Omega-3 fatty acids are “good fats” your body needs to function. These fatty acids come in three forms. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is found mainly in plant oils, and seafood is the best source of eicosapentaenoic (EPA) and docosahexaenoic (DHA) acids.
ALA is an essential fatty acid, meaning you need to get it from your diet. Your body can convert ALA into small amounts of DHA and EPA, but getting more from food or supplements helps support a range of healthy bodily processes.
Omega-3 supplements include fish oil, cod liver oil, and vegetarian algal oil, but formulations vary widely. Doctors sometimes prescribe high doses to help lower heart disease risk factors like high triglyceride levels, or specific fats in your blood. But these doses could have negative side effects in healthy people, so talk to your doctor before adding a supplement to your diet.
Why You Need Omega-3s
Omega-3s play important roles throughout your body. Getting enough in your diet is linked to a lower risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and arthritis, as well as cognitive conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.
Daily recommended levels are based on the body’s ALA requirement. On average, men should consume 1.6 grams of ALA per day and women 1.1 grams, but a healthy diet includes sources of DHA and EPA as well.
Research shows these omega-3s support your health in several ways, including:
A diet high in omega-3s is associated with a lower risk of heart disease. Studies show omega-3s reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels. This effect can keep your arteries clear from plaque buildup and your blood vessels smooth and flexible, putting less strain on your heart.
Omega-3s may reduce inflammation in your body. While inflammation is a natural response to infection and stress, high levels over time can lead to chronic diseases like coronary artery disease, arthritis, and possibly depression.
Research is ongoing to see if omega-3s could be used to treat different conditions. However, studies suggest that omega-3s’ effects could reduce your risk of many inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.
Some studies show that people who consume enough omega-3s have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and other conditions of cognitive decline. Scientists don’t fully understand why omega-3s may have this effect, however, so much more research is needed.
Foods With Omega-3s
Omega-3s are the cousins of omega-6s — other types of fatty acids that have similar health benefits. However, you get the best benefits from getting adequate levels of both.
Research shows that most people consume about 10 times more omega-6 fats than omega-3s. Try adding a mix of these eight foods to your diet to ensure a healthy balance of essential fats.
1. Flaxseed Oil
One tablespoon of flaxseed oil contains 7.26 grams of the ALA omega-3, more than seven times your daily recommendation. You can get 2.35 grams of omega-3 from a tablespoon of whole flaxseeds as well.
Because flaxseed oil has a low smoke point, cooking it can reduce the nutritional content and may release harmful compounds.
It’s best used in dressings, dips, or smoothies. The seeds are great to add to cereals or baked goods, or you can mix them with water to make a vegetarian egg substitute.
2. Canola Oil
Because flaxseed oil isn’t suitable for cooking, canola oil’s high smoking temperature makes it a great way to add omega-3s to sauteed, fried, or baked dishes. You can use canola oil in place of most other cooking oils and get 1.28 grams of ALA in every tablespoon.
3. Chia Seeds
With their 2.53 grams of omega-3s per tablespoon, chia seeds are a good alternative for people who don’t like flaxseeds’ nutty taste. They also contain high fiber and protein levels, making chia seeds an excellent source of nutrients for people on a plant-based diet.
Almost all seafood contains omega-3s, but cooked salmon is an especially good DHA and EPA source with 1.24 and 0.59 grams, respectively. While fresh fish doesn’t usually contain ALA, canned salmon can have up to 0.04 grams in addition to its DHA and EPA content. Other large fish like mackerel, trout, tuna, and sea bass also have high omega-3 levels.
5. Foraging Fish
After large fish like salmon, foraging fish have some of the highest levels of EPA and DHA omega-3s. This group includes herring with 1.71 grams per 3-ounce serving and canned sardines with 1.19 grams.
Shellfish are a uniquely good source of omega-3s because many types contain all three forms — ALA, DHA, and EPA. This includes oysters with a total content of 0.67 grams per 3-ounce serving, lobster with 0.21 grams, and scallops with 0.15 grams for the same portion.
Walnuts are rich in many nutrients, including omega-3s. About seven walnuts contain up to 1.28 grams of ALA, and if you include them in a chicken dish you get an added boost. While a 3-ounce portion of chicken breast has only 0.03 grams of omega-3s, it’s made up of DHA and EPA, balancing your meal.
While you should moderate your portions of mayonnaise because of its saturated fat content, a tablespoon has 0.74 grams of the omega-3 ALA. Mixing it with canned tuna for a salad or sandwich offers a complete source of omega-3s. You get 0.32 grams of DHA and EPA from a 5-ounce can of tuna packed in water.