Science established a strong link between omega-3 fatty acid consumption and a lower risk of heart disease. Research also shows that omega-3s are important for eye and brain health, immune function, and digestion. Most of these conclusions are based on evidence from fish-derived omega-3s. These are long-chained omega-3s called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Until now, evidence of the benefits of omega-3s that are found in plants was lagging behind. Plants contain the short-chain omega-3 called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
Plant-based omega-3s are good for your heart
A new review paper analysed all available data from previous randomized controlled trials and observational studies. The researchers found that an increased intake of plant-based omega-3s is associated with a 10% lower risk of total cardiovascular disease and a 20% reduced risk of fatal coronary heart disease. Plant-based omega-3s were able to reduce total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, and inflammation.
“People may not want to eat seafood for a variety of reasons but it’s still important for them to consume omega-3s to reduce the risk of heart disease and to promote overall health. Plant-based ALA in the form of walnuts or flaxseeds can also provide these benefits, especially when incorporated into a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains,” said Penny Kris-Etherton, study’s author and Evan Pugh University Professor of Nutritional Sciences.
Eat both fish-derived and plant-based omega-3s
Researchers found that plant-based omega-3s are beneficial even for people who already include fish and seafood in their diet.
“When people with low levels of omega-3s in their diet ate ALA, they saw a benefit in terms of cardiovascular health. But when people with high levels of omega-3s from other sources ate more ALA, they also saw a benefit. It could be that ALA works synergistically with other omega-3s,” said the study’s co-author Jennifer Fleming.
How much of these omega-3s do you need?
It’s clear that even plant-based omega-3s are very much worthwhile eating. The authors of the new study recommend what a daily intake should look like.
“We were able to find evidence supporting current dietary guidelines that ALA should provide about 0,6% – 1% of total energy in a day, which is about 1,1 grams a day for women and 1,6 grams a day for men and can be incorporated into the diet with foods such as walnuts, flaxseeds, and cooking oils such as canola and soybean oils,” said co-author Emilio Ros.
To put it simply, you should have about half a handful of walnuts (14 grams) or about 1 tablespoon of flaxseed (7 grams) every day. That’s easy enough to add to your morning porridge, smoothie or eat as a standalone snack. And there are other decent sources of ALA such as chia seeds, hemp seeds, seaweed, and edamame beans.