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Omega 3's: 8 Vegetarian Ways To Sneak More Into Your Diet

First Posted: 02/26/2012 10:19 am Updated: 02/28/2012 11:39 am

By Elizabeth Nolan Brown for Blisstree.com

Everywhere you look these days, health experts are touting the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat that could help lower blood pressure, prevent heart disease, treat depression and boost brain health. The most commonly named sources are oily fish or fish oil supplements. But while fish is the most common dietary source, there are plenty of vegetarian and vegan ways to get your omega-3's. Click through the slideshow below for eight of these sources, including flaxseed oil, chia seeds and purslane.

Most of these vegetarian sources, I should note, are made up of a type of omega-3 fatty acid known as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). The omega-3's found in fish and fish oil -- and the types made by our bodies -- are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). ALA has not been shown to have the same health benefits as DHA or EPA. Our bodies can totally convert ALA from plant sources into EPA and subsequently DHA, however -- it just requires more metabolic work. Because of this, the absorption of fatty acids may be greater from animal sources like fish, meat or eggs.

"Most healthy people can eat ALA from plant sources like chia and flaxseeds, and it will be transformed into EPA and DHA," explains Susan Schenck in "Beyond Broccoli, Creating a Biologically Balanced Diet When a Vegetarian Diet Doesn't Work." "However, only seven to 15 percent of the dietary ALA may be converted to EPA. Much less is converted to DHA. And this is in a healthy young person. The conversion rate is far less in the unhealthy or elderly." Some people have an impaired enzyme that makes them unable to convert ALA to DHA and EPA, and disease, stress, smoking or eating a diet high in trans and saturated fat can also impair this ability.

Soybean, canola, wheat germ and walnut oil all have a decent amount of omega-3's, but much higher levels of omega-6 fatty acids -- and this ratio of omega-3's to omega-6's is important. Health experts recommend an omega-6/omega-3 ratio of about 4:1. Most American diets contain way too many omega-6 fatty acids, which are common in seed oil (like corn, canola and soybean), animal fat and processed foods. The goal is not to get as much omega-3 as possible, but to get enough to offset the amount of omega-6 in your diet.

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  • Flaxseed Or Flaxseed Oil

    Flaxseed is one of the most highly-recommended plant sources for omega-3s. Ground flaxseed is a staple in my kitchen -- it keeps for a long time in the freezer, and because flaxseed is virtually tasteless, I throw it in all sorts of things -- cereal, oatmeal, smoothies -- to boost my omega-3 intake. You can use ground flaxseed goo as an egg substitute in vegan baking. Flaxseed oil has <a href="http://www.krispin.com/omega3.html#Supplementing" target="_hplink">7980 mg omega-3's per 1-tbsp serving</a>. <strong>More from Blisstree.com:</strong> <a href="http://blisstree.com/move/best-fitness-trackers-similar-to-the-nike-fuel-band-658/" target="_hplink">The Best Fitness Trackers</a> <a href="http://blisstree.com/eat/supplements/which-is-better-krill-oil-or-fish-oil-841/" target="_hplink">Krill Oil vs. Fish Oil</a> <a href="http://blisstree.com/feel/eat-for-your-teeth-omega-3s-could-prevent-gum-disease/" target="_hplink">Eat for Your Teeth: Omega 3s Could Prevent Gum Disease</a> <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/alishav/3462217890/" target="_hplink">Alisha Vargas</a></em>

  • Chia Seeds

    Chia seeds are another plant source of omega-3's that I like to sneak into my diet. You can throw chia seeds into stir fry, salads, seitan, dips and more. Like ground flaxseed, chia seeds have a mild -- if any -- taste. But they'll add a dose of omega-3's and a slight crunch wherever they're added. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/notahipster/4998594527/" target="_hplink">little blue hen</a></em>

  • Hemp Seeds

    Vegan and gluten-free, hemp seeds also have the most essential fatty acids of any nuts or seeds and a perfect 3:1 <a href="http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/16637630/ns/today-food/t/nutty-hemp-hot-food-trend/" target="_hplink">ratio of omega-3 to omega-6</a>. They're also high in protein, minerals and rare polyunsaturated fatty acids like gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) and stearidonic acid (SDA). Like flax and chia seeds, you can sprinkle hemp seeds into lots of different things. Store in the freezer to keep them from going bad. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/restlessglobetrotter/3425782783/" target="_hplink">Jason Rogers</a></em>

  • Perilla Oil

    Perilla oil comes from the seeds of the herb perilla. Over 50 percent of perilla oil consists of ALA, with about <a href="http://www.krispin.com/omega3.html#Supplementing" target="_hplink">8960 mg omega-3 fatty acids</a> per tablespoon (compared to 1680 mg omega-6's).

  • Cauliflower

    "Many people are not aware that cauliflower contains a good amount of omega-3 essential fatty acids, making this veggie great for heart health," says nutritionist Margaux Rathbun. "In addition to the omega-3, cauliflower contains other heart-friendly nutrients including potassium, magnesium and niacin." <a href="http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/vegetables-and-vegetable-products/2390/2" target="_hplink">One cup contains about 37 mg of omega-3's</a>. To retain the nutrients in cauliflower, Rathbun recommends steaming it for no more than five to six minutes, then adding lemon juice and cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/wordridden/4626951567/" target="_hplink">Jessica Spengler</a></em>

  • Hummus

    "Hummus is a vegan source of omega-3's," with about 300 mg in a one-cup serving, explains Charis Freiman-Mendel, author of "Cook Your Way Through the S.A.T.". That's because hummus is made with tahini, which is made from omega-3-packed sesame seeds. "Delicious, healthy, great brain food," says Freiman-Mendel. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/alga/3122887625/" target="_hplink">Albertas Agejevas</a></em>

  • Purslane

    Purslane is a salad or cooking green with a slightly peppery taste. It's got <a href="http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20487719_5,00.html" target="_hplink">400 mg of omega-3's per serving</a>. It's also high in <a href="http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/vegetables-and-vegetable-products/2604/2" target="_hplink">vitamin A</a>, calcium, potassium and iron.

  • Brussels Sprouts

    One serving of Brussels sprouts contains about 430 milligrams of alpha-linolenic acid -- more than one-third of the <a href="http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/DRI//DRI_Energy/energy_full_report.pdf" target="_hplink">daily ALA amount recommended</a> by the National Academy of Sciences. "These tasty little green veggies are loaded with nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids," says nutritionist Margaux Rathbun. "They're the perfect food for promoting healthy and beautiful skin. Try steaming them for about five minutes to keep all of the health-promoting nutrients intact." <strong>More from Blisstree.com:</strong> <a href="http://blisstree.com/move/best-fitness-trackers-similar-to-the-nike-fuel-band-658/" target="_hplink">The Best Fitness Trackers</a> <a href="http://blisstree.com/eat/supplements/which-is-better-krill-oil-or-fish-oil-841/" target="_hplink">Krill Oil vs. Fish Oil</a> <a href="http://blisstree.com/feel/eat-for-your-teeth-omega-3s-could-prevent-gum-disease/" target="_hplink">Eat for Your Teeth: Omega 3s Could Prevent Gum Disease</a> <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/39975765@N05/6399983389/" target="_hplink">Mallory Dash</a></em>

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