Medically reviewed by Kelly Van Gorden, MS, RD, CD
The Beginner's Guide to Foods Rich in Omega-3 Fatty Acids
You may have heard of omega-3 fatty acids before, but do you know what they are and exactly what they do for your body and your genes? We’re going to show you just how important these nutrients are and how you can start incorporating more into your meals.
What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients that are commonly found in fish and certain plant sources, like nuts and seeds. These fatty acids play the all-important role of helping form the structure of the body’s cell membranes.
3 Main Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA)
ALA is a type of omega-3 that is found mainly in plant oils—such as flaxseed, soybean, and canola oil. It is the only kind of omega-3 fatty acids that our bodies don’t produce naturally, so we need to get it from our food or supplements.
ALA is a crucial cofactor for the production of energy that takes place within the mitochondria. It is also a great antioxidant and a scavenger of potentially harmful free radicals. ALA has also been shown to reduce symptoms that come with diabetic polyneuropathy, or nerve damage caused by persistently high blood sugar levels in diabetic individuals. Some animal studies have even shown ALA to have benefits in the fight against obesity.1
Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)
EPA is another omega-3 found in seafood and is highly beneficial in our heart health, immune health, joint health, and mood.2 In addition to taking their medications, many people who struggle with depression, inflammatory autoimmune disorders, and more aim to eat foods rich in these omega-3 fatty acids—or take in these nutrients via supplements—to help ease their symptoms in a natural way.
Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)
Like EPA, DHA is also commonly found in fish and other kinds of seafood. This fatty acid does wonders for brain health, eye health, and child development. Studies have shown that both DHA and EPA are key players in proper fetal development, including when it comes to a baby’s neuronal, immune, and retinal function.
DHA and EPA may be able to help people with many aspects of their cardiovascular function, from inflammation and peripheral artery disease to major coronary events and anticoagulation.3 These two important omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to quite promising results in the prevention or slowing of Alzheimer's disease symptoms.
Omega-3s are known to be associated with a reduced risk of cognitive decline, as DHA is a critical component of the cellular membranes in our brain.4 Lower serum DHA levels are associated with more cerebral amyloidosis—a build-up of protein deposits—in healthy older adults, while higher DHA correlates with the preservation of our brain’s volume.
What Are the Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Again, since our body cannot make the ALA form of omega-3s and the conversion to DHA and EPA is limited, it is important to consume a variety of omega-3 fatty acids in other ways. Here are some of the top benefits
- You can have alowered risk of chronic disease due to the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3 fatty acids. The mechanisms behind their anti-inflammatory effects include an altered cell membrane composition and cell’s signaling ability leading to reduced gene expression when it comes to inflammatory genes.5
Essentially, this leads to less inflammation because the omega-3 fatty acids slow the production of substances released during inflammatory response.
- Some people may experience improved heart health and a reduced risk of blood clots from ingesting enough omega-3-rich foods or vitamins. Research has found that omega-3s might offer some protection from cardiovascular disease by lowering your triglyceride levels, reducing your heart’s susceptibility to arrhythmias, decreasing platelet aggregation (when blood platelets dangerously clump together), ensuring the lining of the arteries stays as smooth and free of damage as possible (preventing the thickening and hardening of arteries), and lowering your blood pressure.
Additionally, scientists believe omega-3s increase “good” (HDL) cholesterol.
- Researchers are also studying whether taking dietary supplements containing omega-3s can help lessen symptoms of childhood allergies, ADHD, and even cystic fibrosis.6
- Other studies suggest that people who consume more omega-3 fatty acids may have a lower risk of breast cancer7—and possibly colorectal cancer too.
- Current findings tell us that omega-3s may be able to serve as an adjunctive treatment to pharmacotherapy (treatment using drugs) for improving rheumatoid arthritis symptoms.8
- Some may experience improved eye health based on DHA’s presence as a structural lipid in the cellular membranes of our retinas, along with the benefits of EPA-derived eicosanoids on inflammation in cell survival, in the retina, and in neovascularization. The experts performing related studies suggest that omega-3 fatty acids have other protective effects in the retina, which could help prevent the development—or progression—of the macular degeneration caused by aging.
How Much Omega-3 Does My Body Need?
Every person’s DNA is different and based on their genetic makeup, each person may respond to omega-3s in different ways. Some people may need more, and some may need less. The general National Institute of Health recommendation is just over 1 gram for adult females and above 1.5 grams for adult males per day. A DNA test can help you understand the interplay of your genes and this essential nutrient.
How to Incorporate Omega-3 Fatty Acids Into Your Daily Meals
As you have read, although you can purchase omega-3 supplements, omega-3s found naturally in foods are the best route to take, as you’re likely to get more out of them. Consider adding these foods into your meals each week to increase your all-important DHA, EPA, and ALA levels.
Following this advice can work to help improve your overall health and wellness, cumulatively. In fact, The American Heart Association recommends that even people who do not have a history of heart disease eat two or more servings of fish—for a total of 6–8 ounces—weekly.
Best Sources of Omega-3s
Salmon is a great source of omega-3s.9 A serving size of just 3 ounces (100 grams) will get you 1.8 grams of healthy omega-3 fat. Plus, it contains both DHA and EPA, which are the most active forms of these nutrients. Keep in mind that fresh salmon has more omega-3s than canned salmon does.
Mackerel is another good source, as a single serving gives your body 2.5–2.6 grams of omega-3 fat and has both DHA and EPA. Mackerel can be high in mercury,10 though, so do not eat it too frequently. Even healthy foods are best in moderation.
