While all of the omegas offer health benefits, as well as drawbacks, omega-3 fatty acids have received most of the attention lately.
Why are omega-3 fatty acids important?
Studies have illuminated an incredibly important connection between omega-3 fatty acids and overall health, specifically their effects on reducing chronic inflammation. A variety of “clinical trials have also shown beneficial anti-inflammatory effects in patients taking omega-3 supplements.”
With that said, there are a few different forms of omega-3 fatty acids and only one of them can be sourced fully from plant-based foods called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). The ALA form of omega-3 fatty acids doesn’t have that same powerful inflammation-alleviating effect as the other two forms.
Of course, plant-based eaters are not at a loss!
Let’s take a closer look at omega-3 fatty acids, their relationship to inflammation, and how to go about getting adequate amounts in a plant-based diet.
What are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are part of an entire “family of essential fatty acids that play important roles in your body.” They are labeled essential due to the fact that your body can’t necessarily produce them, therefore you have to get Omega-3s from your diet.
I say “necessarily” because there’s a bit of a caveat to that based on the type of omega-3 fatty acid you’re talking about.
Yep, as I mention in most of my posts it’s never simple, there’s another layer to the omega-3 puzzle!
If you break down omega-3 fatty acids further, you’ll discover three different types: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). While ALA is a straight forward “essential fatty acid, meaning that your body can’t make it,” certain forms of this omega-3 fatty acid can actually be converted by your body into “EPA and then to DHA, but only in very small amounts.”
This is where a lot of misinformation gets thrown around.
Even though your body is able to convert ALA into the other two forms of omega-3 fatty acids, it’s not quite enough to get adequate levels. Therefore, in order to get EPA and DHA in appropriate amounts, its recommended to turn to either food sources of dietary supplement form depending on your diet.
Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA)
When you hear about obtaining omega-3 fatty acids from food, they’re referring to alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). This is the “most common omega-3 fatty acid in your diet” and is used by your body for energy. As mentioned, ALA is also “converted into the biologically active forms of … EPA and DHA.”
Alpha-linolenic acid is found in plant-based foods such as “flax seeds, flaxseed oil, canola oil, chia seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds, and soybeans.”
Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) may be the most difficult form of omega-3 fatty acid for plant-based eaters to find as it’s “found in animal products, such as fatty fish and fish oil.” With that said, there are vegan-based supplements that source EPA from microalgae, which is the only plant-based source of this form of omega-3 fatty acids.
While EPA has a variety of roles in the body, part of it is “converted into Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA),” which happens to be the most important of the omega-3 fatty acids.
Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)
Why is docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) the most important of the omega-3 fatty acids? Turns out that this form is a “key structural component of your brain, the retina of your eyes, and numerous other body parts.” Similarly to EPA, DHA is found in animal products such as “fatty fish and fish oil … as well as … meat, eggs, and dairy from grass-fed animals.”
Yet, much like EPA, DHA can be sourced from microalgae supplements.
Health Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Lots of attention has been shown on omega-3 fatty acids lately due to the fact that recent research has illuminated a wide variety of impressive health benefits that come along with getting the appropriate amounts of this nutrient.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to reduced depression, anxiety, and childhood specific-ADHD symptoms, better eye health, increased brain health during pregnancy and better brain function in early life, improved risk factors for heart disease, reduced metabolic syndrome symptoms, aids with autoimmune diseases, fights cancer, reduces the risk of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, improves bone and joint health, may improve sleep, and has been shown to help fight age-related mental decline and cognitive issues.
On top of that, omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to reduced chronic inflammation, which is a bodily state that has been linked to a slew of serious health conditions and diseases. It’s this link to inflammation that has many researchers curious as to the lengths that omega-3 fatty acids can be used as an agent for better overall health!
Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Inflammation
Fighting chronic bodily inflammation is becoming a trend in the health world.
And for good reason!
While inflammation is a natural process where your body fights “against things that harm it, such as infections, injuries, and toxins, in an attempt to heal itself,” chronic inflammation takes place “when this response lingers, leaving your body in a constant state of alert.” Recent research has found that “chronic inflammation may have a negative impact on your tissues and organs” and may even “play a role in a range of conditions, from cancer to asthma.”
While a plant-based diet, in general, helps to fight chronic inflammation via antioxidants, anti-inflammatory compounds, and a variety of vitamins and minerals, studies have found that omega-3 fatty acids may be a key nutrient in the battle!
Omega-3 fatty acids may “reduce the production of molecules and substances linked to inflammation, such as inflammatory eicosanoids and cytokines.” Multiple studies have looked at the reaction between omega-3 fatty acid consumption and chronic inflammation, finding a consistent “connection between higher omega-3 intake and reduced inflammation.”
