Omega-3 fatty acids are considered “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 diets to supply these extremely beneficial fats.
There are actually three different types of “omega-3s”: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). The preferred sources are DHA and EPA, the kinds found in seafood sources, like salmon and sardines.
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 fats into your diet, it’s recommended to eat plenty of omega-3 foods and also consider omega-3 supplements in most cases.
How much omega-3 per day? Through a combination of both, aim to get at least 1,000 milligrams a day of EPA/DHA and about 4,000 milligrams of total omega-3s (meaning a combination of ALA/EPA/DHA).
Top 16 Omega-3 Foods
What food is highest in omega-3? The best sources are wild-caught, fatty fish. It’s one reason why nutrition experts, including the American Heart Association, recommend consuming fish several times per week, since many kinds of seafood are naturally high in DHA and EPA.
Flaxseed oil is another concentrated source, although it’s very high in ALA, with over seven grams of ALA per tablespoon. However, ALA isn’t absorbed as well as DHA and EPA, so it’s not the ideal source.
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 foods. Therefore, seafood is preferable over flaxseed oil and other nuts and seeds.
That said, while EPA and DHA are the preferred type of omega-3 fats, all types are beneficial and encouraged.
Here’s a list of the top 16 omega-3 foods (percentages based on 4,000 milligrams per day of total omega-3s):
- Flaxseed oil: 7,260 milligrams in 1 tablespoon (however note that flaxseed oil is high in ALA, not DHA/EPA)
- Atlantic Mackerel: 6,982 milligrams in 1 cup cooked (174 precent DV)
- Salmon Fish Oil: 4,767 milligrams in 1 tablespoon (119 percent DV)
- Cod Liver Oil: 2.664 milligrams in 1 tablespoon (66 percent DV)
- Walnuts: 2,664 milligrams in 1/4 cup (66 percent DV)
- Chia Seeds: 2,457 milligrams in 1 tablespoon (61 percent DV)
- Herring: 1,885 milligrams in 3 ounces (47 percent DV)
- Alaskan Salmon (wild-caught): 1,716 milligrams in 3 ounces (42 percent DV)
- Flaxseeds (ground): 1,597 milligrams in 1 tablespoon (39 percent DV)
- Albacore Tuna: 1,414 milligrams in 3 ounces (35 percent DV)
- White Fish: 1,363 milligrams in 3 ounces (34 percent DV)
- Sardines: 1,363 milligrams in 1 can/3.75 ounces (34 percent DV)
- Hemp Seeds: 1,000 milligrams in 1 tablespoon (25 percent DV)
- Anchovies: 951 milligrams in 1 can/2 ounces (23 percent DV)
- Natto: 428 milligrams in 1/4 cup (10 percent DV)
- Egg Yolks: 240 milligrams in 1/2 cup (6 percent DV)
Best vs. Worst Foods High in Omega-3s
What are some foods you want to stay away from despite the fact they may be advertised as high in omega-3s? Limit or avoid:
- Conventionally raised meat (non-organic or not grass-fed), which is lower in omega-3s that grass-fed types
- Farm-raised fish (especially common with salmon), which may be contaminated with antibiotics and pesticides and is lower in nutrients — stick to Atlantic mackerel, and avoid King and Spanish varieties, farmed salmon (get wild-caught Alaskan salmon), and tuna (avoid Atlantic bluefin)
- Conventional and pasteurized dairy products, which may be hard for some people to digest
- Krill oil supplements (which are made from krill, bottom-feeding shellfish that may be contaminated)
Fortified Omega-3s in Processed Foods:
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 them from whole, real sources, especially seafood.
While not always ideal, here are some products that you might find now contain omega-3s to some degree thanks to being fortified:
- pasteurized dairy products
- fruit juices
- conventional (non-organic or cage-free) eggs
- soy milk
- weight-loss drinks
- 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 products must undergo extensive chemical purifying preparations in order to mask the taste and smell.
This likely reduces or changes fatty acid and antioxidant content within the foods, making them inferior to unaltered sources.
Additionally, omega-3s are now added to animal feed to incorporate higher levels into consumer dairy, meat and poultry products.
Historically, we’ve seen that populations that consume the most omega-3 fats, like people in Okinawa, Japan, live longer and healthier lives than people who eat little of this nutrient.
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 than you’d find in the standard American diet. This is likely one reason why this population is considered one of the healthiest in human history, with lower rates of cardiovascular disease, inflammatory diseases and cognitive decline.
