There is a plethora of research highlighting the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids have been correlated with protection against cardiovascular disease, cardiac arrhythmias, cancer, stroke, lupus, inflammatory bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis. Omega-3 fatty acids can also lower triglycerides, decrease the rate of plaque buildup in the arteries, and decrease blood pressure to a small extent. Emerging research has also shown promising results associating omega-3 fatty acid intake and improved cognitive function and insulin sensitivity.
Unfortunately, most people in America typically don't consume enough omega-3s of any kind. There are three different types of omega-3 fatty acids. The most readily absorbed kinds, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), come from animal sources, such as fish, shellfish and eggs. The third kind, alpha-linonic acid (ALA), which comes from plants, is converted to EPA and DHA, but only a small percentage is converted.
Currently there are not any established guidelines for how much omega-3 fatty acids you should get, but many experts recommend aiming for 2-3 grams (2000-3000 mg) a day for maximum health benefits. So what foods provide the most omega-3 fats?
Cold water fatty fish contain the most omega-3s. According to the USDA Nutrient Database, here are the types of seafood that provide the most omega-3 fats (in a three-ounce cooked serving):
More than 1,500 mg: anchovies, salmon (farmed Atlantic, or wild king), mackerel (wild, Pacific and Jack), herring, eel
1,000-1,500 mg: canned salmon, canned mackerel, mackerel (wild Atlantic and Spanish), wild bluefin tuna
500-1,000 mg: salmon (wild pink, coho, sockeye, and chum), canned sardines, canned white albacore tuna, swordfish (wild), rainbow trout (farmed), oysters and mussels (farmed and wild)
200-500 mg: canned light tuna, tuna (wild skipjack), pollock, rockfish, clams, crab (snow, king, and dungeness), lobster (wild, spiny), snapper, grouper, halibut, sole, flounder, ocean perch, squid
To help curtail possible negative effects from environmental pollutants, it's best to eat a variety of omega-3-rich seafood products (avoid consuming too much large predatory fish) obtained through environmentally-safe practices.
All nuts are going to provide some healthy polyunsaturated fats, but to get the most omega-3 bang for your buck, opt for walnuts. You can also use walnut oil when stir-frying your veggies. Other nuts, such as pecans and cashews, provide some omega-3s but in smaller amounts.
Don't be lax on flax seeds and flax seed oil -- the fat in these powerful seeds is about 60% omega-3 fats. An added bonus -- flax also contains protein and fiber. Chia and hemp seeds also provide omega-3s.
Seaweed and kelp, commonly used in Japanese cuisine, are good sources of DHA omega-3s.
When seeking out heart-healthy oils for your cooking and baking needs, reach for canola oil. Be careful with portions in order to prevent adding too many calories.
Grass-fed beef contains more omega-3s than grain-fed cattle beef.
Eggs that come from hens fed an omega-3 fatty acid-rich diet contain more omega-3 fatty acids (in the yolk) and contain less saturated fat and cholesterol than conventional eggs. Other foods that are commonly fortified with omega-3s include dairy products, butter and margarine spreads, breads, cereals, and non-dairy milks, such as soymilk.
Soybeans & Tofu
These stir-fry staples pack about 300 mg of omega-3s in a four-ounce portion.
Brussels sprouts, kale, broccoli, spinach, watercress, purslane, parsley and mint contribute omega-3s to your diet.
How Can I Start Increasing the Omega-3 Fats in My Diet?
There are some simple steps you can take to help you increase the omega-3 fats in your diet. Try to aim for a minimum of one rich source of omega-3 fats daily in your diet. Ways to achieve this could include:
- Eat one serving (3.5 ounces cooked) of fatty fish.
- Replace a nutrient-poor processed snack food, such as chips or a candy bar, with a serving (about a quarter-cup) of nuts each day.
- Use walnut oil as your primary cooking oil.
- Replace a serving of conventional red meat with soybeans or tofu, or opt for a lean 3-ounce portion of grass-fed beef.
- Fill half of your plate with leafy green vegetables.
- Start the day off right with an omega-3-fortified egg scrambled up with some veggies.
A Final Note
While omega-3 fats are definitely good for us, it is important to remember that any diet that is too high in calories can lead to weight gain. A well-balanced diet that includes all of the food groups in proper portions, along with daily exercise, is best for achieving and maintaining a healthy weight and promoting overall health.
Kari Hartel, RD, LD is a Registered, Licensed Dietitian and freelance writer based out of St. Louis, MO. Kari is passionate about nutrition education and the prevention of chronic disease through a healthy diet and active lifestyle. Kari holds a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from Southeast Missouri State University and is committed to helping people lead healthy lives. She completed a yearlong dietetic internship at OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, IL, where she worked with a multitude of clients and patients with complicated diagnoses. She planned, marketed, and implemented nutrition education programs and cooking demonstrations for the general public as well as for special populations, including patients with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, obesity, and school-aged children.