Fat may be associated with weight gain or unhealthy foods but omega 3s are one hard-working fat nutrient you want. These famous, good-for-you, fatty acids can reduce your risk of heart disease, slash your risk of developing blood clots, prevent harmful plaque from clogging your arteries, keep inflammation levels in check, lower blood pressure, raise levels of “good” HDL cholesterol, ward off dementia and protect your vision. Phew! What’s more, research published in the journal Marine Drugs shows that omega 3s can have a positive impact on your skin, too—protecting against sun damage, boosting hydration and even preventing skin cancer—keeping you healthy inside and out. But getting enough of this essential nutrient can sometimes prove difficult for those who choose a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, as it’s most often found in fish. The good news? There are plenty of delicious omega 3 foods for vegetarians found in vegetables and seeds! Read on to find out our favorites and how you can work them into your meals.
What exactly are omega 3s?
Simply put, they are a type of unsaturated fat. Unsaturated fats are the ones with health benefits and there are two types: monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat. Omega 3s fall in the polyunsaturated camp and are considered especially precious because they’re essential fats, meaning our bodies can’t make them, so we have to get them through the foods we eat.
Omega 3s are actually made up of three different types of fats: long chain fatty acids referred to as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and a short chain fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). EPA and DHA are derived from animal sources, primarily fish and seafood like salmon, mackerel, sardines, tuna, anchovies, herring, oysters and trout, while ALA is found in plants, seeds, nuts, and vegetable oils. EPA and DHA are considered the superior omega 3 fats because they’re the ones linked to all the health benefits.
Where to get it—other than fish
That doesn’t mean you’re up a creek if you’re a vegetarian, allergic to fish, or just kind of dislike fish. Fish may be considered the best source of omega 3 fatty acids but the body can convert the ALA in plant-based foods into EPA and DHA in limited quantities, so the more vegan omega 3 sources of those foods you eat, the better. And a review published in the journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine shows that the consumption of ALA can reduce the incidence of heart disease, too. Foods rich in ALA also tend to be packed with other important nutrients like fiber, protein and antioxidants—which are important for health, weight management and skin radiance.
According to the National Institute of Health, the ALA RDA (recommended daily allowance) for women is 1.1 g (or 1100 mg). These tasty, omega 3-rich vegetarian food options will make it easy to hit your limit each day.
Reddish brown or golden yellow in color and nutty in flavor, flaxseeds pack 3.6 grams of omega 3s per one-ounce serving. In addition to omega 3s, flax is also high in fiber, protein, potassium and lignans (a phytoestrogen that protects against some types of cancer). The only downside to flaxseeds is that you have to grind them up to get all of the nutritional goodness (you can grind them in a food processor or coffee grinder, or buy them already ground up). Sprinkle them on salads, cereal or yogurt, or bake them into breads and muffins.
A one-ounce serving of these nutty-tasting seeds contains a whopping 5 grams of omega 3s, making them the best plant source of the fatty acid. (Chia seeds are also rich in other important nutrients like fiber, protein, calcium, phosphorus and zinc). Unlike flax- seeds, you don’t have to grind them up to reap their vast nutritional benefits, so they’re an even easier way to sneak in your RDA of omega 3s. Toss chia seeds into your smoothies, stir them into yogurt or oatmeal, mix them with milk to make a rich pudding or bake them into bread or muffins. Another perk to chia seeds: the tiny seeds swell when combined with liquid, making you feel fuller and inclined to eat less, which can result in weight loss.
These cruciferous veggies contain 135 mg (or .14 g) of ALA per half-cup serving. Loaded with antioxidants like vitamin C, vitamin A and kaempferol and high in protein (for a veggie, at least), this cabbage cousin has been shown to help prevent cancer and keep blood sugar stable, as well as reduce inflammation—which is good for both your body and your skin. They’re delicious drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt and roasted, or shaved and used as the base of a hearty salad.
All nuts are good sources of omega 3s but earthy, tangy walnuts pack the most: a one-ounce serving of walnuts contains 2.5 grams of ALA (not to mention a hearty dose of important nutrients like folic acid, vitamin B6, phosphorus, copper, manganese and vitamin E). Toss walnuts onto a salad; stir them into your cold cereal or oatmeal; or mix them into rice, quinoa or farro for a hearty vegetarian meal—or, of course, you can simply grab a handful and eat them on their own!
These seeds (which are technically a nut. Go figure!) contain 2.5 grams of omega 3s per one-ounce serving. They are also a good source of protein, vitamin E, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, iron and zinc, and can be eaten much like chia seeds and flax seeds. (In other words, they are delicious sprinkled on salads, yogurt, oatmeal or used in baked goods).
If none of these omega 3 vegetarian foods appeals to you, you can also try these other options, which are deserving of an honorable mention: edamame (.28 grams per half cup), kidney beans (.10 grams per half cup) and canola oil (one tablespoon contains 1.28 g of omega 3s). After all, adding any of these foods to your meals will not only give you a hearty helping of healthy omega 3s, but other important nutrients, too, that help keep you in optimal health with glowing skin.