Achieving optimal essential fatty acid status in vegetarians: current knowledge and practical implications
Although vegetarian diets are generally lower in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol than are nonvegetarian diets, they provide comparable levels of essential fatty acids. Vegetarian, especially vegan, diets are relatively low in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) compared with linoleic acid (LA) and provide little, if any, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Clinical studies suggest that tissue levels of long-chain n-3 fatty acids are depressed in vegetarians, particularly in vegans. n-3 Fatty acids have numerous physiologic benefits, including potent cardioprotective effects. These effects have been demonstrated for ALA as well as EPA and DHA, although the response is generally less for ALA than for EPA and DHA. Conversion of ALA by the body to the more active longer-chain metabolites is inefficient: < 5-10% for EPA and 2-5% for DHA. Thus, total n-3 requirements may be higher for vegetarians than for nonvegetarians, as vegetarians must rely on conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA. Because of the beneficial effects of n-3 fatty acids, it is recommended that vegetarians make dietary changes to optimize n-3 fatty acid status.