A Primer on Essential Fatty Acids: Part Two

A Primer on Essential Fatty Acids: Part Two

Vegetarian Options for Omega-3

The best plant-based source of omega-3s has, up until recently, been flax oil, though now we also have algae sources of omega-3s. While many in the medical profession would debate the effectiveness of flax oil, since it contains unformed omega-3s in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which the body must then convert into the active forms of DHA and EPA.  However, recent studies have proved that flax oil will convert relatively well into these long-chain fatty acids, even in people who are ill.  (Source)

ALA can be converted to EPA at a rate of about 5-10% and DHA at a rate of about 2-5%. This conversion depends on many factors like diet (vegetarians convert better than meat eaters), gender (women convert better than men), genetics and state of health (some health conditions like eczema and diabetes may be linked to lesser conversion).”   (Source)

As a side note, women convert ALA into omega-3s better than men (up to four times more effectively) because of the importance of these fatty acids to fetal development.  It should be pointed out, for those who might be unaware, that flax oil is very delicate and easily goes rancid due to light and oxygen exposure, and is damaged by heating. So one needs to use a high quality, cold pressed organic flax oil, and never cook with it. As a rule of thumb I suggest that one tablespoon of flax oil is roughly equal to one teaspoon of regular strength fish oil.

The advantage of using omega-3s derived from algae (available in liquid or capsules), is that these fatty acids are in the pre-formed long-chain, requiring no conversion in the body, and essentially have the same value as taking fish oil. (Source)

This is a great option for vegetarians and those allergic (or repulsed by) fish, but vegans should be aware that many of the capsules will still be made from  gelatin, so read the fine print to ensure you are getting a plant-based softgel capsule.


When examining the principles of supplementing with EFAs, the most complicated aspect is how much omega-6 fatty acids to ingest, but before we get into that, I will briefly look at omega-9s.  Often people will buy an omega-3-6-9 product, which is marketed as a more balanced mix of fatty acids, either in the form of capsules, or in a liquid form such as “Udo’s Oil”. These products may well be an ideal balance of fats, but that is only so if you have an ideal diet.

At this juncture I would like to point out that none of these products have any appreciable level of omega-9 fatty acids. That fatty acid is found mostly in olive oil, which is one of the most healthful oils that we can consume (ideally as an Extra Virgin oil, meaning no heat or solvents were used in producing it). Other high sources of omega-9s are almond and avocado oils, and to a lesser extent, almonds, cashews and walnuts (listed from most to least).

The now famous “Mediterranean Diet” describes the traditional dietary patterns found in the areas around Greece and Southern Italy. This diet is based on a low level of dairy, fish and poultry in combination with low red meat intake and low to moderate amounts of red wine.While the Mediterranean countries consume high amounts of saturated fat they have much less heart disease than the Western countries, much akin to the phenomenon known as the French Paradox.

It is believed that the use of olive oil as the principal source of fat in the diet, rather than meat and damaged (i.e. heated or hydrogenated) vegetable oils, is the reason for the difference in heart disease rates. Olive oil has anti-inflammatory properties and can lower cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels.

Furthermore, we no longer consider omega-9 to be an “essential” fatty acid. “Unlike omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids, omega−9 fatty acids are not classed as essential fatty acids (EFA). This is because they can be created by the human body from unsaturated fat, and are therefore not essential in the diet.”   (Source)

Omega-3-6-9 Products

The omega-3-6-9 capsules commonly sold contain one-third fish oil, one-third flax oil, and one-third of borage oil. Fish and flax provide omega-3, but flax oil in a capsule is a waste of time, since it would require about 14 capsules of only flax oil to equal the tablespoon of flax oil required to meet your basic omega-3 requirements. The same holds true with “Udo’s Oil”, or hemp oil, or any vegetable oil in a capsule. A teaspoon of fish oil will be roughly equal to a tablespoon of flax oil, because it is a pre-formed omega-3, whereas your body must convert the flax oil into omega-3.

Thus 3 fish oil capsules would be roughly comparable to 14 flax oil capsules. Fish oil companies will debate this conversion in their literature, but the fact is that about one billion Hindus (who are vegetarian) manage to survive without eating any fish, and without showing any major omega-3 deficiencies (at least when following their traditional diet.).

The Problem With Omega-6

Aside from the issue of there being little omega-9 in the 3-6-9 capsules, there is also the question of whether or not we want to take any omega-6 fatty acids at all.  It has been determined that the average North American has 10 to 20 times more omega-6 in their diet than omega-3. Since byproducts of omega-6, when in excess in the body, are linked to causing inflammation, we hold this dietary imbalance responsible for contributing to diabetes, cancer, heart disease, arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease, all inflammatory in nature.   (Source)

Realizing this, the astute student stops consuming omega-6s (found in most commercial, restaurant and processed foods) and starts focusing on only omega-3s, using flax oil and consuming fish and fish oils. By doing this, one could, eventually, end up deficient in omega-6 fatty acids, which are still considered “essential”, meaning the body must obtain them from an external source. For a woman omega-6 deficiency usually shows up as hormonal imbalance, such as PMS or menopausal symptoms. For a man it is trickier to know when he is deficient in omega-6, though eczema is often linked to this deficiency (omega-3 deficiency more often linked to psoriasis), so that might be one clue.

