Fatty acids reduce your risk for chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease, decrease cholesterol levels and promote health of the blood and nervous system. According to the American Dietetic Association, 20 to 35 percent of your energy intake should come from fatty acids. Although some fatty acids come from plant sources, many come from meat and other animal products, especially fatty fish, so vegetarians need to take special care to include foods high in fatty acids in their diet.
Omega-6 Fatty Acids
The omega-6 fatty acids decrease cholesterol, body fat and offer some protection against cancer (see References 3). Although they also have animal-based sources, according to the American Dietetic Association, a vegetarian diet usually provides adequate amounts of omega-6 fatty acids without any special efforts from the vegetarian. Vegetarian foods high in omega-6 fatty acids include liquid vegetable oils, nuts and seeds. Vegetarians who consume eggs and butterfat also get omega-6 fatty acids from those sources.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids require a little extra effort for the vegetarian to obtain, as most of them come from animal sources. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) comes from plant sources like flaxseed, walnuts, canola and soy and will convert into other omega-3 fatty acids. However, the conversion rate of ALA to other fatty acids is less than 10 percent. The American Dietetic Association recommends that men consume 1.6 g of ALA per day, while women should consume 1.1 g. However, vegetarians need to consume more since they aren't directly ingesting other fatty acids. The body tends to convert ALA to other fatty acids at a higher rate when the person isn't consuming excessive amount of omega-6-containing foods. Since vegetarians avoid many of the omega-6 foods as part of their diet, this also helps them to meet their omega-3 needs.
Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Eggs are an excellent source of multiple omega-3 fatty acids for vegetarians whose diet allows the consumption of eggs. Plant-based sources of ALA for vegetarians who avoid eggs include flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil and soy.
Supplements and Algae
Microalgae also supply abundant amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. Microalgae supplements can boost intake of omega-3s for the vegetarian who's uncertain if she's consuming enough. In particular, the American Dietetic Association recommends supplements for pregnant and lactating vegetarians. Other vegetarian foods, such as soymilk and breakfast bars, have been supplemented with docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 that comes from primarily animal sources and lacks in most vegetarian diets.
- American Dietetic Association; Position of the American Dietetic Association: Fatty Acids; Penny M. Kris-Etherton, et al.; September 2007
- American Dietetic Association; Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets; Winston J. Craig, et al.; 2009
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Omega-6 Fatty Acids
First published in 2000, Dawn Walls-Thumma has served as an editor for "Bartleby" and "Antithesis Common" literary magazines. Walls-Thumma writes about education, gardening and sustainable living. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in psychology and writing from University of Maryland and is a graduate student in humanities at American Public University.
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