When people think of Omega 3’s, usually the first image to come to mind is that of fresh salmon or a tin of smelly sardines, neither of which is a viable option for vegetarian and vegans. So what exactly is an herbivore to do? In this article, I discuss the function and benefits of Omega 3 Fatty Acids, as well as a list of the best vegetarian and vegan food sources.
What exactly are Omega 3 fatty acids?
Well, according to wikipedia, “Omega-3s are considered essential fatty acids, meaning that they cannot be synthesized by the human body -except that mammals have a limited ability, when the diet includes the shorter-chained omega-3 fatty acid ALA, to form the more important long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and then from EPA, the most crucial, DHA with even greater inefficiency.”
Every cell in our body is surrounded by a cell membrane composed mainly of fatty acids. The cell membrane allows the proper amounts of necessary nutrients to enter the cell, and ensures that waste products are quickly removed from the cell. Cells without a healthy membrane lose their ability to hold water and vital nutrients. They also lose their ability to communicate with other cells. Researchers believe that loss of cell to cell communication is one of the physiological events that leads to growth of cancerous tumors.
Because cell membranes are made of fat, the integrity and fluidity of our cell membranes is determined in a large degree by the specific types of fat we eat. Researchers believe that diets containing large amounts of saturated or hydrogenated fats (fats which are solid at room temperature) produce cell membranes that are hard and lack fluidity. On the other hand, diets rich in omega-3 fats (which remain liquid at room temperature) produce cell membranes with a high degree of fluidity.
Recent evidence suggests when omega-3 fatty acids are incorporated into cell membranes they may help to protect against cancer, particularly of the breast.
Researchers also found that omega-3 fatty acids affect cell growth by activating an enzyme called sphingomyelinase (try saying that ten times fast) which then generates the release of ceramide, a compound that induces the expression of the human tumor suppressor gene p21, which ultimately causes cancer cell death (yay!).
Omega-3 fats also play an important role in the production of powerful hormone-like substances called prostaglandins. Prostaglandins help regulate many important physiological functions including blood pressure, blood clotting, nerve transmission, the inflammatory and allergic responses, the functions of the kidneys and gastrointestinal tract, and the production of other hormones.
So, clearly, Omega 3’s are crucial to many different aspects of our health. Here’s a quick rundown on just a few of it’s benefits:
The health benefits of Omega 3’s include:
- can help lower triglycerides and blood pressure
- ease rheumatoid arthritis symptoms
- reduce depression
- important for visual and neurological development in infants
- Evidence suggests that a diet high in omega 3s reduces inflammation, a key component in asthma.
- can reduce the symptoms of ADHD
- can improve cognitive function
- protect against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia
Here’s a crazy fact – recent statistics indicate that nearly 99% of people in the United States do not eat enough omega 3 fatty acids. However, the symptoms of omega-3 fatty acid deficiency are very vague, and can often be attributed to some other health conditions or nutrient deficiencies.
Symptoms of deficiency are:
- Cardiovascular Disease
- Type 2 Diabetes
- Dry, itchy skin
- Brittle hair and nails
- Inability to concentrate
- Joint pain
So what are the best vegetarian / vegan food sources of Omega 3’s?
There are plenty of plant-based sources of Omega 3’s that you can include in your diet. Like anything else, making sure to eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and nuts will pretty much cover all the bases as far as nutrient requirements. Here are some of the best sources of Omega 3 fatty acids:
- flax and flaxseed oil
- canola oil (buy only non-GMO)
- olive oil
- soybeans (buy only non-GMO)
- Winter Squash
- Collard Greens and spinach
- Mustard Seeds
Flax seeds and walnuts are the best sources. 2 Tablespoons of ground flax seeds contain 132.92% DV, while 1/4 Cup of walnuts contains 94.58% DV.
I hope you found this article helpful, and that it inspires you to include more healthy foods in your diet. Let me know what you think in the comments below!
- Healthier Fatty Acids Found in Organic Milk (livescience.com)
- Essential Nutrients You Are Probably Missing (ubiquinol.org)
- Potentially Helpful Omega-3 Fatty Acids Can Cross to Brain: Study (news.health.com)