My initial interest in hemp seeds was around trying to understand the claim that hemp seeds provided the best ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids - for some reason it sounded important that I try to understand this. To be honest, I only had a very foggy what fatty acids were and or indeed what the difference was between saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats were. A lot of what I came across tended to offer a chemical or molecular understanding of these concepts which wasn't really what I was looking for (so you wont find too much of that below).
For me to understand, I really had to start with ...............
What are fats?
Fat is one of the three main macronutrients, along with carbohydrate and protein. We need fat to give us energy, keep us warm, build cells, protect organics, help absorb vitamins from food and produce hormones to keep our bodies function properly. So that all sounds rather important.
Some fats though, in the wrong amounts or ratios, contribute to obesity, heart disease and diabetes among other aliments. The trick is to eat in the right ratios and to be aware of the different types of fats and make the best decision based on this information for you. Below is a very brief summary of different types of fat.
(Disclaimer: the facts on fats is quite complex and any information below is intended as only a general guide. For specific advice, please consult a health professional).
Types of Fats
In simplest terms, there are 2 types of fats – saturated and unsaturated fats.
Saturated fats include the fats you can see on meat and chicken, from dairy products and from some plant foods like palm and coconut oil. It can be found in processed foods like biscuits, pastries and takeaway foods that have used ingredients like butter, palm oil (often simply called vegetable oil), cheese and meat.
In the past, saturated fats have been associated with an increased risk of heart disease but this link is not so clear now. One reason is that the term “saturated fats” is actually an umbrella term for a bunch of fatty acids that all affect our health is different ways. Nonetheless it is recommended that an individual’s intake of saturated fats is limited to around 7% of overall calorific intake.
Unsaturated fats: There are two main types:
Monounsaturated fats – while it is disputed that saturated fats are associated with an increased risk of heart disease, it does seem to be commonly accepted that monounsaturated fats improve overall cholestrol levels, reduce the risk of heart disease and may also help control insulin levels and blood sugar levels. Sources include avocados, almonds, cashews and peanuts and cooking oils made from plants or seeds like canola, olive, peanut, soybean, rice bran, sesame and sunflower oils.
Polyunsaturated fats – omega-3 and omega-6 are the 2 most important polyunsaturated fats. They are called essential fatty acids as they cannot be produced by the body but are required for body functions like muscle movement and blood clotting.
Omega-3 fats - 3 common types :
(i) Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) – this acid's main function is to produce chemicals called eicosanoids, which help reduce inflammation and is said to help with depression.
(ii) Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) - makes up about 8% of brain weight and is extremely important for normal brain development and function
(iii) Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) - mainly used by the body for energy
Omega-6 fats are primarily used for energy and the most common omega-6 fat is linoleic acid, which can be converted into longer omega-6 fats such as arachidonic acid (ARA). Like EPA, ARA is used to produce eicosanoids. However, the eicosanoids produced by ARA are more pro-inflammatory. Pro-inflammatory eicosanoids are important chemicals in the immune system. However, when too many of them are produced, they can increase inflammation and inflammatory disease.
Although omega-6 fats are essential, research suggests the modern Western diet contains far more omega-6 fatty acids than necessary. The recommended ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the diet is 4:1 or less. Research suggests, however, that the modern Western diet has a ratio of between 10:1 and 50:1, mainly because omega-6 fats are found in large amounts in refined vegetable oils and also in many nuts and seeds.
So what about Hemp seeds?
It is true that Hemp seeds have the so-called ideal ratio of 4:1 Omega-6:Omega-3 fatty acids. They also have small amounts of a couple of other essential fatty acids GLA and SDA which are said to help balance hormones, improve the health of our skin, hair and nails as well as reduce inflammation. However, the Omega-3 fatty acid is of the ALA form and the health benefits of Omega-3 stem primarily from EPA and DHA (which are what fish oil contains). Our bodies can convert ALA into EPA and DHA but the conversion rate is only between 7% and 30% depending on the individual. For example, a diet high in Omega-6 will have a lesser ability to convert ALA to EPA/DHA.
Hemp seeds though, are a great source of protein. Being a complete protein (ie containing all the essential amino acids) they provide (gram for gram) similar protein as beef and lamb (30g of hemp seeds provide about 11grams of usable protein). They also contain other beneficial nutrients – according to one source, 3 tablespoons of Hemps seeds contains the flowing:
Calories: 174 calories, Fat: 13.5 grams, Protein: 11grams, Carbohydrates: 2 grams, Fibre: 2 grams, Iron: 16% DV, Vitamin E: 21% DV, Phosphorous: 48% DV, Magnesium: 48% DV, Zinc: 23% DV.
So overall Hemp seeds are a nutrient dense source of food and would seem to be a beneficially and tasty addition to our diets. That said, depending on your diet, hemp seeds may not be the best alternative to fish based sources of beneficial Omega-3 fatty acids. If you are interested in non-animal sources of Omega-3 it would be best to talk to a nutritionist or other health professional and ask about flaxseed oil as well as algae based supplements.
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Thanks for reading