In this post we talk about fatty acids. The name does not make them very appealing but, in spite of their fame, these nutrients are very important. Actually, they are essential and necessary: our body can’t produce them. Fatty acids are part of the broader group of lipids, that we commonly call fat. As everyone knows, fats are an important energy reserve and exert a buffer function to protect some organs. The amount of lipid that is preferable to take with meals is about 30% of total calories: taking the right amount, we reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancer, such as breast, colon, prostate, and arteriosclerosis.
In addition to the amount, we want to pay attention to the quality of fat we eat. Generally, if a fat is solid at room temperature, it is unhealthy. They are mainly of animal origin (such as butter and lard), but also hydrogenated vegetable. They contain high percentages of saturated and trans fats, which are correlated with the development of cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer. Palm and coconut oils are in this list of harmful fats, although oils: they are used as butter because they have similar acid composition and texture, but their price is much lower. Besides, they are among the causes of deforestation in the rain forest of Indonesia and Malaysia.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids are very important for our body. For example, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) provides an intake significantly protective against inflammation, certain types of cancer, some mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, but especially depression and suicidal behaviors. (Read my post about vegetarian diet and psychological well-being).
The EPA as well as DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), are part of the fatty acids “omega-3” and are paired with their cousins “omega-6”. Finding omega-6 is quite simple, because they are very widespread (whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts); omega-3 are less common, therefore it is easy to get deficiency (read the post about the research in this regard) and this problem has been observed especially in vegetarians who did not plan their diet accurately.
We need to be familiar with the foods that contain them. Omega-3 can be found in legumes, nuts, seeds and raw algae:
6 teaspoons of ground flaxseed
2 teaspoons of oil of flaxseed
provides daily requirement of omega 3, thanks to the presence of α-linolenic acid (ALA, daily requirements: 4.6 g (here is a study on flaxseed)), which is an essential fatty acid precursor of omega-3 long-chain ( EPA and DHA): a substance is called precursor when, through metabolism, is used to create another. The well-known carotene, for example, is the precursor of vitamin A. Regard the direct sources of EPA and DHA, only algae provide a modest contribution. Because omega-3 lose their properties when heated, it is necessary to consume all these food raw and keep them away from heat sources.
In diets including animals, long chain omega-3 are found in fish, such as trout, sardines, herring and salmon. While fish intake is protective against cardiovascular disease mortality, this beneficial effect was found only in people who already have problems. The people who, from this point of view, are healthy, have no additional benefit. Indeed, it should be remembered that the presence of dangerous pollutants in water, such as mercury, is a disadvantage of fish products.
Clinical trials using vegetarian diets, including vegetable oils high in monounsaturated fatty acids and omega-3, show a reduction in mortality of 50-70%, compared with 15 and 30% of the studies with the use of fish oils and fish. Moreover, as we have said, the high temperatures needed for cooking fish degrades the omega-3. A study conducted on the same year about 15,000 subjects showed that, compared to a lesser introduction of omega-3 through vegetarian food, the levels of fatty acids are almost identical to those found in omnivorous people or who included only fish. This result proves that the conversion to omega-3 fatty acids is more effective in vegetarian diet that in omnivorous diet: it is therefore easier to derive the omega-3 from plant sources.
The use of oils and dried fruit depends only on personal taste and creativity: flaxseed oil has a mild nutty flavor and can be added to salads or to flavor other cold food; dried fruit is always good to enrich a salad or yoghurt, without forgetting the delicious creams (hazelnuts, almonds, cashews, peanuts, etc.) that can be spread on bread. The beauty of the vegetarian diet is that it allows us to enjoy foods that normally we do not use but still easy to find.