Omega-3 fatty acids are important fats that provide many health benefits.
Studies have found that they may reduce inflammation, decrease blood triglycerides, and even reduce the risk of dementia.
The most well-known sources of omega-3 fatty acids are fish oil and fatty fish such as salmon, trout, and tuna.
This can make it challenging for vegans, vegetarians, or even those who simply dislike fish to meet their omega-3 fatty acid needs.
Of the three main types of omega-3 fatty acids, plant foods typically contain only alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
ALA is not as active in the body and must be converted to two other forms of omega-3 fatty acids — eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) — to bestow the same health benefits.
Unfortunately, your body’s ability to convert ALA is limited. Only about 5% of ALA is converted to EPA, while less than 0.5% is converted to DHA.
Thus, if you don’t supplement with fish oil or get EPA or DHA from your diet, it’s important to eat plenty of ALA-rich foods to meet your omega-3 needs.
Additionally, keep in mind your omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, as a diet low in omega-3s but high in omega-6s can increase inflammation and your risk of disease.
Here are 7 of the best plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
1. Chia seeds
Chia seeds are known for their many health benefits, providing a hefty dose of fiber and protein in each serving.
They’re also a great plant-based source of ALA omega-3 fatty acids.
Studies have discovered that thanks to their omega-3, fiber, and protein, chia seeds could decrease the risk of chronic disease when consumed as part of a healthy diet.
One study in people with metabolic syndrome found that consuming a diet with chia seeds, nopal, soy protein, and oats decreased participants’ blood triglycerides, glucose intolerance, and inflammatory markers.
A 2007 animal study also found that eating chia seeds decreased blood triglycerides and increased both HDL (good) cholesterol and omega-3 levels in the blood.
However, more human research needs to be conducted before a definitive conclusion can be made.
The current daily recommended intake of ALA for adults over age 19 is 1,100 mg for women and 1,600 mg for men.
Just 1 ounce (28 grams) of chia seeds far exceeds your daily recommended intake of omega-3 fatty acids, delivering a whopping 5,000 mg.
You can boost your chia seed intake by whipping up a nutritious chia pudding or sprinkling chia seeds on top of salads, yogurts, or smoothies.
Ground chia seeds can also be used as a vegan substitute for eggs. Combine one tablespoon (7 grams) with three tablespoons of water to replace one egg in recipes.
Summary: One ounce (28 grams) of chia seeds provides 5,000 mg of ALA omega-3 fatty acids or 312–454% of the recommended daily intake.
2. Brussels sprouts
In addition to their high content of vitamin K, vitamin C, and fiber, Brussels sprouts are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids.
Because cruciferous vegetables like Brussels sprouts are so rich in omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients, they have been linked to many health benefits.
One study found that increased cruciferous vegetables are associated with an almost 16% lower risk of heart disease.
A half-cup (44 grams) of raw Brussels sprouts contains about 44 mg of ALA.
Meanwhile, cooked Brussels sprouts contain three times as much, providing 135 mg of omega-3 fatty acids in each half-cup (78-gram) serving.
Whether roasted, steamed, blanched, or stir-fried, Brussels sprouts are a healthy and delicious accompaniment to any meal.
Summary: Each half-cup (44-gram) serving of cooked Brussels sprouts contains 44 mg of ALA or up to 4% of the daily recommended intake.
3. Algal oil
Algal oil, derived from algae, stands out as one of the few vegan sources of both EPA and DHA.
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Some studies have even found that it’s comparable to seafood regarding its nutritional availability of EPA and DHA.
One study compared algal oil capsules to cooked salmon and found that both were well tolerated and equivalent in absorption.
Though research is limited, animal studies show that the DHA from algal oil is especially beneficial to health.
A recent animal study found that supplementing mice with a DHA algal oil compound improved memory.
However, more human studies are needed to determine the extent of its health benefits.
Most commonly available in soft gel form, algal oil supplements typically provide 400–500 mg of combined DHA and EPA. Generally, getting 300–900 mg of combined DHA and EPA per day is recommended.
Algal oil supplements are easy to find in most pharmacies. Liquid forms can also be added to drinks or smoothies for a dose of healthy fats.
Summary: Depending on the supplement, algal oil provides 400–500 mg of DHA and EPA, fulfilling 44–167% of the daily recommended intake.
