The plant-based version of omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), can benefit heart health and reduce the risk of heart disease, according to new research published in medical journal Advances in Nutrition. Previous research has linked omega-3s with a lower risk of heart disease, but this conclusion was based on omega-3s from fish and other seafood. 

In a comprehensive literature review, the researchers found that consuming ALA that is found in plant-based foods was associated with a 10 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease and a 20 percent reduced risk of fatal coronary heart disease. The researchers say their review suggests there are multiple ways of meeting the recommendations for omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-3s are essential fatty acids, meaning your body cannot produce them itself, and are made up of ALA, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). While ALA can be found in plant-based foods such as walnuts, flaxseeds, soybeans, and canola oil, EPA and DHA are found in fish and other seafood. According to the National Institutes of Health, your body can convert some ALA into EPA and then to DHA in small amounts. 


“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,” Penny Kris-Etherton, Evan Pugh University Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Penn State, said in a statement. “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.”

Plant-based sources of omega-3s for heart health

For the review, the researchers analyzed data from previous studies to evaluate the effects of ALA on heart disease and heart disease risk factors such as blood pressure and inflammation. The studies analyzed included both randomized controlled trials and observational studies. While some of the observational studies relied on the participants reporting how often they ate certain foods to determine how much ALA they were consuming, others used biomarkers (a way of measuring levels of ALA in the blood) as a more accurate measure.

After analyzing the studies, the researchers found that ALA had beneficial effects on reducing atherogenic lipids and lipoproteins—for example, total cholesterol, low density-lipoprotein cholesterol, and triglycerides—as well as blood pressure and inflammation. 

“When people with low levels of omega-3s in their diet ate ALA, they saw a benefit in terms of cardiovascular health,” Jennifer Fleming, assistant teaching professor of nutrition at Penn State, said in a statement. “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 researchers also found evidence supporting current dietary guidelines that ALA should provide about 0.6 percent to one percent of total energy in a day, which is about 1.1 grams per day for women and 1.6 grams per day for men. These recommendations are equal to about a half-ounce of walnuts or just under one teaspoon of flaxseed oil.

The researchers said that future studies are needed to help better understand the effects of ALA on other major chronic diseases. In addition, there is a need to evaluate whether the recent scientific literature supports new, higher dietary recommendations for ALA.

For more about heart health, read:
5 Heart Health Tips From Plant-Based Medical Pros
Eating Plant-Based For Dinner Could Reduce Your Risk of Heart Disease
Doctors Urged to Prescribe Plant-Based Food as Medicine

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