Omega-3s are “essential” fatty acids because the body isn’t capable of producing them on its own. Therefore, we must rely on omega-3 foods in our diet to supply these extremely beneficial compounds.
There are actually three different types of “omega-3s”: ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). The preferred sources are DHA and EPA, the kinds found in seafood sources like salmonandsardines. ALA, on the other hand, is found in some plant foods, including certain nuts and seeds, as well as high-quality cuts of meat like grass-fed beef.
When it comes to getting enough omega-3s into your diet, I recommend eating plenty of omega-3 foods and also supplementing in most cases. Through a combination of both, my advice is to make sure you’re getting at least 1,000 milligrams a day of EPA/DHA and about 4,000 milligrams of total omega-3s (ALA/EPA/DHA combined).
What Makes Some Omega-3 Foods Better Than Others?
The human body is able to turn ALA into usable DHA and EPA to some degree, but this isn’t as efficient as getting DHA and EPA directly from food sources that provide it. It’s one reason why nutrition experts recommend consuming wild-caught fish several times per week, since many kinds of seafood are naturally high in DHA and EPA. (1)
While EPA and DHA are the preferred omega-3 sources, all types are beneficial and encouraged, so add nuts and seeds to your breakfast or have fish for dinner. Even after extensive research, it’s not totally clear how well ALA converts into EPA and DHA or if it has benefits on its own, but health authorities, like those at Harvard Medical School, still consider all sources of omega-3s crucial in the diet. (2)
Historically, we’ve seen that populations that consume the most omega-3 foods, like people in Okinawa, Japan, live longer and healthier lives than people who eat a standard diet low in omega-3s. The typical Okinawa diet — which consists of plenty of fish, sea vegetables and other fresh produce — is actually believed to have about eight times the amount of omega-3s that you’d find in the standard American diet, which is likely one reason why this population is considered one of the healthiest in human history.
Other populations that consume plenty of omega-3 foods include those living in the Mediterranean region, including Spanish, Italian, Greek, Turkish and French populations. Researchers even found that although the typical Mediterranean diet is high in overall fat and certain cardiovascular risks, people in these areas suffer much lower incidences of heart disease on average than Americans, perhaps due to the heart-healthy omega-3 foods that make regular appearances in their meals. (3)
Omega-3 Foods: The Best vs. The Worst
Take a look around any large supermarket and you probably notice that food labels now brag about their omega-3 content more than ever. While omega-3s are now artificially added to multiple kinds of processed foods — peanut butter, baby formula, cereal and some protein powders, for example — it’s still best to get your omega-3s from whole, real food sources, especially wild-caught seafood.
While not always ideal, natural sources of omega-3, here are some of the many foods that you might find now contain omega-3s to some degree thanks to being fortified with these fatty acids: pasteurized dairy products, fruit juices, conventional (non-organic or cage-free) eggs, margarine, soy milk and yogurt, bread, flours, weight-loss drinks, and many types of baby foods (since research suggests omega-3s help babies’ brains develop properly).
The sources of EPA and DHA in fortified foods usually come from microalgae. They naturally add a fishy aroma to foods, so these processed foods must undergo extensive chemical purifying preparations in order to mask the taste and smell. (4) This likely reduces or changes fatty acid and antioxidant content within the foods, making them inferior to unaltered, whole food sources.
Additionally, omega-3s are now added to animal feed to incorporate higher levels into consumer dairy, meat and poultry products. Since food manufacturers are aware that knowledge about the benefits of omega-3s is on the rise, we’ll likely continue to see more and more processed omega-3 foods in the years to come.
Dangers of an Omega-3 Deficiency
Omega-3 foods are believed to help lower the risk for heart disease due to theirinflammation-reducing abilities. They also are needed for proper neurological function, cell membrane maintenance, mood regulation and hormone production.
This is the reason omega-3 foods are known as “good fat” sources, the kinds that provide polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAS) known as alpha-linolenic acids. While most consume enough of the other kinds of essential fatty acids known as omega-6s (found in modified cooking oilslike canola, sunflower and safflower oil, plus some nuts), most people are low in omega-3s and can afford to up their intake of omega-3 foods.
Studies show that a lower ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s is more desirable to reduce the risk of many chronic diseases that have become epidemics in most Western societies. For example, researchers from The Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health of Washington, D.C. found that the lower the omega-6/omega-3 ratio was in women, the lower their risk of breast cancer. A ratio of 2:1 suppresses inflammation in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, and a ratio of 5:1 has a beneficial effect on patients with asthma. (5)
The average person suffers from omega-3 deficiency because she doesn’t include the best omega-3 foods in her weekly diet, such as fish, sea vegetables/algae,flaxseeds or grass-fed meat. Depending on whom you ask, these numbers range, but I advise people that the ideal ratio of omega-6 foods to omega-3 foods is about equal to, or at least at, a 2:1 ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s.
What are the risks of consuming too little omega-3s (plus too many omega-6s)?
Sharpening the mind and helping with concentration and learning
Treating digestive disorders like ulcerative colitis
Reducing risk for cancer and helping prevent cancer reoccurence
Improving appearance, especially skin health
Currently, there isn’t a set standard recommendation for how many omega-3s we need each day, so suggestions range from 500 to 1,000 milligrams daily depending on whom you ask. How easy is it to get these recommended amounts? To give you an idea, there are more than 500 milligrams of total omega-3s in one can of tuna fish and one small serving of wild-caught salmon.
What Are the Best Omega-3 Foods?
Here’s a list of the top 15 omega-3 foods (percentages based on 4,000 milligrams per day of total omega-3s): (7)
Mackerel: 6,982 milligrams in 1 cup cooked (174 precent DV)
Salmon Fish Oil: 4,767 milligrams in 1 tablespoon (119 percent DV)