There are many health benefits of a diet that is rich in Omega-3 fatty acid. Aside from taking an Omega-3 fat supplement, how can you incorporate more of this essential nutrient in your diet?
Below are some of my favourite foods that contain high amounts of Omega-3 fats – along with the best ways to prepare them – and other nutrients you’ll enjoy from eating these foods.
If you’ve spoken to a healthcare professional about Omega-3 fatty acid, you may have been informed that it contains eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), both of which are considered essential fatty acids. These fatty acids have been shown to help maintain the body's signal pathways, as well as improve overall cell health. As a matter of fact, studies suggest that Omega-3 fatty acids can positively impact many aspects of your physical and mental health, including:
Research suggests that individuals who consume a lot of fish or have high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids in their blood are less likely to report signs and symptoms of depression.1-3 Additional studies seem to indicate that Omega-3 fats can actually help to alleviate depression and help regulate mood.4-7
Increased Omega-3 fats intake has been linked to improved cognitive health in a variety of people, including healthy young people and the senior population.8-16
Researchers have found that Omega-3 fats may improve overall heart health while decreasing the risk of cardiac death.17-23 In addition, studies have shown Omega-3 fatty acids decrease triglycerides and lower blood pressure.24-31
Studies have shown links between Omega-3 fat intake and reduced inflammation,32-34 as well as weight and fat loss (specifically belly fat) in clinical trials.35
Now that you know about the benefits of Omega-3 fats, it’s time to figure out how to get more of it! Because Omega-3 fatty acids are not naturally produced by your body, you must acquire them through diet or supplements. Luckily, you have plenty of options when it comes to choosing Omega-3-rich foods.
Keep in mind that most plant-based sources of Omega-3 fats contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), not EPA and DHA. ALA is still beneficial—think of it as building blocks your body uses to create EPA and DHA. Unfortunately, it’s not a very efficient process; only about 5% of diet-sourced ALA is converted by the human body.
Note: All of the nutritional information including here, including serving sizes, is from the USDA’s National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference and based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet.
Fish and seafood are the best sources of whole food dietary Omega-3 fatty acid you can find.
Without a doubt one of the most popular sources of whole food Omega-3 fats, salmon contains 633 mg per ounce. This Omega-3 fat is mainly in EPA and DHA, meaning your body can use it as soon as it enters your bloodstream. Salmon is an excellent source of lean protein and contains approximately 10% of your daily recommended intake (RDI) of both niacin and Vitamin B6 and 13% of your daily Vitamin B12 needs. Look for sustainably-caught wild salmon, and eat it baked or grilled.
Although you tend to think of canned food as being less healthy, canned sardines are a great way to get fish-sourced Omega-3 fats when you’re on-the-go or need to pack a lunch. 1oz of canned sardines contains 414 mg of Omega-3 fat and is high in Vitamin D and Vitamin B12. Plus, it delivers over 10% of your calcium RDI.
Oysters & Mussels
Sustainably-farmed shellfish are healthy and delicious as appetizers or a main course. 3oz of cooked oyster contains approximately 427 mg of Omega-3 fats, plus over 3 times your RDI of Vitamin B12 and over 2.5 times your RDI of zinc. The same serving of mussels delivers 736 mg of essential Omega-3 fat and lots of critical vitamins and minerals.
Choosing grass-fed beef can be a healthier alternative to traditionally-farmed (i.e. grain-fed) beef. Grass-fed beef contains about 5.9 mg of Omega-3 fat per ounce, and some beef producers have managed to raise the amount of naturally present Omega-3 fat in their beef by feeding marine algae to livestock.36 The amount of Omega-3 fat in the beef you buy will vary based on how the beef was raised.
Eggs and dairy products are not always high in Omega-3 fat, though some brands offer egg and dairy products with added Omega-3 fatty acid. The quality and bio-availability of this additional Omega-3 fat varies between producers, so it can’t be guaranteed – I encourage you to do your own research before purchasing products with added Omega-3 fatty acid. Usually, the added Omega-3 fat comes from fortifying the animals' diet with marine algae or another source of Omega-3 fat.
One large egg contains approximately 71 mg of Omega-3 fat. Some producers of eggs fortified with Omega-3 fats (i.e. eggs produced by hens fed a diet rich in Omega-3 fats) claim their products contain up to five times that amount. Although you may choose organic eggs or eggs produced by free-range hens over conventional eggs for other reasons, there isn’t a substantial difference in the Omega-3 fat content of those eggs. Overall, eggs are a great source of many vitamins and minerals – including riboflavin, Vitamin A, Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, Vitamin E and Vitamin K – and a good source of protein.
Milk & Dairy Products
There are so many different kinds of milk available that it’s impossible to tell you exactly what each serving contains. Most kinds of milk are fortified with various vitamins and minerals. Some producers now offer milk and dairy products fortified with Omega-3 fat, which, like beef fortified with Omega-3 fat, are a result of feeding dairy livestock diets higher in Omega-3 fats. The Omega-3 fat content of any of these products cannot be guaranteed.
Another significant issue with animal dairy products is that this food group is in the top 5 food allergies. Also, many people do not have the enzymes required to digest dairy. This leads to an intolerance to milk, cheese, yogurt, etc.
If you are experiencing skin, sinus, digestive, respiratory, and cognitive issues, consider removing dairy from your diet altogether. Yes, this includes diary from sheep and goats. Try this for 8-12 weeks and see if your symptoms reduce.
Many will people ask, "But how will I get my calcium?"
