Whether plant-based or omnivorous, omega-3 fatty acids are an essential part of any healthy diet. But what exactly are they? And why are they so important?
What are omega-3 fatty acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids – essential fats that the body needs to survive. “Omega-3 fatty acids are important for cardiovascular health and brain health, among other things.” Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN announced LIVEKINDLY in an email. “Adequate nutrition is important to maintain good body function.”
There are three important omega-3 fatty acids in total. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) – which are usually found in marine oils – and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is often found in vegetable oils.
According to Harvard TH Chan ScHool of public health, omega-3 fatty acids are “an integral part of the cell membranes in the whole body and influences the function of the cell receptors in these membranes. “ The fatty acids make hormones that regulate various body functions, including blood clotting and the contraction and relaxation of arterial walls. They are also responsible for binding to cell receptors that regulate genetic function.
The body is unable to produce its own omega-3 fatty acids. However, people can get them through their diet. While EPA and DHA are relatively hard to find in plant sources, ALA is the most common fatty acid found in plant foods.
“The omega-3 fatty acid ALA is essential – we have to take it in with our food because our body cannot build it up.” Palmer explains. “Our body is able to convert small amounts of them into the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA.”
How do omega-3 fatty acids affect health?
Omega-3 fatty acids offer a number of health benefits. According to Harvard, you can help prevent heart disease and stroke, and control conditions such as lupus, eczema, and rheumatoid arthritis.
According to a Meta-analysis 2016, good omega-3 levels have been linked to an almost ten percent reduced risk of fatal heart attacks. Studies also suggest that omega-3 fatty acids can effectively treat and reduce inflammation. The Norwegian University of Science and Technology found that the fatty acids can reduce inflammation, which can aid people with Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, meningitis, and jaundice.
“Omega-3 fatty acids are supposed to reduce inflammation in the body” Sarah Rafat, RD, a senior nutritionist at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, said in a statement. “And a variety of cancers has been linked to chronic inflammation. “
A 2018 study– published in the Journal of Mamma Gland Biology and Neoplasia – supports this. Researchers suspect that fatty acids can prevent breast cancer cells from forming and spreading.
Omega-3 fatty acids can even be beneficial for eye, brain, and mental health. DHA is an important structural part of the neuronal membranes. This makes it valuable to the central nervous system, so research from Swallowest Court Hospital in Sheffield, UK. DHA also makes up 60 percent of the retina of the eye. For example, vision problems can occur due to low DHA levels.
Studies also show that low levels of DHA in the blood could be linked to smaller brain size. Dr. Scott McGinnis, Assistant Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, was a researcher on omega-3 fatty acids and brain health for Harvard Health Publishing. “There is evidence that they can also have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.” he wrote for the site. “That means they could promote healthier brain cells and less brain deterioration.”
Can you get enough omega-3 fatty acids with a vegan diet?
You don’t have to consume animal products to get omega-3 fatty acids. Board certified clinical and integrative nutritionist Sunny Brigham tells LIVEKINDLY that it is possible to get enough omega-3s with a plant-based diet. “The only worry some have is that the body will have to work hard to convert ALA to the usable form of EPA and DHA.” She explains. “If you consume processed foods or have poor general health, I would recommend a dietary supplement like algae oil that has already converted ALA.”
Brigham continues: “But if you’re overall a healthy person with no digestive problems, add a few walnuts to your morning oats and you’re done!”
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) is a non-profit research and advocacy organization that advocates a plant-based diet. It states that a plant-based diet can be most effective at getting enough omega-3 fatty acids. “Omega-3s are important for the normal function of all tissues in the body, but they are best obtained through a plant-based diet rather than fish oil supplements.” on the organization’s website.
The PCRM adds that while most plants are relatively low in fat, the fats they contain are the “perfect amount” for ALA to be converted to EPA and DHA.
So which plant foods are rich in omega-3 fatty acids?
9 best vegan omega-3 food sources
According to the National Institute of Health (NIH) walnuts contain more omega-3 fatty acids than salmon, ounce for ounce.
“The omega-3 fatty acid in walnuts is in a different form than in salmon.” Dr. Greg Maguire, founder of BioRegenerative Sciences, told LIVEKINDLY in an email. But when people eat omega-3 fatty acids in the form of ALA, like salmon, they can convert them to EPA and DHA too. You don’t need salmon to convert it for yourself. “
The NIH recommends consuming 0.5 and 1.6 g of ALA daily. One ounce of dried English walnuts provides 2.6 grams of ALA. Black walnuts provide 0.6 grams, explained Dr. Maguire.
Another great source of the fatty acids: chia seeds. One tablespoon provides about 1.6 grams of ALA – 162 percent of your daily requirement. Chia seeds are also full of fiber and protein.
Sprinkle them on a smoothie, yogurt, or granola. Or get creative in the kitchen by spicing it up vegan chia seed pudding parfait.
A small serving of flaxseed can meet the daily need for omega-3 fatty acids. “Flaxseed oil is the most concentrated natural source of ALA”, explained Dr. Maguire. One tablespoon of flaxseed oil contains 7.3 grams of ALA – that’s more than four times what the average adult male needs per day.
Milled or whole flaxseeds do not contain as much ALA as oil. But the seed is still the best choice as it’s also a good source of fiber and phytochemicals, said Dr. Maguire. The body can also absorb the nutrients from ground flaxseed more easily.
Half a cup of Brussels sprouts contains 135 mg of ALA. In addition to fatty acids, vegetables are also a good source of vitamins C and K.
Try adding a side dish of Brussels sprouts to your next homemade meal, or make them the star of the show by whipping up a vegan kung pao chicken. Just swap the chicken for Brussels sprouts to make this Chinese pan rich in omega-3s and flavor.
Palmer explains that adding seaweed supplements to your diet is a great way to get omega-3 fatty acids. “Fish get their omega-3 fatty acids from algae in the food chain. It’s a good idea to include these supplements in your lifestyle as well, ”she says.
Vegan Omega-3 from Zenwise Health – available online – contains Nannochloropsis sp. Marine algae that contain high levels of EPA and DHA. The supplement can support joint, immune, skin, brain, and cardiovascular health.
This low-calorie, high-protein weed contains nearly 500 mg of omega-3s per cup. It’s also high in B vitamins, zinc, magnesium, and fiber.
For a hearty dish, beat this plant-based one recipe, which contains mini pumpkins stuffed with wild rice. It’s low in fat and combines savory and sweet with shiitake mushrooms for a meaty bite.
Vegetable oils – like avocado oil, flaxseed oil, and rapeseed oil – provide good amounts of omega-3s. R.rough 70 percent Avocado oil is oleic acid, a heart-healthy, monounsaturated omega-9 fatty acid. Add it to a salad for a nutritious kick with every bite.
For a good source of ALA, opt for tofu. One hundred grams of firm tofu offers 0.4 grams by ALA. You can also buy tofu with DHA added, e.g. Extra firm tofu from House Foods. It’s vegan, gluten-free, and a good source of protein and calcium.
Vegan milk fortified with DHA is readily available. Hemp, which contains naturally occurring omega-3 fats, is a great option. Try hemp milk in muesli, smoothies or in your morning cup of coffee.
Since flax also contains omega-3 fatty acids, flax milk is a great option for those looking to increase their fatty acid levels. Good karma low-calorie flax milk contains 1200 mg omega-3 fatty acids as well as calcium, vitamin D and protein.
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