You know fish is heart-healthy because it contains omega-3 fatty acids, which have been found to lower cholesterol. A common misconception is that eating salmon and other seafood is the only way to get omega-3s, but new research reveals that loading up on plant-based sources of this essential nutrient can benefit heart health and reduce the risk of fatal heart disease by up to 20 percent.

The research, a review of previous studies, found that the major plant-based version of the nutrient, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), can benefit heart health and reduce the risk of heart disease for those who don’t eat seafood. ALA is found in several plant-based foods including walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseeds.

The report, published in Advances in Nutrition, researched the ALA content of plant-based foods to compare the effects to traditional sources of omega-3s. The researchers found that the ALA was associated with a 10 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease and a 20 percent reduced risk of fatal heart disease. The study emphasizes that people can easily substitute traditional sources of omega-3s for ALA-rich foods to maintain heart health within their diet.

“When people with low levels of omega-3s in their diet ate ALA, they saw a benefit in terms of cardiovascular health," Assistant Teaching Professor of Nutrition at Penn State Jennifer Fleming said. "But when people with high levels of omega-3s from other sources ate more ALA, they also saw a benefit. It could be that ALA works synergistically with other omega-3s."

The research also noted that people can find the omega-3 ALA in a wide variety of foods. By reducing seafood consumption, people could add vegetables, fruits, and whole grains into their diet to maintain healthy levels of the ALA. It's important to note that the California Walnut Commission helped to support this research, but there are other great plant-based sources of omega-3s beyond walnuts.

Plant-Based Sources of Omega-3s

  • Chia seeds
  • Hemp seeds
  • Algal oil
  • Perilla oil
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Walnuts

"People may not want to eat seafood for a variety of reasons, but it's still important for them to consume omega-3s to reduce the risk of heart disease and to promote overall health,"  Evan Pugh University Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Penn State Penny Kris-Etherton said. "Plant-based ALA in the form of walnuts or flaxseeds can also provide these benefits, especially when incorporated into a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains."

Previous research regarding the heart health benefits of omega-3 largely depended on seafood-based sources. The team of researchers says this research is unique because it is one of the first studies that exclusively examines plant-derived ALAs. To conduct the research, the team examined the data from previously studied to evaluate the extent of ALA’s effects on the heart. The study revealed that people who consumed ALA developed fewer heart disease risk factors including inflammation and high blood pressure.

Who benefits from eating more omega-3s

"With the advent of precision nutrition and personalized medicine, we are more aware than ever of the need to identify and target individuals who might get the largest benefit from increasing their consumption of ALA-rich foods," said the study's lead author, adding: "Paying close attention to the amount of ALA in the blood and how it affects heart health could help in this effort."

The study analyzed previous studies that had looked at eating habits via both self-reported information and biomarkers – a method of measuring ALA levels in the blood. The study found that higher ALA levels correlated with lower levels of atherogenic lipids and lipoproteins – both often associated with a higher risk for heart health. Emeritus Investigator at Institut d'Investigacions Biomèdiques August Pi Sunyer Emilio Ros explained how this could prove ALA’s beneficial impact on heart health.

"We were able to find evidence supporting current dietary guidelines that ALA should provide about 0.6%-1% of total energy in a day, which is about 1.1 grams a day for women and 1.6 grams a day for men," Ros said, "and can be incorporated into the diet with foods such as walnuts, flaxseeds, and cooking oils such as canola and soybean oils.

How Omega-3s Help You Live Longer

A previous study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology claimed that consuming foods high in omega 3s could help heart patients live at least three years longer. The study specifically considered ALA omega-3s in comparison to the marine-based version to find that both sources would help lower adverse symptoms following the development of heart disease.

But beyond heart health, omega 3s can help with much more than just anxiety. A study found that a shortage of omega 3s could worsen symptoms of depression, anxiety, lack of focus, and more.

Bottom Line: For heart health, eat walnuts and plant sources of omega-3 fatty acid

Add chia seeds, hemp seeds and flaxseeds to smoothies or oatmeal and snack on walnuts to get omega-3s into your diet from healthy plant-based sources for optimal heart health, study finds.

For more expert and research-backed health news, visit The Beet's Health & Nutrition content. 

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