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Plant-Based Fats Pack a Punch

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Omega-3 Fatty Acids from Plants Are as Effective as Fats from Fish for Heart Health

EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), both omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, have been widely popularized for their noted health benefits. These healthy fats may help lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease, reduce age-related hearing loss, lower levels of stress hormones in the blood, and help prevent heart disease. Promising 2014 research suggests ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), the omega-3 fatty acid found in plant foods such as chia seeds, walnuts, flaxseeds, and pumpkin seeds, might also offer the same benefits for your heart.

Penn State nutritionists reviewed current evidence on the benefits of the different omega-3 fatty acids, finding strong evidence for the benefits of ALA. In a Dutch study, people who ate one or more grams of ALA per day had a 35-50% lower risk of stroke after up to 13 years of follow-up. Other evidence has found that with each extra gram of ALA per day, risk of death from heart disease drops 10%. Three different trials comparing ALA with DHA and EPA found similar beneficial effects on heart disease risk factors like cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Research from Appalachian State University at the North Carolina Research Campus, home of the Dole Nutrition Institute’s research laboratory, found that eating about 2.5 tablespoons of chia seeds per day increased blood levels of ALA by 58% and EPA by 39%, suggesting dietary ALA increases circulating EPA, which could confer health benefits.

Fish oils have previously gained most of the health attention due to differences in study designs. Many studies looking at EPA and DHA involve supplement use for omega-3 fats rather than fish consumption. In most studies looking at ALA, omega-3 fats have come from food, not supplements, leaving room for variations between groups that could affect results. A challenge for researchers has been isolating the benefits of ALA. Plant food sources provide lots of other nutrients that also offer cardiovascular benefits, so it can be difficult to determine which nutrient is causing the positive effect. Despite these challenges, researchers concluded that when it comes to heart health, plant-based omega-3 fats are just as effective as the omega-3 fats from fish.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, and this new information could help in preventing the disease. ALA is found in walnuts, pumpkin seeds, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and oils made from these sources. It’s also found in canola oil and tofu. Adding these foods to your diet could be a step in the right direction towards heart disease prevention. Try snacking on a handful of walnuts between meals, tossing pumpkin seeds in green salads, using canola oil in cooking, and sprinkling ground flaxseed or chia seed on oatmeal (whole chia seeds do not allow ALA into the blood so they should be milled or ground). For a real omega-3 kick, try our Parsley Walnut Pesto tossed with whole wheat pasta, lean chicken, and fresh broccoli florets. 

Published May 1, 2015

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