We’ve all heard the buzz around essential fatty acids aka ‘EFA’s. Omega supplements, particularly those for Omega-3, are touted for everything from improving skin to healing eyesight and protecting cartilage. And while they are pretty great, common knowledge tells us that the best sources for getting these essentials are via foods like fish, meat and eggs.
Which, as you can imagine, would be pretty difficult for vegans and vegetarians. But, never fear, you can definitely find animal-free EFAs. First, let’s take a look at why they’re so important.
So…What Makes Them So ‘Essential’?
Omega-3s are a type of polyunsaturated (i.e. ‘many bonds’) fat from a family of essential fatty acids that play important roles in your body and may provide a number of health benefits like:
- Improved Mood
- Pregnancy and Early Life Brain Health
- Improve Risk Factors for Heart Disease
- Battle Belly Fat
- Help Prevent Cancer
- Improved Bone and Joint Health
- Clearer Skin & Diminished Signs of Aging
Because our bodies are unable to make omega-3s, we gotta get them from what we eat. The three most important types are ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). ALA, the type mostly found in plant foods, needs to be converted into EPA or DHA before it can be properly utilized. But, our bodies, mighty as they may be, are inefficient converters, meaning that the source of our EFAs is almost as important as whether or not we get them at all.
Omega 6 vs Omega 3: Why the Source Matters
Though both are essential, omega-6 and omega-3 don’t have the same effect in our bodies. Studies have shown omega-6 to be pro-inflammatory while omega-3 is anti-inflammatory. Now, before you scour the pantry for all sources of omega-6 and throw them out, please understand that some level of inflammation is an important part of maintaining your health. In optimal amounts, it actually helps protect your body from infection and injury but too much can swing the pendulum in the other direction, leading to chronic inflammation which can cause permanent, severe damage and contribute to diseases like heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, many types of cancer and even Alzheimer’s.
Those who follow a standard American diet aka SAD are typically ingesting too many omega-6s relative to omega-3s, knocking their ratio out of whack and sending inflammation soaring, where as a diet with a optimal ratio is thought to reduce inflammation and help keep it to healthy levels. Many of the omega-6s most of us eat come in the form of vegetable oils.
As you can see, not all oils are created equal. We already know that too much of omega-6 aka the blue in our chart, is not beneficial and we also want to avoid saturated fat, making flaxseed oil look pretty, pretty good (Larry David voice).
5 Plant-based Sources of Omega 3
Seawood & Algae
Seaweed, nori, spirulina, and chlorella are different forms of algae that offer a host of health benefits. They’re one of few plant-based omega-3 sources that include DHA and EPA, giving our bodies omega-3 that doesn’t have to be converted to reap the rewards.
How to Eat It: Seaweed is also full of protein and makes a great snack when you’re in the mood for something crunchy/savory. Spirulina and chlorella are easily mixed into a smoothie and you’ve probably already had nori — it’s the seaweed used to wrap sushi!
Hemp seeds provide nearly 3g of ALA per every 3 tablespoons. Bump that up to 5 tablespoons and you’ve got 15g of fiber and 13g of protein which makes ground hemp seed a popular protein supplement. Hemp seeds also contain all the essential amino acids .
How to Eat Them: Hemp seeds are delicious raw or toasted. Raw tends to be sweeter making them great for sprinkling on oatmeal or mixing into smoothies. Toasted seeds take on a addictive crunch that is especially delicious with a sprinkle of sea salt. Use them to top soups, salads or even popcorn.
I’ve already waxed poetic about the benefits of chia seeds but it bears repeating — they’re awesome little powerhouses of amazingness and an excellent source of omega-3s. Chia seeds contain over 5g of ALA per 1oz serving.
How to Eat Them: Chia seeds make a great topping. Mix them into granola and smoothies, or try a delicious chia seed pudding recipe like this one (the best part is you can make it ahead of time and have grab & go breakfast all week!). Chia seeds can also be mixed with water to create an egg substitute for baked goods.
Flaxseeds are a super beneficial addition to most anyone’s diet and boast nearly 7g of ALA per tablespoon. They’re chock full of fiber, protein, magnesium and manganese. Studies show that they may also reduce blood pressure and improve heart health along with reducing risk factors for heart disease.
How to Eat Them: Again with the smoothies and oatmeal, but it really works. Flaxseeds have the same ‘thickening’ properties as chia seeds, making them a popular egg substitute. I also like using them to create protein puddings (blend them in for a cool, creamy treat) and you can incorporate the oil into recipes and dressings.
These beans are rich in both omega-3 and protein. Edamame are immature soybeans that are frequently served as a sushi appetizer.
How to Eat Them: Steam them up and throw some sea salt on them for a quick and easy snack. They’re also delicious in stir fry, fried rice or on top of salads (make it a seaweed salad for even better benefits) — hot or cold.
So, there you have it. Five tasty, nutritious plant based sources for omega-3! While they are good for you, ‘too much of a good thing’ is totally possible. Seeds and nuts also tend to be high in calories, so keep that in mind when deciding how and how much you incorporate into your diet at once.