α-Linolenic acid (ALA) is an n-3 (ω-3) fatty acid found mostly in plant foods such as flaxseed, walnuts, and vegetable oils, including canola and soybean oils. Most of the health benefits observed for n-3 fatty acids have been attributed to the marine-derived long-chain n-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid, because of the strength of evidence from both epidemiologic studies and randomized controlled trials. Furthermore, the observed cardioprotective and other health effects of ALA have been credited to its precursor role in converting to EPA in the body. The promotion of fatty fish consumption for its documented health benefits may not be practical for those who are concerned with the unsustainability of marine sources or who avoid eating fish for a variety of reasons. ALA-rich plant sources are more abundant and may serve as a suitable alternate. It is therefore worthwhile to consider the evidence for the health benefits of ALA. The purpose of this review is to present the evidence from recent studies on the association between ALA and cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and fracture risk. The potential mechanisms that explain these associations will also be briefly discussed.
© 2014 American Society for Nutrition.