rich in fried, sautéed or wok cooked meals using vegetable oil? Do you drown your salads in oily dressing? Do you snack on tortilla chips and roasted peanuts? Do you eat lots of commercial vegan meat and dairy substitutes, such as tofu hotdogs and soy burgers? How about soy ice cream and greasy dishes like falafel and tempura? If this describes your diet, then you have basically substituted a (saturated) fatty meat diet for a (polyunsaturated) greasy vegetarian diet. This is not a good move.
All of these products will throw your omega6/omega 3 ratio way out of whack, and create additional health problems as well. Eliminating or greatly reducing the addition of refined vegetable oils (and most vegetable oils are refined, even the ones that claim to be unrefined or cold pressed) in your diet is one of the most important steps you can take as a vegetarian toward improving your fatty acid profile and your health.
There are very few vegan foods that are rich in omega 3 fatty acids. The best sources are whole flax and chia seeds. These seeds are rich in ALA, a precursor to EPA/DHA. Flax seeds have a nutty taste and are delicious on top of salads or cereal. Dark green leafy greens and beans also contain small amounts of ALA. By eating a vegan diet that is low in fat, high in beans and leafy greens, plus adding one or two tablespoons of freshly ground flax seeds to your daily dietary regimen, you will tip your balance of omega 6/omega 3 toward the healthy range.
Some “vegans” also supplement their diet with Omega 3 rich eggs, a teaspoon or two of organic ghee or butter and small fatty fish. I highly recommend this strategy to those who are eating vegan for health, as opposed to religious or moral reasons. It will improve your fatty acid profile, and reduce your cravings for vegan “junk food”.
Low-fat vegan diets similar to the one proposed by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn improve the profile of omega 6/omega 3 by reducing total fat intake and eliminating vegetarian junk foods, which are rich in refined vegetable oils. The majority of your calories on these diets come from carbohydrates in the form of fruits, vegetables, beans, tubers (like sweet potatoes), and minimally processed whole grains. The low fat vegan diet has reversed heart disease and radically improved the health of many patients, such as former president Bill Clinton. However, most vegans have a hard time giving up their craving for fat and richness, and have difficulty sticking to these very low fat vegan diets without cheating. A Kapha body type (see my blog series on Ayurvedic nutrition) would have an easier time on this diet. A Vata constitution would have the most difficulty. Experiment to see what works for you, or come see me for a consultation. I’ll make some personalized recommendations.
If you are a vegan who needs or craves more fat in your diet, my recommendations are:
- Grind chia and flax seeds with chick peas to make your own chick pea hummus. Put chia and flax seeds in smoothies. Use them as a base for raw dressings and sauces. Use the fresh raw seeds, not flax oil, which is very unstable, and goes rancid quickly.
- Other fresh and raw nuts and seeds are not good sources of omega 3. So, if you rely on nuts and seeds for most of your caloric intake (as do some raw vegans), your essential fatty acid profile will be skewed in the unhealthy direction. However, nuts and seeds are nutritious whole foods which have many other beneficial vitamins, minerals, protein, etc. They are a much healthier source of dietary fats than refined vegetable oils. If you want to maximize the nutrients you get from nuts, soak them in water overnight. This helps neutralize enzyme inhibitors and phytic acid, both of which inhibit digestion and absorption of the nutrients in the seeds and nuts. If you don’t like to eat soggy nuts, lay them on a tray and bake them in your oven at its lowest heat setting until the nuts have dried. Try to limit your intake of nuts and seeds to ¼ to ½ cup per day, depending on your caloric needs.
- Use extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, and fresh avocados.
More on this in my next article in this series.