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Am J Clin Nutr. 1999 Sep;70(3 Suppl):555S-559S.

Essential fatty acid requirements of vegetarians in pregnancy, lactation, and infancy.

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Nutrition, Food and Health Research Centre, King's College London, United Kingdom.


Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFAs) derived from linoleic (18:2n-6) and alpha-linolenic (18:3n-3) acids are required for the normal development of the retina and central nervous system, but the extent to which they can be synthesized from the parent fatty acids is debated. Consuming LCPUFAs markedly increases their proportions in tissue lipids compared with their parent fatty acids. Thus, it has been argued that LCPUFAs must be supplied in the diet. LCPUFAs are generally absent from plant foods, thus it is important find out how essential fatty acid requirements are met by vegetarians. A developing fetus obtains LCPUFAs via selective uptake from its mother's plasma and LCPUFAs are present in the breast milk of vegetarians. There is no evidence that the capacity to synthesize LCPUFAs is limited in vegetarians. However, there are greater proportions of n-6 LCPUFAs and lower proportions of n-3 LCPUFAs in vegetarians compared with omnivores. This difference is probably a consequence of the selection of foods by vegetarians with high amounts of linoleic acid. Although lower concentrations of docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3; DHA) have been observed in blood and artery phospholipids of infants of vegetarians, it is uncertain whether their brain lipids contain lower proportions of DHA than do those of infants of omnivores. On the basis of experiments in primates that showed altered visual function with a high ratio of linoleic acid to alpha-linolenic acid, it would be prudent to recommend diets with a ratio between 4:1 and 10:1 in vegetarians and that excessive intakes of linoleic acid be avoided.

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