When the subject of healthy Omega 3 Fats come up, most people immediately think of fish oil supplement. Did you know that there are great whole food and plant-based sources of this important nutrient?
Our body can manufacture most of the fats it needs from other sources. But that isn’t the case with Omega-3 fats. They are essential fats, meaning the body cannot produce them from scratch, so they have to be sourced from food.
Why are Omega-3 fats vital? Omega-3 fats are an important part of the cell membranes and they influence the function of the cell receptors. They are necessary for the production of hormones that regulate the movement of arterial walls, blood clotting, and inflammation. They also bind to cell receptors that influence genetic functions.
Omega-3 fats have been shown to help prevent stroke and heart disease, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and eczema, and may even play a role in preventing cancer and other conditions[i].
Omega-3 fatty acids are a family of polyunsaturated fats, and there are three types of Omega-3s[ii].
- ALA (Alpha-linolenic acid). This is the most common among the three. It is usually found in plant foods and has to be converted to EPA or DHA to be utilized by the body.
- EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid). It is important in the formation of signaling molecules known as eicosanoids. EPA is known to reduce the symptoms of depression and has anti-inflammatory properties.
- DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid). This Omega-3 is a vital component of the skin and the eye’s retina.
Best Sources of Omega-3 Fats
1. Flax Seeds
Of all the superfood seeds, flax and chia seeds are known as concentrated sources of Omega-3 fatty acids. Flaxseed is the leading source of plant-based Omega-3 fatty acid, with one ounce of flaxseed containing more than 6,000mg of ALA.
Flax seeds contain both insoluble and soluble fiber. They are also one of the best sources of lignans – a type of antioxidant that has been associated with a reduction of menopausal symptoms, reducing cholesterol, and improving skin and hair.
2.Fatty fish and seafood
As mentioned above our body can convert ALA from plants into EPA and DHA. However, there has been some debate over whether most people can convert enough for optimal health. This is the reason why many nutrition experts highly recommend eating fish and seafood several times a week because most of them are naturally rich in EPA and DHA.
The American Heart Association suggests consuming fish, particularly fatty fish, at least two times a week. Fatty fish such as mackerel, salmon, lake trout, sardines, herring, and albacore tuna are naturally high in Omega-3 fats[iii]. Other seafood rich in Omega-3 fats include oysters, mussels, clams, crab, and squids.
Another rich source of Omega-3 is the fish roe (eggs), specifically the roe of salmon, hake, and lumpsucker[iv]. In a study by the University of Almeria, researchers analyzed the roe or eggs of 15 marine animals and discovered that all have high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids that are essential to the body. More than 30 percent of the Omega-3s present in the roe was DHA and EPA.
An ounce of black walnuts contains 760mg of ALA. In a study published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers at Loma Linda University, California found that the Omega-3 in walnuts provide different heart-health benefits than the Omega-3 in fish.
The result of the study revealed that after four weeks of consuming 1.5 ounces (about 14 whole walnuts) per day, the participants had a remarkable 9 percent reduction of LDL – a.k.a. bad cholesterol. Every 1 percent decrease of LDL results in a 2 percent reduction of the risk of coronary heart disease[v].
4. Chia Seeds
One ounce for chia seeds provides a respectable 5,000mg of ALA. Although flaxseeds provide slightly more, you really can’t go wrong with either one when it comes to Omega-3 fats.
When comes to total fiber chia beats flax. Each ounce of chia contains about 12 grams of dietary fiber while offers just 8 grams of fiber for the same amount; according to the Harvard School of Public Health.
The fiber present in Chia is mostly soluble fiber which binds to cholesterol. It is also rich in calcium, protein, and B vitamins. Rather than choose, I eat both daily.
Spinach is far from being a high-fat food but it contains Omega-3 fats and diacylglycerols – molecules that hold fatty acids. Spinach is a good source of alpha-linolenic acid. Its diacylglycerols contain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and stearidonic acid (SDA), two other forms of Omega-3s.
Spinach also contains carotenoids, flavonoids, and nitrate. When all of these nutrients are combined along with the Omega-3s, what emerges is a plant food with huge anti-inflammatory benefits.
[i] Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Omega-3 Fatty Acids: An Essential Contribution. Retrieved from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/omega-3-fats/
[ii] National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health. Omega-3 Supplements: In Depth. Retrieved from https://nccih.nih.gov/health/omega3/introduction.htm
[iii] American Heart Association. Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Retrieved from http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/HealthyDietGoals/Fish-and-Omega-3-Fatty-Acids_UCM_303248_Article.jsp#.WY4UXlG_PIU
[iv] Guil Guerrero et al. (January 2010). Roe of marine animals is best natural source of omega-3. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/12/091211131518.htm
[v] Rajaram S, et.al. (April 2009). Walnuts and fatty fish influence different serum lipid fractions in normal to mildly hyperlipidemic individuals: a randomized controlled study. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19339404