Walnuts: Omega-3s by the Handful
It's easy to add walnuts to a morning bowl of cereal or some snack-time trail mix. They are an excellent source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), one of the three omega-3 fatty acids and the one most commonly found in plants. Other nuts, including pecans and pistachios, also contain ALA, although almonds do not.
Omega-3-enhanced eggs are widely available in stores and farmers markets. They tend to have darker yolks than regular eggs. The omega-3 fatty acid DHA is found in yolks only; egg whites contain no fatty acids. If you eat a breakfast of omega-3-enhanced eggs, you'll start your day with the potential health benefits of omega-3s, including protecting the heart and possibly reducing risks of dementia.
Fish: An Excellent Source
Cold-water fish has the highest concentration of DHA and EPA, the two fatty acids closely linked to heart health. The American Heart Association recommends at least two servings per week of salmon, tuna, herring, lake trout, sardines, and similar fish. Why? Studies show that the omega-3s DHA and EPA reduce triglycerides, which can lead to blocked arteries. And omega-3s can also help decrease risk of irregular heartbeats.
A Bowl of Beans
Mix edamame (green soybeans), pinto, or kidney beans into soups, chili, and salads to boost your intake of the omega-3 fatty acid ALA. There is more evidence supporting the health benefits of fish-based omega-3s EPA and DHA, but the body can convert some plant-based ALA into EPA and DHA, too.
Fortified Milk and Dairy
Children should also get omega-3 fatty acids, although there's no guideline as to how much. Food sources are preferable to supplements. Omega-3-fortified milk and yogurt are dairy choices for children who don't like fish. Many infant formulas now include the omega-3 fatty acid DHA because some research suggests it aids in brain development.
A Splash of Healthy Oil
Choose oils that are high in omega-3 fatty acids for sautéing, baking, and dressing salads. Canola, soybean, and walnut oils are all good choices. Just remember that while omega-3s are good fats, oils are still high in calories, so use them sparingly. And don't worry: High cooking heat won't destroy their benefits.
Spinach, Kale, and Leafy Greens
Add the omega-3 fatty acid ALA to the nutritional benefits found in leafy greens. A spinach salad, a side of sautéed collard greens, and lettuce on a sandwich all boost ALA intake. That's good because fatty acids don't just promote heart health. Studies now suggest they may help other conditions, including cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis.
The same omega-3 fatty acid that's found in cold-water fish -- docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) -- can be found in seaweed and algae. Although seaweed salad can often be found on the menu at sushi restaurants, you might find it in the refrigerated case in the grocery store, too. You're more likely to get the benefits of algae from a daily supplement. Both are good sources of omega-3s for vegetarians.
Bread, Cereal, and Assorted Grains
Pantry staples such as bread, cereal, and pasta are now available with added omega-3s. These functional foods let people eat fatty acids at every meal. It's a good idea, though, to get most of your omega-3s in whole foods such as fish, flaxseed, soybeans, nuts, and greens.
Flaxseeds, Flaxseed Oil, and Other Seeds
Flaxseeds have high amounts of ALA omega-3s. But they must be ground shortly before eating to provide benefits. Some ground flaxseeds are sold in special packaging to preserve the fatty acids. Flaxseed oil is another good source of this omega-3. Poppy, pumpkin, and sesame seeds also provide plant-based omega-3s, but in much smaller quantities, and can be tossed into oatmeal, breads, and salads.
Soy Foods: Tofu, Edamame, and More
Grocery shelves are full of foods made from soybeans: tofu, miso, tempeh, soy milk, and edamame. Soy products have many benefits, including the plant-based fatty acid ALA. Substitute soy-based vegetable protein for ground meat in chili, add edamame to your casserole and stir fries, use soy milk in smoothies, and snack on roasted soybeans to increase omega-3s.
Most Americans don't get enough omega-3s in their diets. It's best to get them from foods, but supplements may help fill in the gaps if needed. You can choose from fish oil capsules or vegetarian-friendly supplements made from algae. Recommended daily doses vary from 500 mg to 3 grams. Higher omega-3 intakes may increase the risk of bleeding or interact with certain medications, so consult your doctor before starting any supplements.