Best plant-based foods with omega-3s
by Caroline Fontein
When’s the last time you thought about getting enough fat in your diet? Probably never. But some fats are vital to maintaining overall good health. Meet omega-3 fatty acids.
Your body needs these healthy fats to function, and they must come from the foods you eat.
There are several different kinds of omegas, and your body utilizes each one differently. Arguably, the three most important ones for good health are omega-3 EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), omega-3 DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and omega-3 ALA ( alpha-linolenic acid).
Which foods contain omega-3s?
Omega-3 EPA and DHA are primarily found in fatty fish and fish oil while omega-3 ALA is found in plant-based sources that include certain nuts, seeds and dark leafy greens.
Your body can convert omega-3 ALA into EPA and DHA, but the conversion is limited. So, for people who eat a vegan or vegetarian diet, it can be hard to get enough of these healthy fats from food alone.
According to the National Institutes of Health, the only practical way to increase the levels of these fatty acids in your body is by consuming EPA and DHA from foods or through dietary supplements.
Another study by Harvard Health Publishing suggests that people in good health should eat at least two servings of fatty fish a week to get the health benefits of these healthy fats.
But if you’re vegan, vegetarian or just don’t like seafood, this might sound a little fishy.
So, we’re here to help! We consulted with our in-house nutritional scientist and compiled a list of our top picks for the best plant-based food sources of omega-3 fatty acids below.
Here’s a little introduction to omega-3s and why they’re essential for good health.
What are omega-3 fatty acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are one of two major classes of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). They help form the structures in every cell membrane in your body. For example, there are high amounts of DHA in the retina, brain and sperm.
Omega-3s have other roles too. They also help provide energy and are used to form eicosanoids, molecules that have important functions in almost every system in your body.
These systems include your:
- Cardiovascular system - consists of your heart and the network of arteries, veins and capillaries that transport blood throughout your body
- Pulmonary system - also called your respiratory system and aids in breathing
- Immune system - responsible for preventing or limiting infection in your body
- Endocrine system - the glands that make hormones and influence almost every cell, organ and function in our body
In addition to how your body uses these healthy fats, many studies suggest that omega-3 fatty acids can have a number of additional health benefits.
While additional research is needed to verify all of these claims one thing we do know for sure is: your body needs omega-3s to function, and it’s important to get them from your diet.
So, here are our top picks for the:
7 best plant-based foods with omega-3 ALA
These tiny seeds were cultivated as early as 3000 BC and have since earned a reputation for being one of the most powerful plant foods available today. A lot of that is due to their omega-3 ALA content.
At SmartyPants we include omega-3 ALA from flaxseed oil in our Organic Women’s, Men’s, Prenatal, Kids and Toddler Formulas to deliver a high-quality source of vegetarian omega-3s.
Ways to eat more: Flaxseed can be purchased both whole and ground. Some nutrition experts will recommend ground over whole because it can be easier to digest. Ground flaxseed is also easier to add to your everyday foods.
Try adding a teaspoon of ground flaxseed to your breakfast cereal or mix it into yogurt or your morning smoothie. It can also be added to recipes for baked goods like cookies and muffins. You can also try mixing it into sauces, dips, soups and hummus.
- Additional health benefits: Flaxseed is also a good source of lignans, fiber, protein, magnesium and manganese. They’re also what’s used to feed chickens and create eggs with higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
2. Chia seeds
The ancient Aztecs and Mayans were onto something with these superfood seeds. Chia seeds are packed with nutrients including omega-3 ALA. They’ve also been linked to a number of other health benefits.
Ways to eat more: There are tons of healthy chia seed recipes and not just ones that involve letting the seeds soak in liquid until they turn to pudding. But you don’t even have to try that hard to enjoy these ultra-healthy seeds.
Chia seeds can be sprinkled on a salad, yogurt or added to a smoothie. They can also be used in jam and to make tortillas. Here are some more creative recipe ideas.
- Additional health benefits: Chia seeds also contain fiber, protein, calcium, manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, niacin, potassium, thiamine and vitamin B2.
3. Hemp seeds
Can we get a hemp yeah! These nutrient-packed seeds continue to grow in popularity because of their unique nutritional profile. They’re packed with nutrients and healthy fats including omega-3 ALA.
While hemp comes from the cannabis plant, it’s not the one with psychoactive properties. Eating hemp seeds will not get you high. This is because there are two main types of these plants called Cannabis sativa L.
The first (also known as marijuana, hashish, weed, pot, cannabis tincture… you get the idea) contains concentrations of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) above 0.3 percent which is high enough to impart psychoactive effects. It’s this plant that produces the array of THC and some CBD products permeating the marketplace today.
The second type of the Cannabis sativa L. plant is considered to be more industrial hemp because it has THC concentrations of less than 0.3 percent, not enough to have any psychoactive properties. This is where hemp seeds come from along with the CBD products you can find at almost every health food store, pharmacy and even Wal-mart.
