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We all know that omega-3 is important for health and are encouraged to eat foods high in omega-3’s such as oily fish like salmon. However, on a plant- based diet it seems to be a bit harder to incorporate sources of omega-3’s into your diet – as I found out recently when I received the results of my annual Medichecks health check! My omega 6:3 ratio was 33.50 which means that I have over 30 times more omega 6 in my blood than omega 3. Given that the optimal range is between 1.50 and 3.00, it’s safe to say my ratio is way off (and has actually got worse since my last health check!). The average ratio for Medichecks customers is 10.4 for females and 12.2 for males, which are still high but much better than mine.
All my other markers came back within the normal range, suggesting that overall I am healthy and my diet is contributing to low cholesterol and blood sugar amongst other things. So I’d like to see if, with a few lifestyle tweaks, I can improve my omega 6:3 ratio without supplements. I spoke to Medichecks’ Dr Hamed Kamali to get some advice on how I can improve my ratio. As a plant-based doctor himself he was certainly the right person to offer up his expertise.
As vegans, in removing foods groups we are getting less preformed EPA and DHA from fish. In addition, people tend to increase their consumption of oils high in omega-6 such as sunflower and sesame oils. So, less omega-3 and more omega-6, even if both only change incrementally, has a dramatic effect on the 6:3 ratio.
High 6:3 ratios are a problem for non-vegans too. We should be getting somewhere between 1-3:1 as a healthy ratio however the modern omnivores’ diet delivers 25-30:1.
Inherently when someone transitions to a new diet it can be difficult to hit the right balance of nutrients. For this reason it may initially be more difficult for vegans to get the right 6:3 ratio.
High omega-6 intake and thus a high 6:3 ratio is thought to promote the pathogenesis of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, inflammatory and autoimmune disease.
Omega-3 is thought to have a suppressive effect on these disease processes. People on plant-based diets tend to have lower risk factors for these diseases due to the protective effects of their diet, but they could improve this further if they could optimise their omega 6:3 ratio.
Chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seed, walnuts, flaxseed and supplements of algae oil are all good sources of omega-3. However simply increasing omega-3 foods isn’t enough, what’s equally important is reducing your intake of omega-6’s.
Our bodies can take omega-3 and elongate it to make EPA & DHA (the fatty acids important for brain development and reducing inflammation in the body). However, this conversion is reduced by intake of omega-6. Hence the importance of maintaining a healthy ratio - the more omega-6, the less conversion of omega-3 to EPA/DHA.
What are your tips for increasing omega-3 and reducing omega-6 in a plant-based diet?
Two of the most respected authorities on nutrition, The WHO and European Food Safety Authority, recommend we should get at least 0.5% of our daily calories from omega 3. That’s easy! 1 tablespoon a day of chia seeds. I have chia in my porridge every morning. As a powerlifter, I also incorporate hemp powder in my protein shakes. If protein isn’t as much of a concern then hemp makes a great addition to smoothies.
I don’t use oil in my home cooking. However, I do eat out now and then and the occasional fried food seems to be okay! Just make sure you are aware of the foods which are high in omega-6 and make a concerted effort to reduce your intake of those.
After speaking to Dr Hamed I have a clearer idea of what I’m going to do to attempt to improve my ratio. I’m going to increase my intake of omega-3’s with chia, hemp and flax seeds. You can buy these in most health food shops, but I find them to be cheaper online. I’ll incorporate these into my breakfast (either mixed into porridge and smoothies or sprinkled on top of toast with various toppings).
What I now understand is that there won’t be much benefit to incorporating these foods unless I also decrease my intake of omega-6, so I’m (slightly reluctantly) going to attempt to avoid oil in my cooking. I do enjoy cooking so I’m going to take this as a bit of a challenge - to keep the flavour in my dishes without the addition of oil.
I will have another Omega 3 & 6 Check in 6 weeks to see how I’m getting on, however, I imagine it may take longer than that to see the real effects on my blood levels. Stay tuned for part 2 of my omega experiment!