Omega-3 fatty acids are rapidly becoming a focus in health and dietary circles for their wide-ranging health benefits and their potential to ward off many diseases and illnesses from which we suffer. Also known as polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), omega-3 fatty acids are required for proper health and development, yet they are unfortunately not manufactured by the body. While omega-3s are relatively easy to find for omnivores, vegetarians -- and the public at large -- may be deficient in these essential fatty acids.
Omega-3s are essential for cardiovascular health and proper function of the brain and eyes throughout life as well as maintaining the overall central nervous system. Particularly important in fetal development, these often overlooked fatty acids are particularly important for pregnant and nursing mothers, as well as children, and even healthy adults. Required by tissue throughout the body these fats have also been shown to reduce tissue inflammation and help prevent many risk factors associated with cardiovascular health, mental acuity, cholesterol profile, and may alleviate or even prevent a host of illnesses and cognitive disorders that also plague us.
Fortunately, Omega-3 fatty acids are found in a variety of foods, and while they can be found in abundance in a range of marine life, this does not help vegetarians in maintaining proper levels of these essential fats. Certain plants and nut oils are also sources of some Omega 3s, and by proper preparation of these sources, a vegetarian can still ensure proper consumption of these essential fatty acids in one's diet.
There are a number of Omega-3 fatty acids, each of which has a different role in the diet. The polyunsaturated fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) cannot be made by the body and must therefore be acquired from foods. ALA, however, is converted in the body to the fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are the two critical fats for maintaining proper health. Unfortunately, this conversion process is very inefficient, so consuming these two fatty acids directly is recommended. Most American diets provide more than 10 times as much omega-6 (such as as linoleic acid (LA)) than omega-3 fatty acids, whereas studies show that we should be consuming significantly more omega-3 fatty acids than omega-6 fatty acids in our diet. This means that incorporating more and varied sources of Omega-3s into one's diet is an important step in maintaining proper health.
Vegetarian Sources of Omega-3s
Excellent vegetarian sources of ALA are leafy green vegetables, nuts, and vegetable oils such as canola, soy, and particularly flaxseed. Rather than buying flaxseed oil in the store, it is best to grind your own flax as the store bought oil turn rancid very quickly, even when kept in the refrigerator. A tablespoon of seeds, (ground and mixed with any food of choice) is a great way to incorporate omega-3s into your diet. The additional benefit of ground flax seed is that one also gets some fiber in with the mix. A common misconception is that these sources contain DHA, however, and this is not the case. While the body does convert ALA into DHA and EPA, the process is inefficient and variable and only a portion is converted. This by no means discounts these foods value as a source of omega-3 fatty acids, and for those who avoid animal sources of omega-3s, they are a good alternative.
Some examples of plant sources and their quantities of omega-3s:
Flaxseed oil, 1 tablespoon . . . . . 8.5 grams of ALA
English walnuts, 1 ounce. . . . . . 2.6 grams of ALA
Flaxseeds, 1 tablespoon. . . . . . . 2.2 grams of ALA
Canola oil, 1 tablespoon. . . . . . . 1.2 grams of ALA
Many oils are available in the grocery store, and can be used in salad dressings (walnut oil is particularly tasty), or drizzled over many foods, adding omega-3s as well as flavor to a dish. That said, these oils are rather perishable and in order to retain their omega-3s, they should be consumed uncooked. Other good sources of omega-3s, which are easily incorporated into prepared foods are pumpkin seeds (and pumpkin seed oil), purslane, perilla seed oil, and soybeans (and soybean oil).
While sourcing Omega-3s from food is one way to incorporate more of them into your diet, it may not be easy to consume the volume of specific fatty acids that your body needs (e.g. DHA). For this reason, supplements can be an effective method of maintaining a healthful level of these fatty acids in one's body. Look for brands like "Neuromins," or "Life'sDHA," from a company that produces an all-natural, vegetarian source of DHA extracted directly from algae, and is therefore a vegan product as long as it is encapsulated in gelatin free capsules (which it is most of the time). There are other companies as well that market algal-based DHA, but be sure to read the label if your desire is to supplement specifically with DHA and not just a spectrum of Omega-3s.
While there is no FDA cited recommended daily requirement for omega-3s, it is a case of the more the merrier. There is no downside to eating too much, and since most individuals are sorely lacking this essential nutrient, seeking foods that are high in omega-3s is something everyone should do. By incorporating more leafy vegetables (collard greens, kale, brussles sprouts), and nuts and oils into one's diet is a simple way to increase the amount of omega-3 fatty acids that your body can put to work. Studies have shown that even minor increases in omega-3 in one's diet can lead to improvements in cardiovascular health. Since there are a myriad of foods that supply these fats, it's not difficult to find some that fit one's particular taste. That walnut may one day save your life.