Are you vegan or vegetarian and want to ensure that you find a source for essential fatty acids? Or does the thought of consuming fish oil make you want to gag? Did you know that there are plant based sources for omega fatty acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are nutrients that help increase human health and are termed essential because our bodies cannot make them and we must obtain them from food. Omega 3 fatty acids are required for several normal body functions, including building cell membranes in the brain and controlling blood clotting. In addition, preliminary studies also show omega 3 fatty acids are associated with many health benefits including protection against cancer, autoimmune diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, stroke and also heart disease.
Certain plant sources (including vegetable oils) such as canola oil, walnuts and flaxseed contain substantial amounts of the omega-3 fatty acid known as a-linolenic acid (ALA), which is only found in plants. In contrast, fish oils contain omega-3 fatty acids known as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and do not contain any ALA. Flaxseed and other plant-derived oils do not contain any DHA and EPA, except for algae.
DHA is required in the brain for normal cognitive performance and memory and the eye for visual sharpness. Most of the omega-3 fatty acids found in brain tissue consists of mostly DHA with other omega-3 fatty acids, like ALA being found only in scant amounts. Human studies have shown that the body has limited ability to convert ALA to DHA.
The Mediterranean diet has been given a lot of attention in recent years. The diet includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fish (like salmon and sardines) while limiting unhealthy fats. This diet includes higher levels of ALA and researches believe it is associated with the secondary prevention of coronary heart disease. A study by The Harvard School of Public Health studied 77,000 women over a period of 18 years. The study suggests that increased dietary intakes of ALA may reduce the risk of sudden cardiac death (by up to 40%) but not other types of fatal heart disease.
So what are some vegetarian sources of omega fatty acids? Flax seed, chia seeds, walnuts and algae all fit the bill. Flaxseed (flax) is a rich source of ALA and lignans is a highly recommended source of fiber. It also is a high quality potassium and protein. Lignans are antioxidants that have been reported to help prevent certain diseases such as cancer and heart disease. Flaxseed contains more lignans than other plant foods. Flaxseed can be added to almost any food by grinding the whole flaxseed. The seeds can be ground in a coffee grinder, food processor or blender, or you can buy ground or milled flaxseed at health food stores. Because flaxseed is high in fat, the ground form can become rancid or spoil quickly and should be stored in the refrigerator.
Chia Seeds are another source of ALA that are also a good source of fiber, protein, calcium, magnesium and phosphorous. For thousands of years Chia seeds were used by the Aztecs as their main energy source. Unlike flaxseed, Chia seeds do not need to be ground before use. Pumpkin seeds, spinach, Brussels sprouts, salad greens, kale, and canola oil are also additional vegetarian sources of Omega-3 fats.
As always supplementation is available for you to obtain these essential nutrients. You can find vegetarian sources of omega fatty acids as well as fish oil and flax seed and fish oil blends at The Institute for Healthy Living.