Fatty fish are not the only food source of omega-3s. Ground flaxseed, chia seeds, canola oil, walnuts and soybean oil are all plant-based sources of omega-3 fat. So then, what's the difference between omega-3s from fish and those from plants? And how do you add omega-3 fats to your meals without feeling like you are making a major diet overhaul?
We are still learning about the differences between omega-3 fats found in different food sources. Specifically, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) appears to play an important role in brain health. There is strong evidence for eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and DHA (both found in fish and algae) in the protection against cardiovascular disease. There is less evidence for alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) (found in plant foods) but some studies suggest that ALA may offer many of the same benefits, including lowering LDL (or "bad") cholesterol and decreasing the risk for heart attack and other cardiovascular disease events. The body can also convert some ALA into a small amount of EPA and DHA.
Adding ground flaxseed (aka flaxseed meal) to foods you are already eating is a great way to take advantage of some of the health benefits of omega-3 fats without making a major diet change. Ground flaxseed is a powerhouse because it contains not just omega-3s, but also fiber (2 grams per tablespoon) and lignans (powerful disease-fighting antioxidants). The best part is that you can add flaxseed meal to a number of dishes without changing the flavor or consistency. In baking, 1 tablespoon of flaxseed meal mixed with 3 tablespoons water (let sit for a couple minutes) is a good replacement for 1 egg. I've been sprinkling ground flaxseed into my smoothies and pancakes but you can also add it to:
- oatmeal and other hot cereals
- baked goods
- mixed dishes
- soups and stews
- meatloaf and burgers
I recommend ground flaxseed because the body can't access the omega-3 fats in whole flaxseeds and flaxseed oil doesn't offer the fiber and antioxidants of flaxseed meal. Also, according to a recent Today's Dietitian article, the nutritional quality of flaxseed oil is affected when it is cooked at high temperatures.
The National Institutes of Health Adequate Intake for ALA is 1.1-1.6 grams/day. Two tablespoons of flaxseed meal provides about 3-1/2 grams of ALA.
To get a mix of omega-3s in your diet, combine some of the plant (ALA) and fish (EPA, DHA) sources, listed at the start of the post, into your diet. If you do not eat fish or shellfish, you may consider talking with a doctor or registered dietitian about algae-based (EPA, DHA) omega-3 supplements.
For more info, check out my previous posts on omega-3 fats and using eating out as an opportunity to eat fish.
What the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has to say about healthy fats, fiber and fish:
Is Flaxseed a Good Source of Fiber?
What Fish are Rich in Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Feed Your Brain. Go Fish!
Image credit: Nurturing-Naturally.com