Omega-3 fatty acids are a vital building block for good health.
Since the human body can’t naturally produce these valuable polyunsaturated fatty acids on its own, it relies on foods that are rich in omega-3s to reap some of the many health benefits, such as:
- Improved heart health and reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases and stroke
- Decreased inflammation and reduced joint pain and stiffness
- Better brain function, memory, and cognitive ability
- Stronger bones and reduced risk of osteoporosis
- Protection from certain cancers and cancer cell growth
Many plants contain high levels of one form of omega-3s known as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). The body then uses ALA to create two other omega-3s, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). All three work together to promote better heart health, reduced risk of stroke, and even better sleep quality.
A balanced, plant-based diet not only supplies the necessary levels of omega-3s, but comes with the double bonus of high fiber content that packs an extra punch against bad cholesterol, inflammation, and other diseases and health issues.
While plants aren’t always given the credit they are due when it comes to ALA and other omega-3s, there are plenty of plant-based seeds, nuts, vegetables, and oils that boast big health benefits.
While flax has gained most of its popularity only in the last few years, archaeologists have dated its first known consumption back to 9,000 BC. In later centuries, philosophers like Hippocrates sang its praises as a treatment for abdominal pain and a source of good health.
Sourced from a blue flowering plant, flax and flaxseed contain an especially high concentration of ALA, which the body then converts to EPA and DHA. It also boasts high quantities of fiber, which may explain Hippocrates’s endorsement of its powers as a digestive aid.
In regard to flaxseed calories, 42% of flaxseed calories come from fat, with an impressive 73 percent attributed to polyunsaturated fat in the form of ALA. It’s one of the most abundant known sources of plant-based ALA. It is praised for its heart-healthy benefits, including the ability to reduce blood pressure, prevent instances of clot formation, lower triglyceride levels, decrease inflammation, and more.
Flaxseed is just as versatile as it is powerful. While many health food stores sell flaxseed in bulk, there are a variety of other ways to use it to experience its many benefits. The seeds themselves, either whole or ground into a fine powder, add a rich and nutty flavor to baked goods, smoothies, and salads.
Flaxseed oil, while lacking the fiber of the seeds, is an excellent source of ALA and is an easy, tasty addition to marinades, dressings, and smoothies. Many pre-packaged foods and mixes also contain flax as an added ingredient and are a simple way to test the waters when it comes to adding flax to your diet.
Used long ago by the Aztecs as a primary source of energy, chia is a tiny seed with incredible health benefits. Much like flax, chia seeds are full of fiber and protein, along with plenty of minerals and antioxidants. And with nearly 24 grams of heart-healthy, polyunsaturated fat per 100 grams of seeds, chia is also a great source of ALA. In fact, chia seeds are the best-known source of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids—even beating out flax seeds.
With such high concentrations of ALA, it’s no wonder that these mighty little seeds have been proven to improve digestive health and lower the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Chia seeds require no processing before they can be consumed, and they make a rich and satisfying addition to many foods. They can even be substituted for whole grains in bread and other baked goods. The seeds also absorb an astonishing amount of water, and when soaked, turn to a thick gel that is perfect for delicious puddings and a simple egg substitute for recipes and sauces.
Love them or hate them, brussels sprouts are an undeniably rich source of omega-3 fatty acids. Part of the cruciferous vegetable family, brussels sprouts are also chock full of fiber and vitamins K and C.
Just half a cup of raw brussels sprouts contains 44 milligrams of ALA, but the real power comes from cooking the vegetable, which bumps the omega-3 fatty acid content up to 135 milligrams per each half-cup serving.
As is common with many plant-based sources of omega-3s, brussels sprouts contain other minerals and antioxidants that work hand-in-hand with ALA to supercharge health benefits. One such antioxidant, kaempferol, reduces inflammation, protects heart health, and may even reduce the growth and spread of certain cancer cells.
Despite their unfortunate reputation as the bane of many a child’s dinner plate, brussels sprouts can be cooked in a variety of delicious ways to serve as a side dish that will enhance the flavor of any meal.
It’s no secret that nuts are an important staple of healthy, plant-based diets. Packed with healthy fat and ALA, walnuts have been linked to improved cognitive function and memory. Just one ounce of walnuts fills well over an entire day’s recommended intake of ALA, at an impressive 2,542 milligrams of ALA per ounce.