This has been found true in a variety of observational studies such as this Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Inflammation and Autoimmune Diseases study performed at The Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health in Washington, DC, this analysis Effect of Marine-Derived n-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids on C-reactive Protein, Interleukin 6 and Tumor Necrosis Factor co-performed at the Department of Food Science and Nutrition and the APCNS Centre of Nutrition and Food Safety in Hangzhou, China, and this randomized controlled trial Omega-3 Supplementation Lowers Inflammation and Anxiety in Medical Students performed at the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research, Ohio State University College of Medicine in Ohio.
Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation
Nested Naturals Vegan Omega-3/Amazon.com
One of the benefits of switching to a plant-based diet is that it naturally helps reduce inflammation. Plant-based foods are loaded with antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and anti-inflammatory compounds, which are all key dietary ingredients that fight chronic inflammation. While other factors play a huge role — such as consuming processed foods and alcohol, drug use, and your level of physical activity and exercise — a simple switch to a primarily plant-based diet can do a world of good for reducing bodily inflammation.
Of course, there are always two sides to every coin.
For instance, when switching to a plant-based diet it’s important to make sure you’re getting all the necessary nutrients from those lovely plants. There are a few nutrients that are a bit more difficult to source from plants, including the EPA and DHA forms of omega-3 fatty acids.
Here’s where a supplement can help you out!
With that said, before you dive in and start taking a new supplement, make sure to talk it over with your doctor, nutritionist, or dietitian! Every human body is different, therefore take a personalized approach by investing in professionals to help you look at your current levels.
Omega-3 to Omega-6 Ratio
One of the most common reasons to take an omega-3 fatty acid supplement is to make sure you’re getting the appropriate omega-3 to omega-6 ratio.
Omega-6 includes polyunsaturated fatty acids, also called PUFAs. This form of omega-6 fatty acid has been linked to a wide variety of health issues including cardiovascular disease, inflammation-stimulated diseases (cancer, arthritis, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, to mention a few), increase risk of strokes and obesity, and even some psychiatric disorders. While omega-6 is important for a healthy diet, too much omega-6 in conjunction with too little omega-3 is obviously very damaging.
Currently, it’s been estimated that the “Westernised diet is said to be around a 15 to 1 or 16 to 1 ratio,” which means “you might be getting only 7 [percent] of the omega 3 you should be.”
Implementing a low processed product, high plant-based food diet is one way of reducing omega-6, yet incorporating an omega-3 fatty acid supplement is yet another way to make sure you’re getting more of that wonderful omega-3!
Reliable Source of DHA and EPA
There is a slew of health benefits that have been linked to the specific DHA and EPA forms of omega-3 fatty acids including increased cognitive function, healthier eyes, and even better visual acuity! On top of that, EPA has been found to actually “inhibit the enzyme delta-5-desaturase (D5D) which is responsible for the production of the omega 6 fatty acid known as arachidonic acid (AA).” This means that the more EPA you consume, “the less inflammation you may have from excess omega 6.”
This also means you don’t have to rely on the super complicated and slow process of the natural bodily conversation of ALA to DHA and EPA. While the body will do the work for you, it never hurts to give your body a helping hand every once in a while!
Making Sure You’re Getting Enough
While there are a few studies that show consuming enough ALA from plant-based sources will do the trick of boosting DHA and EPA in the blood, the current government standards are actually hard to meet! Right now the US Department of Health and Human Services says we should be getting around 250 mg of EPA and DHA per day.
For those that are unable to meet that high quantity, having an omega-3 fatty acid supplement handy is a great way to easily make sure you’re body is taken care of!
Plant-Based Sources of ALA Omega-3 Fatty Acids
I’ve mentioned that getting adequate, balanced doses of all three omega-3 fatty acids — ALA, EPA, and DHA — is difficult on a plant-based diet, and therefore integrating a trustworthy supplement may be the best bet for strict plant-based eaters. With that said, there are a few plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids that also have a slew of other health benefits!
1. Flaxseeds and Flaxseed Oil
Flaxseeds are one of the most popular sources of both omega-3 fatty acids and dietary fiber for plant-based eaters! These teeny seeds pack a whopping punch of nutrition with one ounce (28 grams) offering 5 grams of protein, 7 grams of dietary fiber, and 6388 mg of omega-3 fatty acids. This is not to mention the levels of vitamins and minerals such as folate, choline, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, and potassium.
Along with flaxseeds, flaxseed oil is another great source of omega-3 fatty acids!
