Omega-3 fatty acids are important fats that provide many health benefits. Studies have found that they may reduce inflammation, decrease blood triglycerides and even reduce the risk of dementia. The most well-known sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fish oil and fatty fish like salmon, trout and tuna. This can make it challenging for vegans, vegetarians or even those who simply dislike fish to meet their omega-3 fatty acid needs.
Of the three main types of omega-3 fatty acids, plant foods typically only contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA is not as active in the body and must be converted to two other forms of omega-3 fatty acids — eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) — to bestow the same health benefits. Unfortunately, your body’s ability to convert ALA is limited. Only about 5% of ALA is converted to EPA, while less than 0.5% is converted to DHA. Thus, if you don’t supplement with fish oil or get EPA or DHA from your diet, it’s important to eat a good amount of ALA-rich foods to meet your omega-3 needs.
Additionally, keep in mind your omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, as a diet low in omega-3s but high in omega-6s can increase inflammation and your risk of disease. Here are 7 of the best plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
1. Chia Seeds
Chia seeds are known for their many health benefits, bringing a hefty dose of fiber and protein with each serving. They’re also a great plant-based source of ALA omega-3 fatty acids. Thanks to their omega-3, fiber and protein, studies have found chia seeds could decrease the risk of chronic disease when consumed as part of a healthy diet. One study found that consuming a diet with chia seeds, nopal, soy protein and oats decreased blood triglycerides, glucose intolerance and inflammatory markers.
A 2007 animal study also found that eating chia seeds decreased blood triglycerides and increased both “good” HDL cholesterol and omega-3 levels in the blood. Just one ounce (28 grams) of chia seeds can meet and exceed your daily recommended intake of omega-3 fatty acids, delivering a whopping 4,915 mg. The current daily recommended intake of ALA for adults over age 19 is 1,100 mg for women and 1,600 mg for men. Boost your chia seed intake by whipping up a nutritious chia pudding or sprinkle chia seeds on top of salads, yogurts or smoothies. Ground chia seeds can also be used as a vegan substitute for eggs. Combine one tablespoon (7 grams) with 3 tablespoons of water to replace one egg in recipes.
Summary: One ounce (28 grams) of chia seeds provides 4,915 mg of ALA omega-3 fatty acids, meeting 307–447% of the recommended daily intake.
2. Brussels Sprouts
In addition to their high content of vitamin K, vitamin C and fiber, Brussels sprouts are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids. Because cruciferous vegetables like Brussels sprouts are so rich in nutrients and omega-3 fatty acids, they have been linked to many health benefits. In fact, one study found that an increased intake of cruciferous vegetables is associated with a 16% lower risk of heart disease.
A half cup (44 grams) of raw Brussels sprouts contains about 44 mg of ALA. Meanwhile, cooked Brussels sprouts contain three times as much, providing 135 mg of omega-3 fatty acids in each half-cup (78-gram) serving. Whether they’re roasted, steamed, blanched or stir-fried, Brussels sprouts make a healthy and delicious accompaniment to any meal.
Summary: Each half-cup (78-gram) serving of cooked Brussels sprouts contains 135 mg of ALA, or up to 12% of the daily recommended intake.
3. Algal Oil
Algal oil, a type of oil derived from algae, stands out as one of the few vegan sources of both EPA and DHA. Some studies have even found that it’s comparable to seafood in regard to its nutritional availability of EPA and DHA. One study compared algal oil capsules to cooked salmon and found that both were well tolerated and equivalent in terms of absorption. Though research is limited, animal studies show that the DHA from algal oil is especially beneficial to health.
In fact, a recent animal study found that supplementing mice with a DHA algal oil compound led to an improvement in memory. However, more studies are needed to determine the extent of its health benefits. Most commonly available in softgel form, algal oil supplements typically provide 400–500 mg of combined DHA and EPA. Generally, it is recommended to get 300–900 mg of combined DHA and EPA per day. Algal oil supplements are easy to find in most pharmacies. Liquid forms can also be added to drinks or smoothies for a dose of healthy fats.
Summary: Depending on the supplement, algal oil provides 400–500 mg of DHA and EPA, fulfilling 44–167% of the daily recommended intake.