There are many, many foods that are rich in calcium as well as the full spectrum of other vitamins and minerals we need to repair and build bone and tissue. For example, 1 cup of cooked broccoli has 180mg of calcium compared to 1 cup of milk topping out at 300mg. Sure the milk has a higher amount of calcium, but if you are reacting to a food, you will not be properly digesting and absorbing the nutrients it contains.
Nuts and seeds are a great source of Omega-3 fats and are very popular for including more whole food sources of Omega-3 fat in vegan and vegetarian diets. While the numbers may seem high (hello, walnuts!), remember what you learned earlier about the differences between the Omega-3 fatty acids: nut and seed sources of Omega-3 fats are primarily ALA, which must be converted to EPA and DHA in your body. They also tend to be higher in Omega-6 fats, which can cancel some of the health benefits of increasing your Omega-3 fat intake.
Hemp Hearts are nutty and sweet, like pine nuts. They offer 830 mg of Omega-3 fatty acids per tablespoon. Flaxseed and Chia seed provide the benefits of high Omega-3 fat, though when they get wet their mucilage fibre gets slippery and sticky. Hemp Hearts' crunchy, yet creamy, texture makes it a versatile vegan Omega-3 fat source.
One ounce of walnuts contains a whopping 2500 mg of Omega-3 fats! I know what you’re thinking—why not just eat walnuts every day to meet your Omega-3 fat dietary need? While walnuts are an excellent food to incorporate into your diet (the same serving contains nearly half of your RDI of manganese, 8% of your Vitamin B6 intake and 4.3g of protein), keep in mind that the Omega-3 essential fatty acids found in walnuts are ALA, which still must be converted to EPA and DHA in your body. Since your body only converts ALA at a rate of about 5%, you won’t receive the same benefits as you would by ingesting an equivalent amount of EPA and DHA.
Macadamia nuts contain about 58 mg of Omega-3 fats in a 1oz serving and, of all the tree nuts, have one of the most balanced ratios of Omega-3 fatty acid to Omega-6 fatty acid. They’re also high in thiamine, a water-soluble B vitamin, which helps convert carbohydrates into usable energy.
Flaxseed is an excellent source of Omega-3 fats, as far as plants go. One ounce of flaxseed contains 6388 mg of Omega-3 essential fatty acids, and only 1655 mg of Omega-6 fatty acid, which is a good balance. If you eat whole flaxseeds, you won’t receive as many nutritional benefits, so try to eat ground flaxseed instead. Keep in mind that ground flaxseed doesn’t have a long shelf life – if you can grind your own flaxseed at home, it's better! Try sprinkling it over yogurt or adding it to smoothies.
Chia seeds have been gaining popularity in recent years, and for good reason – they’re tiny nutritional powerhouses! One ounce of chia seeds contains 4915 mg of Omega-3 fats and 1620 mg of Omega-6 fast. While chia seeds don’t contain much in the way of vitamins, they deliver several crucial dietary trace minerals including calcium, phosphorus and manganese. Like flaxseed, you can sprinkle chia seed over yogurt, add it to smoothies or make your own chia seed pudding.
Soybeans are most often prepared and eaten as edamame. While different methods of preparation can alter the nutritional content of the soybean, raw soybeans contain approximately 963 mg of Omega-3 fast. They’re extremely high in calcium and iron – 1 cup of raw soybeans contains approximately half your RDI of each! They’re a great source of dietary fibre, folate, Vitamin C, potassium and more.
To be honest, fruits and vegetables aren’t a great source of Omega-3 fats. While they’re definitely an extremely important part of a healthy, nutritious diet, they do not contain significant amounts of Omega-3 essential fatty acids. That said, some are better than others – and can be paired with Omega-3-fat-rich foods for maximum nutritional value!
Technically a fruit (though more versatile due to its mild taste), avocados are nutritional superheroes for a variety of reasons. A medium-sized avocado contains approximately 165 mg of Omega-3 fat. It also delivers nearly a quarter of your daily recommended potassium, 30% of your daily folate and 40% of your RDI of fibre. Eat avocados sliced with salt and pepper, or mash them up with freshly-squeezed lemon juice and your preferred spices for guacamole! Just keep in mind that they also contain high levels of Omega-6 fats, so be sure to balance them out with other foods high in Omega-3 fats.
While they’re certainly not a huge source of dietary fats, leafy greens still punch above their weight when it comes to Omega-3 fat content. Eaten raw (like in a salad), 1 cup of kale has 121 mg of Omega-3 fat, and 1 cup of spinach has 41 mg. They also provide lots of healthy dietary fibre, a tonne of vitamins and minerals such as calcium and iron.
One cup of cauliflower contains approximately 31 mg of Omega-3 essential fatty acids. It contains 77% of your RDI of Vitamin C and 20% of your Vitamin K RDI. Steam your cauliflower for the most nutritious results.
Brussels sprouts are a very divisive food! If you’re a Brussels sprouts lover, you’ll be happy to learn that 1 cup of cooked Brussels sprouts contains 270 mg of Omega-3 fat. It provides more than twice your RDI of Vitamin K, 24% of your daily folate requirements and lots of Vitamin C.
Of course, the easiest way to ensure you’re getting enough Omega-3 fat in your diet is to take an Omega-3 fatty acid supplement. Ensure the Omega-3 fat product you choose is of the highest quality and potency, so you know you’re getting the EPA and DHA benefits your body needs.
For vegans, vegetarian or non-fish sources (e.g. marine algae) are now available and are great for recipes. You’ll be in vegan smoothie heaven, and never worried about Omega-3 fatty acid deficiency in your diet.