Dec 3, 2019

Omega-3 fats and plant based sources of ALA

There has been an increased awareness of Omega-3 fats in the past few years. Media has been buzzing with multiple articles on Omega-3 fats, supplements and fortified foods. In this article, I have tried to summarize my understanding of this fat group.

Disclaimer: I'm not a medical professional. Do your due diligence before making any changes to your diet.

Omega-3 fats belong to the family of polyunsaturated fats (PUFA).

They are an integral part of cell membranes throughout the body and affect the function of the cell receptors in these membranes.  According to this source, Omega-3 fats lower blood pressure and heart rate, improve blood vessel function, and, at higher doses, lower triglycerides and may ease inflammation, which plays a role in the development of atherosclerosis.

The three main omega-3 fatty acids are 
  • short-chain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
  • long-chain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
  • long-chain docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
ALAs are essential fats i.e. our body cannot make them from scratch and so we need to consume through foods or supplements.  The RDA (Required Dietary Allowance) of ALA is as below:

I looked into IFCT-2017 (Indian Food Composition Tables) and prepared this list of food sources rich in ALA, along with their respective values.

Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA)
(mg per 100 gms)
Wheat flour atta45
Amaranth seed (brown)43

Black gram whole601
Black gram dal566
Moth bean240
Cowpea brown207
Cowpea white203
Green gram whole180
Green gram dal157
Dry peas145
Bengal gram whole117
Bengal gram dal116

Green Leafy Veg
Drumstick leaves446
Curry leaves417
Methi leaves362
Colocasia leaves335
Mint leaves286
Amaranth leaves, green247
Mustard leaves240
Beet greens207
Coriander leaves169

Other veggies
Bean scarlet, tender (perumpayar)227
Zucchini green152
Field beans96
Knol kol71
Zucchini yellow71
French beans69
Cluster beans63

Wood apple636
Lemon juice83
Apricot, dried80

Condiments and Spices
Fenugreek seeds1082
Turmeric powder377
Pepper, black258
Cardamom, black197
Cardamom, green172

Nuts and Seeds
Linseeds (flaxseeds)12956
Garden cress seeds7484
Mustard seeds3341
Gingelly seeds120

Our body can convert ALA into EPA and DHA. This conversion happens in the liver. Research on Omega-3 fats is still ongoing and I couldn't find any conclusive proof on the conversion of ALA into EPA and DHA, as to how much of it gets converted. There are multiple factors that influence the ability of our body to convert ALA into EPA and DHA. 
  • The higher the Omega-6 fats consumption is or the higher the ratio of Omega-6 : Omega-3, the lower the conversion is. Omega-6 is found mainly in refined vegetable oils, which is extensively used in fried foods and processed foods. The acceptable ratio of Omega-6 : Omega-3 is between 2:1 and 4:1
  • Including foods rich in nutrients such as pyridoxine (Vitamin B6), biotin, magnesium and zinc help convert the parent omega-3 ALA into EPA and DHA

Fishes are a good source of EPA and DHA but they may contain mercury, heavy metals, PCBs, dioxins and other contaminants, thanks to severe degradation of the quality of our water sources.

The recommendation for vegetarians and vegans is to include algae-based EPA and DHA supplements. But my point of concern is the quality of these supplements, not to forget the high costs.

Being a vegetarian, I'm not planning to consume fish oil supplements. I don't plan to buy algae-based ones either. I plan to ensure my Omega-6 intake isn't too high. Using the above list of ALA-rich foods sources as a reference, I'll make sure my intake of ALA is good enough, and my body will take care of the conversion as per my need. This is my point of view.


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