4. Hemp Seed
In addition to protein, magnesium, iron and zinc, hemp seeds are comprised of about 30% oil and contain a good amount of omega-3s. Animal studies have found that the omega-3s found in hemp seeds could benefit heart health. They may do this by preventing the formation of blood clots and helping the heart recover after a heart attack. Each ounce (28 grams) of hemp seeds contains approximately 6,000 mg of ALA.
Sprinkle hemp seeds on top of yogurt or mix them into a smoothie to add a bit of crunch and boost the omega-3 content of your snack. Also, homemade hemp seed granola bars can be a simple way to combine hemp seeds with other healthy ingredients like flaxseeds and pack in extra omega-3s. Hemp seed oil, which is made by pressing hemp seeds, can also be consumed to provide a concentrated dose of omega-3 fatty acids.
Summary: One ounce (28 grams) of hemp seeds contains 6,000 mg of ALA omega-3 fatty acids, or 375–545% of the daily recommended intake.
Walnuts are loaded with healthy fats and ALA omega-3 fatty acids. In fact, walnuts are comprised of about 65% fat by weight. Several animal studies have found that walnuts could help improve brain health due to their omega-3 content. A 2011 animal study found that eating walnuts was associated with improvements in learning and memory. Another animal study showed walnuts caused significant improvements in memory, learning, motor development and anxiety in mice with Alzheimer’s disease.
Just one serving of walnuts can fulfill an entire day’s requirements of omega-3 fatty acids, with a single ounce (28 grams) providing 2,542 mg. Add walnuts to your homemade granola or cereal, sprinkle them on top of yogurt or simply snack on a handful to increase your ALA intake.
Summary: One ounce (28 grams) of walnuts contains 2,542 mg of ALA omega-3 fatty acids, or 159–231% of the daily recommended intake.
Flaxseeds are nutritional powerhouses, providing a good amount of fiber, protein, magnesium and manganese in each serving. They’re also an excellent source of omega-3s. Several studies have demonstrated the heart-healthy benefits of flaxseeds, largely thanks to their omega-3 fatty acid content. Both flaxseeds and flaxseed oil have been shown to reduce cholesterol in multiple studies.
Another study found that flaxseeds could help significantly lower blood pressure, particularly in those with high blood pressure. One ounce (28 grams) of flaxseeds contains 6,388 mg of ALA omega-3 fatty acids, surpassing the daily recommended amount. Flaxseeds are easy to incorporate into your diet and can be a staple ingredient in vegan baking. Whisk together one tablespoon (7 grams) of flaxseed meal with 2.5 tablespoons of water to use it as a handy substitute for one egg in baked goods. With a mild yet slightly nutty flavor, flaxseed also makes the perfect addition to cereal, oatmeal, soups or salads.
Summary: One ounce (28 grams) of flaxseeds contains 6,388 mg of ALA omega-3 fatty acids, or 400–580% of the daily recommended intake.
7. Perilla Oil
This oil, derived from perilla seeds, is often used in Korean cuisine as a condiment and cooking oil. In addition to being a versatile and flavorful ingredient, it’s also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. One study in 20 elderly participants replaced soybean oil with perilla oil and found that it caused ALA levels in the blood to double. In the long term, it also led to an increase in EPA and DHA blood levels.
Perilla oil is very rich in omega-3 fatty acids, with ALA making up an estimated 64% of this seed oil. Each tablespoon (14 grams) contains nearly 9,000 mg of ALA omega-3 fatty acids. To maximize its health benefits, perilla oil should be used as a flavor enhancer or dressing, rather than a cooking oil. This is because oils high in polyunsaturated fats can oxidize with heat, forming harmful free radicals that contribute to disease. Perilla oil is also available in capsule form for an easy and convenient way to increase your omega-3 intake.
Summary: Each tablespoon (14 grams) of perilla oil contains 9,000 mg of ALA omega-3 fatty acids, or 563–818% of the daily recommended intake.
The Bottom Line
Omega-3 fatty acids are an important part of the diet and essential to your health. If you don’t eat fish because of dietary reasons or personal preference, you can still reap the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in your diet. By either incorporating a few omega-3-rich foods into your diet or opting for a plant-based supplement, it’s possible to meet your needs, seafood-free.