Vegetarians, vegans, and other plant-loving friends… you’re not out of luck on omega-3 fatty acids.  As we’ve often mentioned, omega-3 fatty acids offer a multitude of health benefits, so it would be in your best interest not to miss out. Lucky for you veg-heads, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is one of the three types of omega-3 fatty acids, and is found in a variety of plant-based sources, such as ground flaxseed, flaxseed oil, canola oil, soybeans, pumpkinseeds, walnuts, and walnut oil. The other two types, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are mainly found in coldwater fish. (For more information on these types, see our 12 Healthy Habits challenge to eat more fish.)  Your body can partially convert ALA into DHA and EPA, so even if you aren’t eating fish, you can still get the fish oil-based DHA and EPA by eating foods rich in plant oils.

While omega-3 fatty acids are recommended for optimum health, they are not like protein or fiber, which have a Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA). Instead, the Institute of Medicine has recommended an Adequate Intake amount of between 1.1 and 1.6 grams a day for adults. 

The true push behind omega-3 fatty acids is to upset the balance between good fats and bad fats.  Americans currently tip the scale towards unhealthy fats, and the more omega-3 fatty acids we include in our diets the more we tip the scale in favor of the heart-healthy fats. And while the term vegetarianism doesn’t automatically denote healthy, it does refer to a plant-based diet, which is where many of our heart-healthy polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids can be found. 

Some of my other favorite plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids include:

Flaxseeds:  Whole flaxseeds will just pass right on through. To get all the goods, grind them up (or just buy them in the ground form) and stir them into smoothies, cereal, or yogurt. Even better, bake them into your cookies, quick breads, muffins, and pancakes. One ounce of ground flaxseed contains about 1.6 grams of omega-3 fatty acids. 

Walnuts:  The richest source of omega-3 fatty acids in the nut family also happens to be my favorite.  Providing 2.6 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per ounce, add walnuts to any salad, sprinkle them over vegetables, or stir them into oatmeal.  Better yet, just enjoy a handful straight from the shell, lightly toasted. 

Canola Oil:  With 1.3 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per tablespoon, sauté your vegetables in this heart-healthy oil instead of butter, and use it as the base for your salad dressings.

Soy:  Edamame and tofu top the list.  Though not as rich in omega-3 fatty acids as some of the above options, tofu has about 0.3 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per 4-ounce serving.  Shelled edamame has about 0.5 grams per half cup.  Combine the two in a stir-fry and you’ve got a winning combination.

For the egg-eating vegetarians, go for the ones high in omega-3 fatty acids.  Unlike many fortified and enhanced products, omega-3 rich eggs are produced by chickens fed a high flaxseed diet, so the omega-3 fatty acids come naturally.

While there are some vegetarian-friendly omega-3 supplements available on the market, the best way to get these heart-healthy fats into your diet is to eat them, using them to replace unhealthy saturated fats. Vegetarian or not, these plant-based omega 3-rich foods are a great (and delicious) addition to any diet.