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Can I get omega-3s from plant-based foods?

Answer

The short answer is yes! But here’s more details as to how and why!

There are three main omega-3 fatty acids:

  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

Omega-3s are essential fatty acids, which means our body does not make them on its own, so we need to obtain them through diet. ALA is found in plant-based foods, such as walnuts, ground flax seeds, chia seeds and soybean oil,  which research indicates may play a role in heart health, brain health and healthy aging. 1-4. In fact, walnuts are the only tree nut that is an excellent source of omega-3 ALA (2.5 grams per 1 ounce serving).1 ALA is the precursor or “parent” to the other two important long-chain omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).5 However this conversion process is inefficient in humans and only a small percentage of ALA is converted into EPA and DHA.6,7,8,9 EPA and DHA are found in fatty fish, including salmon, mackerel, and trout.

Daily Needs

You might be wondering how much ALA, EPA and DHA you need. Adequate Intake for ALA is 1.1 g/day for women and 1.6 g/day for men (0.5% energy).10 And while there is no recommended daily intake for EPA & DHA, various health organizations and research recommends 250 mg/day.11,12

ALA Food Sources

Per serving (1 oz.):​

  • Walnuts (2.57g)
  • Ground flax seeds ​(6.55g)
  • Chia seeds (5.05g)
  • Soybean oil (0.95g)

Health Benefits of Walnuts

Not only are walnuts an excellent source of ALA (2.5g/oz.), but one ounce of walnuts is a powerhouse of other important nutrients including:

  • 4g of protein
  • 2g of fiber
  • A good source of magnesium (45mg)

Walnut Recipes

Walnuts are easily accessible and versatile, a delicious way to meet the recommended daily intake of plant-based omega-3 ALA. Grab a handful of walnuts for a snack or incorporate them into recipes such as: Walnut Chorizo and Goat Cheese Mini Pizza Bites, Strawberry Walnut Date Smoothie, or Spicy Walnut Blue Cheese and Blood Orange Salad. For more recipe inspiration visit walnuts.org/recipes.

 1U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. FoodData Central, 2019. fdc.nal.usda.gov.
2Sala-Vila A, Fleming J, Kris-Etherton P, Ros E. Impact of alpha-linolenic acid, the vegetable omega-3 fatty acid, on cardiovascular disease and cognition .  Adv Nutr 2022;00:1–19; doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/advances/nmac016.
3Sala-Vila A, Valls-Pedret C, Rajaram S, et al. Effect of a 2-year diet intervention with walnuts on cognitive decline. The Walnuts And Healthy Aging (WAHA) study: a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nut. 2020;111(3):590–600.
4Fleming JA, Kris-Etherton PM. The evidence for α-linolenic acid and cardiovascular disease benefits: comparisons with eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid. Adv Nutr. 2014;5(6):863S-76S. Doi.org/10.3945/an.114.005850.
5Dietary reference intakes for energy, carbohydrate, fiber, fat, fatty acids, cholesterol, protein, and amino acids (Macronutrients) (2005) NAS. IOM. Food and Nutrition Board.
6Burdge GC. Metabolism of alpha-linolenic acid in humans. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2006 Sep;75(3):161-8. doi: 10.1016/j.plefa.2006.05.013. Epub 2006 Jul 7. PMID: 16828546.
7Brenna JT. Efficiency of conversion of alpha-linolenic acid to long chain n-3 fatty acids in man. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2002 Mar;5(2):127-32. doi: 10.1097/00075197-200203000-00002. PMID: 11844977.
8Gerster H. Can adults adequately convert alpha-linolenic acid (18:3n-3) to eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5n-3) and docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3)? Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 1998;68(3):159-73. PMID: 9637947.
9Plourde M, Cunnane SC. Extremely limited synthesis of long chain polyunsaturates in adults: implications for their dietary essentiality and use as supplements. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2007 Aug;32(4):619-34. doi: 10.1139/H07-034. Erratum in: Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2008 Feb;33(1):228-9. PMID: 17622276.
10Vannice G, Rasmussen H. Position of the academy of nutrition and dietetics: dietary fatty acids for healthy adults. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2014 Jan;114(1):136-53. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2013.11.001. Erratum in: J Acad Nutr Diet. 2014 Apr;114(4):644. PMID: 24342605.
11 U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. 7th Edition, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, December 2010.
12 Institute of Medicine. 2005. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/10490.

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