The same goes for tuna—it can have mercury, so you will want to be aware of the frequency of when you indulge in this tasty option.11 When looking at drained, canned tuna, a proper serving size is 3 ounces and scores you 0.5 grams of beneficial omega-3 fat. Like the other fish, tuna, too, contains both DHA and EPA. You may want to note, however, that fresh tuna actually contains more of these healthy fatty acids than canned—and when canned in water, it has more omega-3s than when canned in oil.
Trout also boasts a healthy dose of omega-3s when eaten in similar serving sizes to the aforementioned fishes. It contains both DHA and EPA, and you can expect to gain two grams of the valuable fat after a full serving.
If you recall, we mentioned seeds—so if you are plant-based, do not fear that you won’t be able to get omega-3 from foods because you do not eat fish. Chia seeds are an excellent option for individuals who are vegetarian or vegan.12 Just one tablespoon contains 2.4 grams of ALA.
When it comes to flaxseeds, they’re almost up to par with chia’s nutritional power—one tablespoon contains 2.35 grams of ALA. Chia seeds are easily sprinkled on top of salads, included in baked items or oatmeal, and enjoyed in smoothies. Just be aware that the body cannot absorb omega-3 fatty acids from whole flaxseeds, and thus, they will need to be grounded up for the maximum benefit.13 Or, you can try flaxseed oil, as it has significantly more omega-3s than the seeds do, themselves.
Hemp seeds are fabulous, too, if fish is not something you want to see on your menu. A single tablespoon gets you about one gram of ALA, which is a great thing to add to meals and snacks to get a bit extra omega-3.14
Walnuts are the only tree nut that can provide you with a significant amount of omega-3s. One ounce contains 2.57 grams of ALA—which, again, is a cofactor in energy production in our cells as well as a robust antioxidant that might be able to protect us against some diseases.15
It’s Time You Found Your Favorite Way to Get More Omega-3 Fatty Acids Into Mealtime
Incorporating foods with omega-3 fatty acids into your nutrition is a great start to improving your overall health. And there are plenty more nutrients hiding in your food where that came from. Go check out our exclusive, FREE resource Can a DNA Test Really Tell You How to Eat? to find out how your DNA might actually be able to inform your food choices. From there, you can start to build a roadmap for your healthy eating goals!
1. Kucukgoncu S, Zhou E, Lucas K, Tek C. Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) as a supplementation for weight loss: results from a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Obesity Reviews. 2017;18(5):594-601. doi:10.1111/obr.12528.
2. Logan AC. Omega-3 fatty acids and major depression: A primer for the mental health professional. Lipids in Health and Disease. 2004;3(1):25. doi:10.1186/1476-511x-3-25.
3. Swanson D, Block R, Mousa SA. Omega-3 Fatty Acids EPA and DHA: Health Benefits Throughout Life. Advances in Nutrition. 2012;3(1):1-7. doi:10.3945/an.111.000893.
4. Cole GM, Ma Q-L, Frautschy SA. Omega-3 fatty acids and dementia. Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids. 2009;81(2-3):213-221. doi:10.1016/j.plefa.2009.05.015.
5. Simopoulos AP. Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Inflammation and Autoimmune Diseases. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 2002;21(6):495-505. doi:10.1080/07315724.2002.10719248.
6. Chanda W, Joseph TP, Guo X-F, et al. Effectiveness of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids against microbial pathogens. Journal of Zhejiang University-SCIENCE B. 2018;19(4):253-262. doi:10.1631/jzus.b1700063.
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8. Li X, Bi X, Wang S, Zhang Z, Li F, Zhao AZ. Therapeutic Potential of ω-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in Human Autoimmune Diseases. Frontiers in Immunology. 2019;10. doi:10.3389/fimmu.2019.02241.
9. Lara JJ, Economou M, Wallace AM, et al. Benefits of salmon eating on traditional and novel vascular risk factors in young, non-obese healthy subjects. Atherosclerosis. 2007;193(1):213-221. doi:10.1016/j.atherosclerosis.2006.06.018.
10. Okyere H, Voegborlo R, Agorku S. Human exposure to mercury, lead and cadmium through consumption of canned mackerel, tuna, pilchard and sardine. Food Chemistry. 2015;179:331-335. doi:10.1016/j.foodchem.2015.01.038.
11. Nicklisch SC, Bonito LT, Sandin S, Hamdoun A. Mercury levels of yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) are associated with capture location. Environmental Pollution. 2017;229:87-93. doi:10.1016/j.envpol.2017.05.070.
12. Ali NM, Yeap SK, Ho WY, Beh BK, Tan SW, Tan SG. The Promising Future of Chia, Salvia hispanica L. Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology. 2012;2012:1-9. doi:10.1155/2012/171956.
13. Goyal A, Sharma V, Upadhyay N, Gill S, Sihag M. Flax and flaxseed oil: an ancient medicine & modern functional food. Journal of Food Science and Technology. 2014;51(9):1633-1653. doi:10.1007/s13197-013-1247-9.
14. Rodriguez-Leyva D, Pierce GN. The cardiac and haemostatic effects of dietary hempseed. Nutrition & Metabolism. 2010;7(1):32. doi:10.1186/1743-7075-7-32.
15. Hardman WE. Walnuts Have Potential for Cancer Prevention and Treatment in Mice. The Journal of Nutrition. 2014;144(4). doi:10.3945/jn.113.188466.
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