Ways to eat more: Hemp seeds are easy to eat and cook with and have a slightly nutty flavor. Look for hemp hearts (a.k.a. shelled hemp seeds). Like chia seeds, these can be sprinkled on salad, cereal, rice, yogurt or blended into your next smoothie. But it doesn’t stop there.
Today you can find an assortment of different hemp products from granola to healthy snack bars and protein powders. You can also find hemp seed oil which can be used as a finishing oil to top roasted veggies, salad or even popcorn. However, it shouldn’t be used as a cooking oil because heating it will strip away its nutritional benefits. Here are a few more recipe ideas.
- Additional health benefits: Hemp seeds have almost as much protein as soybean. They’re also rich in vitamin E and minerals including phosphorous, potassium, sodium, magnesium, sulfur, calcium, iron and zinc. Hemp seed oil also contains all of the essential amino acids and high levels of the amino acid arginine.
Time to go nuts! Walnuts are the only tree nuts that provide a source of omega-3 ALA. They also contain high amounts of antioxidants compared to most other foods.
Ways to eat more: Just grab a handful and go. These might just be the easiest omega-3s to add to your diet, if they’re not already a part of it.
While walnuts are typically eaten on their own, they can also be added to almost anything - yogurt, salad, pastas, baked goods… and the list goes on. Roasted cauliflower and walnut dip anyone? Here are some healthy recipes we like.
- Additional health benefits: Walnuts also contain important vitamins and minerals including copper, folic acid, phosphorous, vitamin B6, manganese and vitamin E.
5. Kidney beans
Most people think of beans as a good source of protein and fiber, but they’re also a source of omega-3 ALA. While not high in fatty acids, they are one of the most commonly consumed beans and have a number of other health benefits.
Ways to eat more: With their mild and slightly sweet flavor, kidney beans can be added to everything from soups and chilis to salads and salsa. They also make a healthy side dish and can even be pureed to serve as a dip with tortilla chips.
- Additional health benefits: Kidney beans are high in protein and fiber and also contain folate, manganese, thiamine, copper and iron. Foods that are high in fiber, like kidney beans, are thought to help slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream and reduce blood sugar levels.
Yes, one more reason to eat kale. This super healthy green also contains omega-3 ALA, along with many other beneficial nutrients.
Ways to eat more: You’ve probably had kale salad before. You can also try blending it into your morning smoothie, adding it to soup or turning it into a crispy snack by making baked kale chips.
Blanch, boil or sauté it, the possibilities are almost endless when it comes to this hearty green. To retain the most nutritional value, keep kale raw. Here are a few more healthy recipes.
- Additional health benefits: Kale is packed with god-for-you ingredients including vitamin A, K, C, B6, manganese, calcium, copper, potassium and magnesium.
7. Brussel sprouts
These vegetables are always a popular Thanksgiving dinner side dish, but they should be part of your menu year round. Brussel sprouts are packed with high levels of many nutrients and contain omega-3 ALA.
Ways to eat more: Brussel sprouts can be roasted, steamed, blanched, candied… or eaten raw.
TIP: To retain more of their nutritional value try eating brussel sprouts raw by adding them to a salad.
Wondering how to get your kids to eat them? Maybe some brussel sprouts and mac will help. Here are some more creative recipe ideas.
- Additional health benefits: They’re also high in fiber and rich in antioxidants to help protect your body against the harmful effects of free radicals. In addition to that, they contain vitamin K, C, A, manganese and folate.
What about a the best plant-based source of omega-3 DHA?
If you’re looking for more vegetarian-friendly ways to eat more omega-3 DHA, a supplement such as algal oil may be the most effective option. (We’re not just saying that because we sell supplements.)
Algal oil is one of the few plant sources high in omega-3 DHA, making it a great option for anyone who follows a vegan or vegetarian diet.
However, it’s not a food you can eat. Instead, algal oil is extracted from microalgae, microscopic, photosynthetic microorganisms present in almost all existing earth ecosystems and typically found in aquatic environments.
Where can I find an omega-3 supplement?
If you’re looking for more ways to add omega-3s to your diet, we can help with that too.
At SmartyPants, our formulas include different forms of omega-3s (both fish and plant-based) to help fill any nutritional gaps in formats that cater to different dietary restrictions.
Select the omega-3 that’s best for you:
SmartyPants core formulas: includes omega-3 EPA and DHA from fish oil (sustainably sourced from stocks of wild-caught small fish)
Organic Formulas (also certified-vegetarian): includes omega-3 ALA from vegetarian flaxseed oil.
PhD Formula vegan capsule supplements: includes omega-3 DHA from vegan algal oil.
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Caroline Fontein is the Editor and Content Manager for SmartyPants Vitamins. When she's not writing about the latest and greatest in gummy nutrition, she loves rollerblading (it's a thing), long walks on the beach (with her dog) and wine tasting (sometimes the whole bottle).