Omega-3s are beneficial fatty acids that help reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease and might help our brains, too. As with most foods, some are better sources than others. Best sources of Omega-3s are fish and nuts.
Omega-3 fatty acids have long been known to be beneficial for health, largely due to their ability to reduce inflammation in the body, which in turn can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Omega-3s are also important for fetal develop during pregnancy, and might be important for brain health. We can get omega-3s from both plant and seafood sources, but are they created equal?
The omega-3 fatty acids that have the most established health benefits are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). We get DHA and EPA from seafood, which is the main reason the American Heart Association and other experts recommend that healthy adults eat at least two servings of fatty fish per week. Many people are concerned about mercury contamination, but the benefits of regular fish consumption outweigh potential risks, provided that we avoid the types of fish that tend to have high mercury levels. Play it safe by avoiding king mackerel, shark, swordfish and tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, and limiting albacore (white) tuna to 6 ounces per week.
Because omega-3 fatty acids are, well, fats, fatty fish like salmon are richer sources. Other good fish sources are sardines, herring and anchovies. These are also low-mercury, sustainably sourced choices. Grass-fed meat and dairy have small amounts of omega-3s, and some foods, including eggs, are fortified with omega-3s, but that doesn’t come close to matching what you get from fish. And the jury is currently out on the benefits of fish oil supplements. Now, what about plant sources of omega-3s?
Many plant foods also contain omega-3 fatty acids in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Your body can convert ALA into DHA/EPA, but that ability is limited — very limited. In most humans, the conversion rate is about 5 percent. The rest of your diet may influence how well you convert ALA, because the same enzymes that convert ALA to DHA/EPA also convert the omega-6 fatty acid linoleic acid (LA) to arachidonic acid (ARA), and the typical American diet tends to be high in LA, mostly due to vegetable oils in highly processed foods, and ALA and LA compete for access to the conversion “pathway.” But even among people with similar intakes of ALA and LA, conversion rates vary.
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Interestingly, new research suggests that ALA may have its own health benefits, even when not converted to DHA/EPA. Recently, researchers in the PREDIMED study, a major clinical trial examining the health effects of a Mediterranean-style diet, compared the participants’ intake of ALA from foods with eventual rates of deaths from heart disease and other causes. They found that even when participants had a high intake of DHA and EPA from fish, high intake of ALA was associated with a 28 percent reduced risk of death from all causes. In addition, most observational studies have noticed an association between increased ALA intake and lowered risk of heart disease.
In the PREDIMED study, the primary source of ALA was walnuts. Other sources of plant-based omega-3s include flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, soy foods and canola oil. In the traditional Mediterranean diet, the abundance of dark, leafy greens provide ample omega 3s. Some of the best green picks are purslane, arugula, spinach and romaine. Winter squash (acorn, butternut, pumpkin) also contains some omega-3s.
It’s good news that we get value from plant-based omega-3s, because most people simply don’t eat the recommended two servings of fish per week. Additionally, there are serious sustainability concerns about the fish populations. According to Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, 90 percent of the world’s fisheries are either fully exploited, over-exploited or have collapsed. (They note that wild Alaska salmon fisheries are well managed and thus more resilient.) Thus, plant sources of ALA, which have health benefits besides ALA content, may be a viable way to get the benefits of omega 3s, with or without fish. This salmon with walnut pesto recipe is the best of both worlds.
Salmon with Walnut Pesto
Several years ago, when the price of pine nuts went through the roof, I made the switch to walnuts in my pesto recipe, and never looked back. I like the omega-3 boost, plus I find that the creamy texture of ground walnuts makes it easy to make a vegan, dairy-free pesto if desired. Just increase the amount of walnuts and add a bit more salt to taste, to compensate for removing the Parmesan (which is a salty cheese)
1 to 1.5 pounds wild Alaska salmon
2 cups (packed) torn or chopped greens (kale, arugula, dandelion greens)
1 cup (packed) fresh basil leaves (or play around with other fresh herbs)
½ teaspoon sea salt, plus more to taste
1/3-½ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ cup shelled walnuts
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped (or more to taste)
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese (or more walnuts)
Pesto: In a food processor, combine the greens, basil and ½ teaspoon sea salt. Pulse until the kale leaves are finely chopped. With the food processor on (motor running), drizzle in the olive oil. Turn off the motor so you can scrape down the sides of the processor bowl. Add the walnuts and garlic, pulse to combine. Add the cheese, pulse to combine. Set aside while you cook the salmon.
Salmon: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place salmon, skin-side down, on a foil-lined baking sheet. Put the baking sheet in the oven and roast until salmon is lightly translucent in the center, about 12-15 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to rest for a few minutes. Top with the pesto and serve.