Nuts are one of the most easily-consumable and accessible sources of plant-based omega-3s. Try adding walnuts to your morning cereal or bowl of oatmeal. Throw a handful into salads and vegetable dishes for an extra crunch. They are just as healthful raw as they are baked or cooked and make an easy, satisfying snack that will keep hunger at bay while they work hard to protect your heart.
Each ounce of hemp seed boasts an incredible 6,000 milligrams of ALA. The high oil content of the seeds that contributes omega-3s has been proven to prevent clot formation and aid the heart in recovery after a cardiovascular event.
In addition to ALA, hemp seeds are high in magnesium, iron, zinc, and protein, which all work together with omega-3s to reduce inflammation and the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Hemp seeds also contain high amounts of an amino acid known as arginine, which produces the gas molecule nitric oxide. It causes blood vessels to dilate and relax, helping lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Coupled with high anti-inflammatory properties of ALA, hemp seeds are an especially powerful heart-helping food.
These tiny, nutritious seeds (which are actually a nut called “hemp hearts”) are just as versatile as their distant cousins, chia and flax. Sprinkle hemp seeds into cereal or mix them into a smoothie for a protein-packed crunch. You can also try baking them into homemade granola bars and other baked goods for added nutrition and an extra dose of ALA.
Hemp seed oil, made from pressed hemp seeds, is another excellent source of concentrated omega-3 fatty acids that you can easily add to drinks and smoothies.
Low in calories and packed with protein, wild rice has almost 500 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids in every cup. Because of its high magnesium content in combination with ALA, wild rice is another important food in the prevention of heart disease.
A staple in many nutritious plant-based recipes, wild rice has a more savory, satisfying quality than its white rice counterpart and is richer in antioxidants like methanol extract. One study found that wild rice has up to ten times the antioxidant content of white rice, making it a powerhouse in fighting free radicals.
While many people may not think of tofu as an obvious source of omega-3s, it does contain about half a gram of ALA per one hundred gram serving. Many brands of tofu also contain added DHA that works in conjunction with ALA to promote better heart health.
Studies show that consumption of whole soy food like tofu has been linked to improved blood fat levels and lower LDL cholesterol levels. Besides its respectable fatty acid content, most tofu is gluten-free and an excellent source of protein and calcium.
Algal oil is one of the unsung heroes of the omega-3 world. Derived from sea algae, it is one of the few plant-based food sources that contains both EPA and DHA. In even better news, research has shown that the specific type of DHA contained in algal oil is especially beneficial in promoting good heart health and improved memory.
Algal oil is most easily consumed in soft gel form and can be found at most health food stores and pharmacies. Look for a supplement that contains 300-900 milligrams of combined DHA and EPA for the maximum benefit. For those who prefer a liquid to swallowing capsules, concentrated algal oil can easily be added to drinks or smoothies for a quick boost of healthy fats.
This flavorful oil, especially popular in Korean cuisine, is derived from the lanky perilla plant that grows in China, Japan, India, and Korea. In North America, varietals of the perilla plant are more commonly known as purple mint, Chinese basil, and wild coleus. The oil is pressed from the roasted seeds of the plant and offers a savory, nutty taste.
With a fatty acid content of over 50 percent, perilla oil has a high concentration of ALA. Each tablespoon contains an impressive 9,000 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids. In one study where soybean oil was replaced with perilla oil, ALA levels nearly doubled in the study’s elderly participants. Over the course of the study, consumption of perilla oil also led to increased levels of EPA and DHA blood levels.
Use perilla oil in dressings and other foods to enhance flavor, rather than as a cooking oil. Because of its high concentration of polyunsaturated fat, it may oxidize with heat to form free radicals. For those who don’t enjoy the taste or don’t wish to add it to recipes, perilla oil is also available in capsule form.
Many of the nuts and seeds mentioned above double as valuable bases for plant-based milk. Hemp milk makes an excellent substitute for conventional almond milk and other nut milks to add a healthy dose of omega-3s to breakfast cereal, coffee, and in baked goods and other recipes.
Flax is another great option for a high ALA plant-based milk and contains high levels of calcium, vitamin D, and protein. Look for plant-based milk that is fortified with extra DHA to supercharge the health benefits in tandem with ALA.
From a decreased risk of dementia and other cognitive impairment, as well as reduced inflammation, lower blood triglycerides, and a host of other health benefits, it’s clear that plant-based omega-3 fatty acids have plenty to offer.
Whether it’s through the whole foods or oils in this list, a plant-based supplement, or a combination of both, there are countless ways to easily add ALA, DHA, and EPA to your diet to start experiencing all of the different ways it can contribute to your good health.