People are on a major flax and chia bandwagon these days. These seeds are being touted as superfoods mainly due to their Omega-3 properties. And while, yes, they are technically under the Omega-3 umbrella, they are not direct sources of EPA and DHA…which is what we’re really after with our Omega-3s. Plant sources of Omega-3 – such as flax, chia, hemp, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and wheat germ – are short chain fatty acids known as ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) that must be converted into EPA and DHA. The problem is, most people do not make this conversion well, if at all. So it goes something like this:
I have some chia pudding for breakfast – it becomes ALA in my body- and if all the stars are aligned just perfectly it might become the EPA and DHA that my body needs.
I eat grass-fed beef (or take fish oil) – and it becomes the EPA and DHA that my body needs.
This chart (courtesy of this site) shows the more difficult process that plant foods have in becoming EPA and DHA. Whereas animal sources such as fish, eggs, and grass-fed beef are direct suppliers of DHA and EPA.
Research shows that less than 5% of ALA gets converted to EPA, and less than 0.5% of ALA is converted to DHA. The conversion depends on factors such as good digestion, healthy liver function, and the presence of sufficient amino acids, vitamin B6, magnesium, and zinc. Sadly, most people are deficient in one (if not ALL) of these areas.
Bottom Line: Enjoy your flax and chia for other nutritional properties. But for efficient sources of Omega-3, go for wild-caught salmon, a high quality fish oil, grass-fed beef (grain-fed does not have Omega-3s), and pastured eggs. And there’s always this:
If you’d like to read more on this subject (Omega-3s, not Homer Simpson’s chia head!), Chris Kresser has a great article here.