Omega-6 fatty acids are found in the following oils: corn, safflower, sesame, soy and sunflower. In other words almost all commercially used oils except canola, and canola is a dubious choice being a hybrid (or genetically modified version) of rapeseed oil, which is toxic to humans and animals. Now, omega-6 in its biologically active form is known as gamma linolenic acid (GLA). While much of omega-6s turn into arachidonic acid promoting inflammation, the end product GLA may actually reduce inflammation.

GLA has been used to treat auto-immune conditions, multiple sclerosis, eczema and PMS. The problem is many people can’t convert omega-6 into GLA in their bodies due to poor health (including alcoholism) and a lack of ancillary nutrients, which include magnesium, zinc, and the vitamins C, B-3 and B-6.  GLA is found pre-formed in evening primrose seed oil, borage seed oil, black currant seed oil, and hemp oil. Hemp oil is two-thirds omega-6, with some GLA, and one third omega-3, but as a vegetable oil (though technically a seed), it needs to be taken in a liquid form, as opposed to capsules. The other more concentrated seed oils are often used in capsule form with borage being the most common in 3-6-9 formulas. Borage is preferred in such formulas because it contains twice as much GLA as evening primrose oil does, and thus is cheaper to use for the manufacturer.

Udo Erasmus, the designer of “Udo’s Oil” and a world-renowned expert on oils, used to advise against using borage seed oil, which, he maintained, has some naturally occurring toxic compounds in it (called pyrrolizidine alkaloids). I am not sure if he still holds that position, but I personally still favor EPO over borage seed oil.

Which Oils to Supplement With

So, given all that, which oils might you need to supplement with? Well, let’s use an example of one who has a relatively standard diet. They eat in restaurants a few times a week, buy commercial salad dressings, but aren’t eating wild, deep-water fish three or more times per week. This person would be advised to just take fish oil and/or flax oil, especially if they have any inflammatory conditions, one exception being eczema.

As mentioned earlier, some people do not convert the abundant omega-6s found in the standard diet into usable GLA, therefore, even someone with such a diet who has eczema, may wish to try some EPO. For treating eczema, or for female hormonal imbalance (PMS, menopause symptoms), the recommended dose is 3000 mg daily for therapy, and 1000 mg daily for maintenance.

Now, let’s look at an example of someone with a pretty impeccable diet. They avoid all processed and commercial foods, and only use olive oil (and maybe some flax seed oil) at home (and coconut oil for high heat cooking), and they eat fish frequently or regularly consume fish oil.

Unlike most people, with a standard diet, this person could end up lacking in omega-6 fatty acids. Such a person would be a candidate for the ideal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6, which would be available in Hemp or “Udo’s Oil”, in liquid form. Take one to two tablespoons daily on food, or add to smoothies or shakes.

One other reason our ideal example could be lacking in omega-6 is because “omega-3s and omega-6s compete for the enzymes needed for digestion and this means that the more omega-3 fat you eat, the less omega-6 will be available to the tissues”. Which can be good if you are looking to reduce an inflammatory condition, but not so good if you are simply depriving yourself of the essential omega-6s, due to an over emphasis on omega-3s in the diet.

The Ratio

Since there is in essence an opposing effect between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, it is obvious that a good diet will contain a balanced ratio between these two fats.

“Human beings evolved eating a diet with an omega-6: omega-3 ratio of about 1:1. Modern Western diets exhibit omega-6: Omega-3 ratios ranging between 15:1 to 17:1. Epidemiology and dietary intervention studies have concluded that while an exceptionally high omega-6: Omega-3 ratio promotes the development of many chronic diseases, a reduced omega-6: omega-3 ratio can prevent or reverse these diseases. For example, a ratio of 4:1 was associated with a 70% reduction in mortality in secondary coronary heart disease prevention and a ratio of 2.5:1 reduced rectal cell proliferation in patients with colorectal cancer. A lower omega-6: omega-3 ratio in women was associated with decreased risk for breast cancer. A ratio of 2:1-3:1 suppressed inflammation in patients with rheumatoid arthritis and a ratio of 5:1 had a beneficial effect on patients with asthma, whereas a ratio of 10:1 had adverse consequences.”   (Source)

Thus the current ideal ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s is 4:1, outside of short term therapeutic use. We can see that an excessive focus on omega-3s is off balance from the above material on asthma, where having a 10:1 ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 resulted in a worsening of the condition.  Most clients whom I discuss this subject with are somewhere in between the extremes. Not too many commercial foods, but not a perfect diet either. My advice to them, and those of you akin, is to alternate oils on a monthly basis. One month take “Udo’s Oil” or Hemp oil, the following month take flax or fish oil. This method keeps the emphasis on the omega-3s, with enough omega-6 to cover our bases.


Now just to make it slightly more confusing I will add one more thing. I don’t like the taste of “Udo’s Oil”, though I know people who love the taste. I don’t like the taste of hemp oil either, but I do like flax oil. It turns out that, based on the Blood Type Diet (which I am a believer in), I shouldn’t have “Udo’s Oil”, because sunflower and sesame seeds (the oils of which are in this product) don’t agree with my blood type.

The point here is that when dealing with real foods (as opposed to junk foods and ice cream, etc) we can listen to feedback from our taste buds. I stick with fish and flax oils and if I feel the need to have some omega-6, I will pick up some reputable evening primrose oil capsules.

Finally, remember that bad fats steal good fats. That is, damaged oils and excessive saturated fats will rob the body of good fatty acids. So, often when the body wants EFAs it will crave fat indiscriminately. You may be craving potato chips and deep fried foods when what your body really needs is omega 3, 6 and/or 9.

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