By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Getting omega 3 fatty acids in the diet is crucial because there is no doubt that the omega 6 oils have taken center stage in America. They are the dominant oil in processed foods. When you go to restaurants you eat foods that are fried or sautéed in vegetable oils (such as canola, corn, and safflower oil). That’s too much inflammatory omega 6s. So what’s a vegetarian to do?
For sure, we need to offset the omega 6s as much as possible by infusing the diet with omega 3s. Many individuals get their omega 3s from eating fish, and/or taking fish or squid oil supplements. What if you are a vegetarian or looking to add a plant food source as well?
Myth: Flaxseed is the best way to get vegetarian omega 3s.
Fact: It’s not the only good source, and for some, not the tastiest.
What to Do: Try chia seeds or walnuts instead of, or in addition to, flaxseeds.
The flax plant is the source of flaxseed and linseed oil, and, also linen. Over the years flaxseed has received celebrity-like attention as the star source of vegetarian omega 3s. For sure, it is packed with plenty of healthy fatty acids, and fiber as well.
But there are a few downsides to this otherwise upside story.
One is that they need to be lightly ground to remove their hard hulls before eating. I have done that for years. I would grind the seeds in a coffee grinder and then add it to cereal, yogurt, or a smoothie for both the omega 3 and fiber content. I always used flaxseed for this double-barreled effect. Cleansing the intestines has always been a routine optimum health recommendation of mine to my patients. You need fiber to cleanse and detoxify the digestive tract of toxins.
The oil in flaxseeds goes rancid quite fast, so you have to consume them right away.
As someone who loves being nutritionally creative in the kitchen, I didn’t mind the work involved. I also recommended flaxseed to patients, but some of them complained about the grinding. Others didn’t like the taste of flaxseed.
The Sinatra Solution
There are other options. Chia seeds are one of them, and I frankly think they have the edge over flaxseed. First of all, they have somewhat higher omega 3 fatty acid content than flax, and I think they taste better too. I make a daily high-fiber juice drink and throw about 2 tablespoons of chia seeds into the mix. I also add them to my gluten-free cereal along with fresh raspberries, blueberries, strawberries. The combination probably gives me about 30 grams of good fiber, a level that we all need. The meat and potato eaters, and the folks who eat refined grain cereals, simply don’t get enough fiber, and they suffer with all kind of bowel disorders.
Another advantage here is that you can buy chia seeds in most health food stores and you don’t need to grind them up.
Research on chia seeds is not nearly as extensive as flaxseed. However, chia has long been a major food crop of the indigenous peoples of Mexico and Guatemala, and is now widely cultivated and commercialized for its omega 3 fatty acid and antioxidant content. Animal and human study indicate that chia may lower triglycerides and raise HDL cholesterol, and I am all for that.
If you still want to include flaxseed in your diet, I recommend high-fiber flaxseed muffins. That way you get good taste as well. Just read the label and make sure you aren’t getting a lot of sugar with them.
As far as nuts are concerned, walnuts have always been a favorite of mine. They are particularly rich in polyunsaturated oils compared with other nuts.
One nut-related study that caught my eye was done by Spanish researchers in 2004 who compared a healthy Mediterranean diet, high in monounsaturated fat from olive oil, to a modified diet where walnuts (8 to 13 a day) partially replaced some of the olive oil. Their findings, reported in the journal Circulation, showed that the walnuts enhanced endothelial function − that is, arterial dilation − as measured by ultrasound. They also found a decrease in vascular cell adhesion molecule-1, a substance that contributes to cell stickiness and thrombosis. Omega-3 fatty acids are known to decrease this factor as well.
As a huge fan of olive oil, I shuddered at the thought of anyone interpreting the study as a reason to start cutting back on olive oil. Instead, the study educates us as to the unique properties of different foods and the importance of variety. Olive oil does so much. Walnuts do something additional.
More recently, researchers have suggested that consuming walnuts on a regular basis may be helpful in reducing the risk of diabetes.
- Norlaily MA, et al. The promising future of Chia, salvia hispanica L. J Biomed Biotechnol, 2012.
- Ros E, Nunez I, Perez-Heras A, et al. A walnut diet improves endothelial function in hypercholesterolemic subjects: a randomized crossover trial. Circulation, 2004; 109(13):1609-1614.
- An Pan, et al. Walnut Consumption Is Associated with Lower Risk of Type 2 Diabetes in Women. J Nutr, 2013;143(4): 512-518
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