In support of National Vegetarian Week 2009, nutrition scientist Dr Nina Bailey seeks to raise the importance of incorporating omega-3s into the vegetarian diet, and proposes ways to do so without compromising on ethics.
At over 7% of the UK population, 4 million and growing steadily,  vegetarianism is an ever-increasing preference for many people, especially among the younger generation, up to 12% of whom opt to cut meat and fish out of their diet.
Whilst scientific evidence does indicate that a plant-based diet offers significant health benefits in terms of heart disease, lower risk of certain cancers, healthy body weight and longer life expectancy, ,, vegetarians still need to eat a well-balanced diet and ensure they get enough fibre from whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables, enough of the right types of protein and amino acids, as well as another type of essential nutrient – omega fatty acids. Necessary for the formation of healthy cell membranes, humans rely on these good fats not only for brain function, but also for the production of hormone-like substances called eicosanoids, which regulate several important functions including blood pressure and clotting, inflammation and the immune system.
According to Dr Nina Bailey, “Low levels of omega fatty acids in the diet have been linked with increases in learning problems, mood disorders, circulatory problems, and skin conditions among the general population. By including the right types of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet, it is possible to address some of the symptoms associated with these problems.
“For vegetarians, this can be difficult, since the important omega-3s EPA and DHA derive mainly from oily fish. Whilst many vegetarians do consume flaxseed, the short-chain omega-3 ALA is a distant relative from the long-chain fatty acid EPA, and the conversion rate tends to be very poor. EPA is important for neurological function as well as the production of eicosanoids, whose role in inflammation is critical.”
The problem is that the conversion of ALA in flaxseed oil to EPA and DHA in the body is a slow and inefficient process, limited further by stress, ageing, alcohol, caffeine, low levels of vitamins and minerals, as well as viral infections and diabetes.
The good news is that a more efficient vegetarian fatty acid has recently become available in the UK, in the form of SDA from echium seed oil. SDA is a closer relative to the important long-chain omega-3 fatty acid EPA than ALA, and is converted to EPA in amounts up to 5 times greater than other vegetarian omega-3 oils. Contained in supplement form in the product Echiomega, SDA bypasses the enzyme ‘blocks’ which limit conversion to the long-chain omega-3 fatty acid EPA, known for its potent anti-inflammatory and mood-regulating effects.
Vegetarian omega 3 supplement – Echiomega, available mail order from manufacturer Igennus, is the ideal nutritional supplement for those who are vegan or vegetarian, to boost the levels of the important omega fats in the diet.
 The Vegetarian Society, Available: http://www.vegsoc.org [Accessed 13th May 2009]
 Key, T.J. E Fraser, G.E. et al (1999) Mortality in vegetarians and nonvegetarians: detailed findings from a collaborative analysis of 5 prospective studies, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1999 70: 516S–24S.
 Fraser G.E.(2009) Vegetarian diets: what do we know of their effects on common chronic diseases? American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 89: 1607S-1612S.
 Key, T.J. Appleby, P.N. & Rosell, M.S. (2006) Health effects of vegetarian and vegan diets, Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 65: 35-41 Cambridge University Press. See also: Rosell M.S., Lloyd-Wright Z. et al (2005) Long-chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in plasma in British meat-eating, vegetarian, and vegan men. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 82: 327-34.
 James MJ, Ursin VM, Cleland LG. (2003) Metabolism of stearidonic acid in human subjects: comparison with the metabolism of other n-3 fatty acids. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 77: 1140-5.