Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that we need to get from food, as we can’t make them ourselves. They are crucial components of our cell membranes, affecting the function of cell receptors, and are precursors to important signalling molecules, controlling many essential functions throughout the body.
Among other things, omega-3 fats help to regulate inflammation and blood clotting, and aid brain and heart health, hormone balance, digestion and joint function. (To find out more about the many health benefits of omega-3s, click here.)
In this article, we'll focus on six great food sources of omega-3 fats. If you don't tend to eat any of them, the time to start is now.
What are Essential Fatty Acids?
There are three significant forms of omega-3, classed as Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs). They are Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA), Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA), and Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA).
The most easily absorbed and direct food source of EPA and DHA is from oily fish, whereas ALA is found in nuts, seeds, oils, green leafy vegetables and some meat. It is possible to convert ALA into EPA and DHA, but the rate is relatively low.
With this in mind, unless you are vegetarian, vegan or don’t eat fish, you need to eat three portions of oily fish a week to obtain adequate amounts.
Omega-3 vs Omega-6
In the typical Western diet, omega-3 consumption is low, and we tend to eat far more omega-6 fats.
Omega-6 is pro-inflammatory, and while we need this as part of a healthy immune response to fight infection and recover from injury, a diet high in omega-6 can lead to excessive, chronic inflammation and disease.
The current ratio of omega-6 to 3 is roughly 16:1, compared to the 1:1 ratio anthropological evidence suggests we evolved on. So, it’s essential to readdress this imbalance by improving your omega-6 to 3 ratio.
You can do this by cleaning up your diet – avoiding processed foods and anything with a lengthy ingredient list containing names you don’t understand! Cook from scratch as much as possible, dodging sugary and fried foods. Don’t use processed seed and vegetable oils; choose cold-pressed virgin olive oil, coconut oil, and organic grass-fed ghee instead.
Eat a whole food diet rich in brightly-coloured vegetables and fruit, while sticking to healthy protein sources such as nuts, seeds, beans and pulses. Where animal protein and produce is concerned, ensure it has not been fed an industrialised diet high in omega-6, and choose grass-fed, free-range or organic animal products instead, including dairy and eggs.
Upping your intake of omega-3 foods is also crucial, so make healthy fats an integral part of your daily fare, adding it to every meal.
To give you some inspiration, we have listed six high omega-3 foods that you can easily consume every day.
1) Oily fish
Oily fish is the most abundant and easily absorbed food source of EPA and DHA. It’s also a terrific source of protein.
Several studies link the consumption of fatty fish to a decreased risk of heart disease, as well as improved cognitive function and depression.
Wild Atlantic mackerel provides the highest amount of omega-3 at 2,789mg per 100g, with herring and salmon not far behind.
Oily fish provides several other beneficial nutrients too. For example, mackerel contains a generous helping of vitamin B12, good for brain health, and aiding the symptoms of depression, along with plentiful amounts of the powerful antioxidant selenium.
Salmon also contains a host of vitamins and minerals including vitamin B12, selenium, magnesium, potassium and zinc. You need to eat three portions of oily fish a week to get adequate amounts of EPA and DHA.
Other fabulous oily fish you could try include sardines and anchovies. Alternatively, you could take a daily fish oil supplement to ensure you get what you need.
2) Linseeds or flax seeds
There’s a whopping 6,479mg of omega-3s in 28g of linseeds (roughly two tablespoons). These are perfect ground up and sprinkled over salads, stir-fries and vegetables. You can also add them to smoothies.
These little powerhouses are packed full of minerals including potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, calcium, copper, selenium and zinc. They also provide several B vitamins and are especially high in vitamin B1.
They are also abundant in lignans, containing between 75 to 800 times more than any other cereal grains, legumes, fruits or vegetables. Lignans aid oestrogen metabolism and early research associates them with a reduced risk of breast and prostate cancer. Fibre-rich, linseeds are great for digestion too.
3) Chia seeds
28g of antioxidant-rich chia seeds contain roughly 5,064mg omega-3 fats while also providing a decent hit of magnesium, calcium, iron, selenium and zinc. They’re also rich in fibre, and two tablespoons contain around 5g healthy protein.
Chia seeds can be soaked overnight and added to smoothies, or ground and sprinkled into salads and stir-fries. You can soak them in water or juice to drink, or make chia pudding.
High in fibre, chia seeds can support digestion and aid weight loss, blood pressure and lessen the risk for cardiovascular disease. Some studies also suggest chia seeds can improve insulin sensitivity and balance blood sugar, aiding type 2 diabetes.
Their mineral profile, meanwhile, means they are good for supporting bone health. Chia seeds can even be mixed with water and used as an egg alternative in vegan cooking.
28g walnuts provide 2,579mg omega-3 fats, making them higher than any other nuts. They are rich in antioxidants and rich in manganese, which is needed for healthy connective tissue, joints and bones; it also reduces inflammation and may help with blood sugar regulation.
A small handful of walnuts can be eaten as a healthy snack between meals to balance blood sugar and control your appetite. They are also linked with reduced cholesterol, and blood pressure and one recent study suggested that consuming two ounces of walnuts per day can suppress the growth and survival of breast cancers.
Don’t forget to regularly eat other nuts too which also provide omega-3 fats, particularly pine nuts, pecans and pistachios.
OK, so maybe these aren’t an everyday kind of food, but depending on whether they are fresh or tinned, oysters contain around 1591mg omega-3 per 100g. They’re also extremely high in zinc, a potent antioxidant which is essential for regulating immunity and supporting brain function.
Zinc also improves your response to stress and has antidepressant qualities.
Other nutrients include a hefty hit of selenium, copper and vitamin B12. Other shellfish such as mussels, crab and clams can also provide you with a decent dose of omega-3s.
Although amounts vary, and they don’t provide the supremely high amounts of omega-3 fats listed above, many vegetables do provide sufficient levels of the plant source omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (same for walnuts, chia and linseeds), which are certainly not to be sniffed at.
And that’s not to mention the countless number of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fibre, with the attendant health benefits they provide.
For example, did you know that one cup of cooked red or green bell peppers contains between 822mg and 886mg of omega-3 fats? Beansprouts are also on the high end of the omega-3 spectrum when it comes to vegetables.
Other plant foods of note are Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, squash, broccoli, dark leafy greens, and onions. Some beans such as navy and butter beans also contain small amounts.
The EPA and DHA found in fish oil have the most research behind them in terms of the myriad of health benefits they provide. ALA also has anti-inflammatory, cardiovascular and neuroprotective qualities.
The Western diet is high in omega-6 fats. The average ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is 16:1, far outweighing our ancestral ratio of 1:1, and this is associated with higher rates of inflammation and chronic disease.
For overall health and wellbeing, it’s vital to readdress this imbalance by increasing omega-3 foods and eating a natural, whole food diet, avoiding refined, sugar-laden and fried foods, and processed vegetable oils.
Eating oily fish three times a week or taking a daily, high-quality fish oil supplement should provide a healthy person with adequate levels of EPA and DHA. If you are vegetarian or vegan, then an algae supplement is the next best thing.
This article is written by Rebecca Rychlik-Cunning, Nutritional Therapist and Homeopath. Follow Rebecca on Instagram, Facebook and Medium, @rebeccabitesback.
Unless you are vegetarian, vegan or don’t eat fish, you need to eat three portions of oily fish a week to obtain adequate amounts of EFAs.