4. Hemp seed
In addition to protein, magnesium, iron, and zinc, hemp seeds contain about 30% oil and a good amount of omega-3s.
Studies have found that the omega-3s in hemp seeds could benefit heart health. They may do this by preventing the formation of blood clots and helping the heart recover after a heart attack.
Three tablespoons (30 grams) of hemp seeds contain approximately 2,600 mg of ALA.
Sprinkle hemp seeds on top of yogurt or mix them into a smoothie to add a bit of crunch and boost the omega-3 content of your snack.
Also, homemade hemp seed granola bars can be a simple way to combine hemp seeds with other healthy ingredients such as flaxseeds and pack in extra omega-3s.
Hemp seed oil, made by pressing hemp seeds, can also be consumed to provide a concentrated dose of omega-3 fatty acids.
Summary: Three tablespoons (30 grams) of hemp seeds contain 3,000 mg of ALA omega-3 fatty acids or 162–236% of the daily recommended intake.
Walnuts are loaded with healthy fats and ALA omega-3 fatty acids. Walnuts are composed of about 65% fat by weight.
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Several animal studies have found that walnuts could help improve brain health due to their omega-3 content.
Studies in humans and animals have found that eating walnuts is associated with improved cognitive performance and memory.
Another animal study showed that walnuts caused significant improvements in memory, learning, motor development, and anxiety in mice with Alzheimer’s disease.
More research is still needed since animal studies cannot be applied to humans.
Just one serving of walnuts can fulfill an entire day’s requirements of omega-3 fatty acids, with a single ounce (28 grams) providing 2,570 mg.
Add walnuts to your homemade granola or cereal, sprinkle them on top of yogurt, or simply snack on a handful to increase your ALA intake.
Summary: One ounce (28 grams) of walnuts contains 2,570 mg of ALA omega-3 fatty acids, or 160–233% of the daily recommended intake.
Flaxseed is a nutritional powerhouse, providing a good amount of fiber, protein, magnesium, and manganese in each serving.
It’s also an excellent source of omega-3s.
Several studies have demonstrated the heart-healthy benefits of flaxseed, largely thanks to its omega-3 fatty acid content.
In multiple studies, both flaxseed and flaxseed oil have been shown to reduce cholesterol.
Another study found that flaxseed could help significantly lower blood pressure, particularly in people with high blood pressure.
One tablespoon (10 grams) of whole flaxseed contains 2,350 mg of ALA omega-3 fatty acids, surpassing the daily recommended amount.
Flaxseed is easy to incorporate into your diet and can be a staple ingredient in vegan baking.
Whisk together one tablespoon (7 grams) of flaxseed meal with 2.5 tablespoons of water to use as a handy substitute for one egg in baked goods.
Flaxseed makes the perfect addition to cereal, oatmeal, soups, and salads with a mild yet slightly nutty flavor.
Summary: One tablespoon (10 grams) of flaxseed contains 2,350 mg of ALA omega-3 fatty acids, or 146–213% of the daily recommended intake.
7. Perilla oil
This oil, derived from perilla seeds, is often used in Korean cuisine as a condiment and cooking oil.
In addition to being a versatile and flavorful ingredient, it’s a good source of omega-3 fatty acids.
In one study of 20 elderly participants, researchers replaced soybean oil with perilla oil and found that it caused ALA levels in the blood to double. In the long term, it also led to an increase in EPA and DHA blood levels.
Perilla oil is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, with ALA making up an estimated 64% of this seed oil.
Each tablespoon (14 grams) contains nearly 9,000 mg of ALA omega-3 fatty acids.
To maximize its health benefits, perilla oil should be used as a flavor enhancer or dressing rather than as a cooking oil. This is because oils high in polyunsaturated fats can oxidize with heat, forming harmful free radicals that contribute to disease.
Perilla oil is also available in capsule form for an easy and convenient way to increase your omega-3 intake.
Summary: Each tablespoon (14 grams) of perilla oil contains 9,000 mg of ALA omega-3 fatty acids or 563–818% of the daily recommended intake.
Omega-3 fatty acids are an important part of the diet and essential to your health.
If you don’t eat fish for dietary reasons or personal preference, you can still reap the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in your diet.
By incorporating a few omega-3-rich foods into your diet or opting for a plant-based supplement, it’s possible to meet your seafood-free needs.