Other populations that consume plenty of foods high in omega-3 include those living in the Mediterranean region, including Spanish, Italian, Greek, Turkish and French populations. Some of these people follow a mostly pescatarian diet, in which fish is the only “meat” that is consumed.
Researchers have 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, plus lower rates of Alzheimer’s/dementia, cancer and type 2 diabetes.
Many studies show that omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory, vasodilating, antiarrhythmic and antihypertensive activities, and they help lower triglyceride and blood sugar levels.
Omega-3 benefits include offering help with:
- Preventing cardiovascular disease (according to 2020 study, by lowering blood pressure, blood lipids/cholesterol, plaque buildup in the arteries, heart rate variability, platelet aggregation, endothelial function, inflammation and the chance of having a heart attack or stroke)
- Fighting oxidative stress, which damages cells and tissues
- Stabilizing blood sugar levels (preventing diabetes)
- Reducing muscle, bone and joint pain by lowering inflammation
- Helping balance cholesterol levels
- Improving mood and preventing depression
- Sharpening the mind and helping with concentration and learning
- Boosting immunity
- Treating digestive disorders like ulcerative colitis
- Reducing risk for cancer and helping prevent cancer recurrence
- Improving skin health
- Supporting exercise recovery
Currently, there isn’t a set standard recommendation for how many omega-3 fatty acids 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-3 fats in one can of tuna fish and one small serving of wild-caught salmon.
How Can Vegetarians/Vegans Get Omega-3?
How can you get omega-3s without eating fish? For example, which fruits and veggies have omega-3s?
Below are the best plant-based sources of omega-3 fats:
- Nuts and Seeds with Omega-3s — In addition to walnuts, chia and flaxseeds, butternuts, Brazil nuts, cashews, hemp seeds and hazelnuts have omega-3s in the form of ALA (although walnuts, flaxseeds and chia are definitely the better sources).
- Vegetables — Many vegetables, especially green leafy ones, are good sources of ALAs. While ALA omega-3 foods aren’t as good as those with DHA and EPA, these foods should still make regular appearances in your diet considering how much fiber and other nutrients they also contain. Some of the vegetables highest in omega-3s include Brussels sprouts, kale, spinach and watercress.
- Oils — Lots of oils contain omega-3s to some degree, usually in the form of ALAs. These include flaxseed oil, mustard oil, walnut oil and hemp oil. A newer vegetarian oil called algal oil is also gaining popularity as early research shows it’s easily converted to DHA in the body compared to other vegetarian omega-3s foods.
Related: Top 12 Cancer-Fighting Foods
Now that you know where to find these fats, you’re probably looking for ways to obtain more of them. For example, what breakfast foods have omega-3, and how can you use things like canned salmon and chia seeds?
Here are ideas for adding foods high in omega-3s to your diet:
- Salmon Patties
- Kale Caesar Salad with Salmon
- Savory Baked Fish
- Blackened Salmon Recipe with Creamy Avocado Dressing
- Chia Seed Recipes
- Green Smoothies with Flaxseeds
Risks and Side Effects
Omega-3s are considered very safe and effective, even when taking up to 20 grams at a time, but some people experience mild side effects when taking fish oil supplements. Some side effects that can occur from omega-3 fish oil include:
- “Fish burps” or a fishy taste in your mouth (this is definitely the biggest complaint but shouldn’t happen if you take a high-quality supplement)
- Stomach pains or nausea
- Trouble going to the bathroom normally (diarrhea)
- Potential for excess bleeding if you take more than three grams per day
- Allergic reactions
- Changes in blood sugar levels (or complications with diabetes medications)
Talk to your doctor about side effects if you are taking higher doses than the recommended amount.
One thing to note is that you definitely shouldn’t take omega-3 supplements from fish oil if you have an allergy to most fish, since this runs the risk of causing a serious reaction.
- 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 diets to supply these extremely beneficial compounds.
- Through a combination of foods and supplements, be sure you get at least 1,000 milligrams a day of EPA/DHA daily and about 4,000 milligrams of total omega-3s (ALA/EPA/DHA combined).
- This amount can help prevent against heart disease, pain, depression, diabetes and other issues.
- The top omega-3 foods include:
- Flaxseed oil
- Atlantic Mackerel
- Salmon Fish Oil
- Cod Liver Oil
- Chia Seeds
- Alaskan Salmon
- Albacore Tuna
- White Fish
- Hemp Seeds
- Egg Yolks