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Eating Plant-Based Omega-3s May Support Heart Health

bowl of walnuts

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Key Takeaways

  • Almost half of all Americans have heart disease.
  • While there are some risk factors for heart disease you can’t change, the foods you eat can have an effect on your health—including your heart.
  • A new study has shown that plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, found in foods like walnuts and flax seeds, may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and fatal coronary heart disease.

According to the American Heart Association, around 50% of Americans have heart disease. Cardiovascular disease increases your risk for heart attack and stroke.

While developing heart disease is partly related to factors that are out of your control (like family history), certain dietary and lifestyle choices can have a profound impact on your health.

Understanding which factors are modifiable can empower you to support your heart health by making some changes to your lifestyle—including what you eat.

A new study supported by a grant from the California Walnut Commission (CWC) and published in Advances in Nutrition showed that eating more plant-based omega-3 fatty acids could be one way to combat the risk of heart disease.

What Are Plant-Based Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

Omega-3 fatty acids have been getting a lot of attention in the nutrition world—and for good reason. This group of so-called “healthy fats” is often noted for its many health benefits, including lowering levels of inflammation.

There are three main omega-3 fatty acids. Each one has a different chemical composition.

Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) omega-3 fatty acids are found primarily in marine sources like fish, shellfish, and certain algae. DHA has been shown to play an important role in heart health, brain health, vision health, and healthy pregnancies.

Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) comes from plant-based foods, like walnuts and flax seeds. However, the nature of ALA’s role in our health is a little more mysterious than the roles of EPA and DHA.

Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, RDN, owner of Bazilian’s Health in San Diego, told Verywell that while ALA does convert to EPA to DHA, “the relative amount/percentage is a subject of debate among scientists” or that “we may not have the best way to measure or assess” ALA.

Previous research has shown that marine-sourced EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids have heart-health benefits, but the new study suggested that ALA may offer important cardiovascular health benefits, too.

Plant-Based Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Heart Health

Bazilian says that over the past few decades, physicians have paid more attention to the role of omega-3.

“Much attention has been focused on omega-3s as a category of marine sources, specifically,” she said.

The researchers behind the new study took a closer look at what studies in recent years have shown about plant-based ALA and its role in our health.

What Did the Researchers Look At?

To find out whether plant-based omega-3 ALA can be seen as a nutrient that supports heart health, the researchers looked at epidemiological studies, randomized clinical trials, and meta-analyses on dietary ALA and heart disease that were done over the last eight years.

The researchers specifically looked for relationships between ALA and metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cognition.

What Did They Find?

Epidemiological studies and randomized controlled trials showed an overwhelming benefit to including food sources high in ALA in an overall heart-healthy eating pattern.

Aleix Sala-Vila

In contrast to what has long been thought, omega-3 fatty acids of vegetable and marine origin do not compete.

— Aleix Sala-Vila

Specifically, the researchers noted that consuming foods with omega-3 ALA was associated with a 10% lower risk of cardiovascular disease and a 20% lower risk of fatal coronary heart disease.

The randomized controlled trials showed that dietary ALA reduced total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure. Some data also demonstrated the anti-inflammatory effect of ALA. 

The evidence for ALA’s benefits for metabolic syndrome and obesity was not as clear, according to the researchers. They also did not find clear evidence of the benefits of ALA on cognition, but they said that the early evidence is promising.

How Much ALA Do I Need?

The researchers felt that the evidence supports the current dietary intake guidance for ALA, which is 1.1 grams per day for women and 1.6 grams per day for men.

“In contrast to what has long been thought, omega-3 fatty acids of vegetable and marine origin do not compete,” lead study author Aleix Sala-Vila, PhD, an associate scientist at the Fatty Acid Research Institute and a research fellow at the Hospital del Mar Medical Research Institute in Barcelona, told Verywell. “In some observational studies it has been found that the two types of omega-3 might act in a complementary—perhaps synergistic—way.”

Sala-Vila said that even if someone eats a couple of servings of fish per week, they may benefit from including ALA-rich foods in their diets, too.

Getting More Omega-3 ALA in Your Diet

One way to get more omega-3 ALA in your diet is to focus on plant-based foods that contain these important fats.

Walnuts are the only nut that is an excellent source of ALA (2.5 g/1 oz). A handful of walnuts is a quick and tasty way to meet your daily ALA recommendations.

A study published in BMJ showed that the amount of ALA found in a handful of walnuts might be enough to help reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease.

Chia seeds, flax seeds, and canola oil are also good sources of ALA.

Add More ALA to Your Day

  • Sprinkle chia seeds in a smoothie
  • Add ground flax seeds to your oatmeal
  • Top your salad with sliced avocado
  • Snack on a handful of walnuts or add them to a yogurt parfait

“The evolving and growing research is showing that increasing plant-based omega-3 fats play an important role in cardiovascular health,” Bazilian said. “Including decreased all-cause mortality and mortality from heart disease, has anti-inflammatory properties, and has a promising—though still not fully understood—role in supporting cognitive and brain health.”

Bazilian said that all of the evidence is coming together and “building to make a strong case for the important role this essential fat has in promoting health.”

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6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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