You might’ve seen omega-3 on labels of peanut butter, chia seeds and many other products in health food isles... But what is omega-3? Why do we need it? And what are the best ways to include it in your diet?
What is omega-3?
Omega-3 fatty acids come in different forms, with the most common being Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Of these, ALA is the only one that our bodies cannot produce. It must be consumed and can be found in many plant-based foods. EPA and DHA can be absorbed and used by our bodies without a conversion process, so it is often seen as more effective than ALA. EPA and DHA are found in fish oil and algae .
Essentially, to reap the full benefits of omega-3 our bodies need EPA and DHA. To get this, the most effective way is to consume it. However, in small amounts, our bodies can convert the ALA we consume into EPA and DHA .
Why do we need it?
Omega-3 fats are important for brain and heart health and can even improve life span.
These are a few of their benefits:
Improves blood flow within the body
Prevents blood clots
Lowers blood pressure
Lowers triglycerides (a fat that enters our blood after a meal)
They do all this by affecting the function of the receptors in the cell membranes and regulating gene expression and protein function. In addition, omega-3 fats can assist with making hormones that regulate inflammation, blood clotting and the movement of artery walls [3,4,5].
How do we get it?
Algae is a good example of a plant-based source of EPA & DHA omega-3. Many foods now contain fortified (added) omega-3, such as plant-based milk, bread, and spreads . Additionally, ALA omega-3 can be obtained from a multitude of plant-based foods, some of which are listed below. In addition to their omega-3 content, these foods are also rich in other nutrients like fibre, unlike their animal-based counterparts.
Supplement your regular intake of EPA & DHA omega-3 with these easily available whole foods, all of which are high in ALA omega-3:
ALA omega-3 per serving (gm)
% of recommended daily intake
20 grams (1 tablespoon)
12 grams (1 tablespoon)
Bread - soy & linseed
40 grams (1 slice)
4 grams (1 teaspoon)
75 grams (1/2 cup)
At present, there is no upper bound recommendation on the consumption of plant-based sources of ALA omega-3. The National Heart Foundation of Australia recommends 1 gram of ALA omega-3 and 250-500 milligrams of DHA/EPA omega-3s per day. The upper-level intake of DHA/EPA omega-3 is 3 grams per day. If you are getting your Omega-3 in supplement form, when taken in excess there can be adverse effects .
Omega-3 fats can be found in many sources, and it is becoming easier and easier to access plant-based sources of ALA, DHA, and EPA. Aim for a balanced diet with whole foods and healthy fats for optimal health for you, and the planet!
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Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Plant-Based Diets. https://www.pcrm.org/good-nutrition/nutrition-information/omega-3
Santos, H. O., Price, J. C., & Bueno, A. A. (2020). Beyond Fish Oil Supplementation: The Effects of Alternative Plant Sources of Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids upon Lipid Indexes and Cardiometabolic Biomarkers—An Overview. Nutrients, 12(10), 3159. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12103159
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: An Essential Contribution. (2019, May 22). Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/fats-and-cholesterol/types-of-fat/omega-3-fats/
Harris, W.S., Tintle, N.L., Imamura, F. et al. Blood n-3 fatty acid levels and total and cause-specific mortality from 17 prospective studies. (2021). Nat Commun 12, 2329. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-22370-2
Omega 3 fats. (n.d.). HEART UK. https://www.heartuk.org.uk/low-cholesterol-foods/omega-3-fats
Omega-3. (2021). British Dietetic Association (BDA). https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/omega-3.html
National Heart Foundation of Australia. (2015). Sources of omega-3. https://prod.heartfoundation.org.au/getmedia/ff11afcd-ab38-48d4-802c-9f0581e44a52/Sources_of_omega_3.pdf%22%20/
Australian Government. (2014, April 9). Fats: Total fat & fatty acids | Nutrient Reference Values. National Health and Medical Research Council. https://www.nrv.gov.au/nutrients/fats-total-fat-fatty-acids