In fact, flaxseed oil is a more potent and rich extraction which means there are even more omega-3 fatty acids per serving. For instance, in the same serving size, one ounce (28 grams), you’ll get a 14,925 mg dose of omega-3 fatty acids. With that said, due to the fact that the product has been processed, flaxseed oil offers less of the other nutrients.
Try a few of these flaxseed recipes: Summer Stone Fruit Waffles, Wholegrain Flaxseed and Sesame Crackers, Superfood Biscotti, or this Lentil Loaf with Tomato Glaze.
2. Chia Seeds
Chia seeds are not only a staple in a plant-based kitchen, but they’re also a great source of omega-3 fatty acids!
When introduced to a liquid, these minuscule seeds puff up with a gelatinous coating making them perfect for plant-based pudding or as an egg-binder-substitute in a variety of baking recipes. A one-ounce serving (28 grams) offers 4915 mg of omega-3 fatty acids along with a whopping 10 grams of dietary fiber, 4 grams of protein, and moderate doses of calcium, phosphorous, and potassium.
Try a few of these chia seed recipes: Mixed Berry and Tahini Chia Pudding, Peach Poppyseed Overnight Oatmeal, Blueberry Grape Chia Seed Refrigerator Jam, or these Glow Buns Energy Balls.
Nuts, in general, are one of the best sources of healthy fat, dietary fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals, yet when it comes to getting your daily dose of those omega-3 fatty acids, you’ll want to focus on walnuts. One cup of chopped walnuts offers 10,623mg of omega-3 fatty acids.
Of course, it’s not just about the omega 3s!
Alongside those fatty acids, you’re also getting a hardy dose of protein (17.8 g), dietary fiber (7.8 g), monounsaturated fat (10.5g), polyunsaturated fat (55.2g), and saturated fat (7.2g), plus a slew of vitamins and minerals — primarily vitamin A, choline, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, and potassium.
Try a few of these walnut based recipes: Chinese Walnut Cookies (also has chia seeds!), Mushroom & Nut Burgers, Creamy Walnut White Sauce Pasta, Fudge Walnut Brownies, or this Potato Salad With Caramelized Onions and Walnuts.
4. Hemp Seeds
Another great seed to include in your omega-3 fatty acid focused plant-based diet is hemp seed! These teeny seeds are rich in flavor and can be easily added to smoothies, salads, or sprinkled on top of a central dish for an extra oompf of nutrients! An ounce (28 grams) of hemp seeds offers a whopping 6,000 mg of omega-3 fatty acids. Yet, hemp seeds are also a great source of protein, healthy fat, vitamin E, and minerals, — manganese, magnesium, phosphorous, zinc, and iron.
Try a few of these hemp seed-based recipes: Crunchy Hemp Coconut Fruit Salad, Vegan Lemon Blueberry Superfood Granola, Kale Walnut Pesto Pasta (also has walnuts!), or this Cherry Hemp Oat Bars.
While soybeans are the most plentiful source of omega-3 fatty acids, they do contain a modest amount. For one cup of cooked soybeans, you get around 637 mg of omega-3 fatty acids. What soybeans may lack in omega-3 fatty acids they provide elsewhere. That same cup of cooked soybeans offers over 22 grams of protein, over 7 grams of dietary fiber, and vitamins, — A, C, and folate — and minerals — calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, and potassium.
Try a few of these soybean-based recipes: Homemade Soy Milk, Spicy Coconut Plantain Soy Bean Curry, or this Soybean Noodles in Peanut Butter Spinach Sauce.
Knowing how important Omega-3 fatty acids are, it’s probably a good idea to learn a bit more about getting these nutrients in your diet! Plus, what about the other omega fatty acids? Furthermore, what about healthy fat all-around in a well-balanced plant-based diet? Here are a few more resources to get you started!
Learn How to Cook Plant-Based Meals at Home!
Wholegrain Flaxseed and Sesame Crackers/One Green Planet
Reducing your meat intake and eating more plant-based foods is known to help with chronic inflammation, heart health, mental wellbeing, fitness goals, nutritional needs, allergies, gut health and more! Dairy consumption also has been linked many health problems, including acne, hormonal imbalance, cancer, prostate cancer and has many side effects.
For those of you interested in eating more plant-based, we highly recommend downloading the Food Monster App — with over 15,000 delicious recipes it is the largest plant-based recipe resource to help reduce your environmental footprint, save animals and get healthy! And, while you are at it, we encourage you to also learn about the environmental and health benefits of a plant-based diet.
Here are some great resources to get you started:
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