10 Plant-Based Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Vegans and Vegetarians
By now, everyone knows that cod liver oil and fatty fish such as salmon are excellent sources of the anti-inflammatory, heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. But what if you're allergic to fish or follow a vegan or vegetarian diet? Are there any good plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids?
Turns out, a bunch of green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, vegetable oils and other foods from the plant kingdom also contain substantial amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. Here's a list of some of the best plant-based sources of omega-3s – from purslane, microalgae oil, and wild berries to hemp seeds, flaxseeds, and chia seeds.
1. Microalgae Oil
Certain microalgae produce high levels of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), the same omega-3 fatty acids that are abundant in fish. It is precisely these two omega-3 fatty acids that give cod liver oil and salmon their much-touted health benefits. DHA, present in significant amounts in human breast milk, is also thought to be responsible for some of the extraordinary nutritional benefits of breast milk.
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the primary type of omega-3 fatty acid in vegetables, can be converted into DHA and EPA by our bodies; however, the conversion process requires more metabolic work, and only a small share of the dietary ALA is converted into EPA and an even smaller amount is converted into DHA. Furthermore, some people have an impaired enzyme that makes their bodies incapable of converting ALA into DHA and EPA. Also stress, old age, certain diseases, smoking, and diets rich in trans fats and saturated fats can further impair the conversion of ALA into EPA and DHA in our bodies.
Considering the inefficiencies in the conversion of ALA into the more potent omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA, microalgae oil may well be the best source of omega-3's for vegans and vegetarians. The high DHA content of some algae has also prompted scientists to investigate the possibilities of using algae in infant formulas in order to make them more similar to breast milk.
Microalgae oil supplements are available in many health food stores. Also Amazon sells microalgae-based omega-3 supplements such as Minami Nutrition's Vegan DHA.
2. Ground Flaxseed and Flaxseed Oil
Flaxseeds, along with walnuts, hemp seeds, and chia seeds, are at the top of the list of plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids. In fact, flaxseeds are such a concentrated source of omega-3's that they are often given to hens to increase the omega-3 and DHA content of their eggs.
To make the omega-3 fatty acids in flaxseeds more accessible to your body's cells, grind them before use. Or, buy a bottle of flaxseed oil (also known as linseed oil), made by extracting the essential fatty acids from whole flaxseeds, and use it in salad dressings mixed with – or instead of – olive oil.
3. Chia Seeds and Chia Oil
Next up on HealWithFood.org's list of the best plant-based sources of omega-3s are chia seeds. Whole chia seeds contain a whopping 18 grams of omega-3 fats per 100 grams, and chia oil contains even more: 55 grams per 100 milliliters (or 1.94 oz per 0.4 US cup). For details, see the Complete Nutritional Profile for Chia Seeds.
4. Hemp Seeds and Hemp Oil
Whole hempseeds are packed with unsaturated fatty acids (about 28% of their net weight). A significant share of these fatty acids are omega-3s. In fact, hempseed oil has been reported to contain omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in the 3:1 ratio that is considered optimal for human health.
But hemp seeds' attractive fatty acid profile is not the only reason why vegans and vegetarians might want start eating these nutty little seeds. Hemp seeds are one of the few plant-based sources of complete protein, a type of high-quality protein that is comparable to that found in meat, fish, eggs, and dairy.
And for those concerned about the Cannabis association, don't worry: hemp seeds won't get you high. Although they come from the same plant as marijuana, the hemp seeds you find in health food stores contain so little psychoactive compounds (THC) that you won't notice any side effects.
5. Walnuts and Walnut Oil
While all nuts can offer health benefits when consumed in moderation, walnuts are the winner when it comes to heart-healthy nuts. A 2006 study reported that walnuts are as effective as olive oil at reducing inflammation and oxidation in the arteries after a fatty meal, and a 2009 meta-analysis found that diets rich in walnuts significantly decreased total and LDL cholesterol levels.
So what makes walnuts such a heart healthy food? You guessed it – walnuts are loaded with omega-3 fatty acids! In addition, walnuts have been reported to have more antioxidant power than any other common nut. For details, read our in-depth article Health Benefits of Walnuts.
6. Cold-Pressed Canola
Canola oil, derived from the seeds of rapeseed cultivars that are low in erucic acid, is one of the most common cooking oils. It is also one of the best vegan sources of omega-3 fatty acids. However, there's been some controversy over the health benefits of canola oil due to the fact that most canola oils you find in grocery stores are highly-processed and may therefore contain significant amounts of harmful trans fats.
To avoid exposure to trans fats, look for certified organic, cold-pressed canola from reputable suppliers, and only use canola in cold dishes such as salads.
7. Sacha Inchi Oil
Flaxseed oil, hemp oil, chia oil, walnut oil and cold-pressed canola may be the most popular choices for those who are looking for a plant-based oil that has a close-to-ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. But if you are willing to try something more exotic, you might want to give sacha inchi oil a try. Sacha inchi is a healthy, omega-3 rich seed that has been used for culinary purposes in South America for thousands of years.
According to a study published in the journal Grasas y Aceites, the oil portion of these nutritious seeds contains about 45% omega-3 fatty acids and only 35% omega-6 fatty acids, making its omega 6 to 3 ratio comparable to that of flaxseed. Sacha inchi oil is available through Amazon here.
While most cultivated green leafy vegetables are very low in fat, purslane contains quite a bit of fat (8.5 mg per 1 gram of wet weight, according to a study published in the journal Biological Research in 2004). What's more, a significant portion of that is omega-3 fat (ALA, to be specific).
In fact, purslane is reported to be the best plant-based source of omega-3 fatty acids among green leafy vegetables. This makes purslane one of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids for vegans and vegetarians who are allergic to nuts and seeds and can therefore not get their omega-3s from sources like flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts.
9. Grape Leaves
Did you know that grape leaves are edible and that they have been used in Greek cooking since ancient times? Or that compared to other edible greens, these heart-shaped leaves are a very good plant-based source of omega-3 fatty acids? And don't worry if you don't happen to own a vineyard filled with lush grapevines, canned grape leaves are available at many grocery stores.
10. Wild Berries
There seems to be something about wild plants when it comes to omega-3's. While wild greens – such as purslane, stamnagathi, and molokia – top the list of omega-3 rich greens, wild berries rank at the top of the fruit and berry category.
A Norwegian study found that, on average, 36% of the fat in three common Nordic berries (blueberry, cloudberry and cowberry) were ALA. This percentage is close to what has been reported for wild green vegetables. Of course, one should keep in mind that berries, just like greens, do not contain as much fat as nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils to start with, so if you need a major dose of omega-3s, it's best to look for foods with a higher fat content.
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