Here Are 8 of the Best Omega-3 Rich Foods You Should Be Eating
My first nutrition teacher – the late, great Robert Crayhon – was once asked what single action he would take if he had a magic wand and could instantly change one single thing about the American diet.
“That’s simple,” he said. “I’d give every woman of childbearing age omega-3 supplements.”
I never forgot that answer. And in the 25 years or so since Crayhon said that, research has continued to pile up proving the wisdom of his answer.
Omega-3s – once labeled by researchers as the “wellness molecule” – have been studied since the 1970’s when researchers were trying to figure out why the Inuit in Greenland had so little heart disease, despite eating a diet high in fatty fish. (Spoiler alert: it was the omega-3s in the fatty fish!) And ever since then, it seems like omega-3s have been researched for their effect on just about everything listed in the CDC’s list of diseases and conditions.
Omega-3s have been shown to have a positive effect on heart disease and stroke and may even – according to the Harvard School of Public Health – play a protective role in cancer.
Food manufacturers have done everything they can to capitalize on the public’s relatively newfound awareness of the value of omega-3. Some of those food manufacturers are not, shall we say, terribly burdened by a sense of ethics, which is why you frequently see “now with omega-3!” on the label of all kinds of junk food, many of which have been “enriched” with a microdose of omega-3, not enough to give the slightest health benefit to any human.
So, let’s talk about the foods that don’t have to be “enriched” with omega-3s because they’re naturally high in them.
These foods, by virtue of their omega-3 content, will be healthy for both heart and brain. (By the way, that’s almost always the case. I wrote the book The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth and I truthfully can’t think of a single food that’s good for the brain that isn’t also good for the heart, and vice versa!)
So where do we get them? What foods do they come in?
Omega-3 from Animal vs Plant Sources: Is There a Difference?
So here’s the politically unfortunate truth: there’s a big difference between omega-3s from plants and omega-3s from animals. Let me explain.
There are basically three omega-3 fatty acids we need to be concerned with. The first is ALA, which stands for alpha-linolenic acid. That’s the kind of omega-3 found in all plant foods, at least those that have omega-3. (There are small amounts of DHA and EPA in a very few select algaes, but for all intents and purposes, ALA is the plant-based omega-3, and is very plentiful in flaxseed, flaxseed oil, and chia seeds.
ALA is considered one of two “essential” fatty acids because the body can’t make it on its own. It has to come from the diet.
One of the reasons ALA is so important is that it’s the parent molecule for the other two omega-3 fatty acids, DHA (docasahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), which in my opinion, are the ones that make the most difference to human health. Theoretically, the body can make DHA and EPA out of ALA, which is why ALA is the one considered “essential.” Note the word “theoretically” – more on that in a moment.
DHA and EPA are the real workhorses of the omega-3 trio. These two omega-3s get the lion’s share of work in the body, doing their anti-inflammatory magic and helping both heart and brain. (ALA has some anti-inflammatory magic of its own, but DHA and EPA are the Special Forces of the omega-3 army.)
Here’s the kicker: as mentioned, the body is theoretically able to convert ALA to its “older brothers”…but it does an absolutely terrible job of actually doing so.
Which means if the only omega-3 you’re consuming is ALA from plants, it’s really tough to get the amount of DHA and EPA you need for optimal functioning of brain and heart.
We understand the ethical and religious reasons for veganism, but from a science and health perspective, the body really needs DHA and EPA, and if you’re not getting it from food (like fish), you’re going to have to consume a ton of ALA. Less than 10% of that ALA winds up actually being converted to DHA and EPA.
While some algaes appear to have good amounts of DHA and EPA, this is a relatively recent discovery. Hopefully we’ll soon find out whether omega-3s from algae can actually raise blood levels of EPA and DHA to optimal levels. EPA and DHA – which arrive fully formed when you eat cold water fish – don’t require any conversion process and therefore arrive in the body ready for action!
Here Are 8 of the Best Foods Rich in Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- Flaxseeds and Flaxseed Oil
Flaxseed oil has the highest omega-3 content of any food at 7269 mg per tablespoon, with flax seeds coming in second right behind it (6479 mg per ounce). That’s a ton of omega-3, far more than you could get from any single capsule supplement.
Remember, though, that the omega-3 found in flaxseed (and also in chia seeds, coming up next) is not the same omega-3 as is found in fish oil. Be sure to read the sidebar about plant vs animal-source omega-3s and adjust your intake accordingly.
The great thing about flaxseeds is that omega-3 isn’t the only thing they provide. They’re actually an excellent source of fiber and can be sprinkled on virtually anything. Their omega-3 content is an added bonus!
- Chia Seeds
Chia seeds have even more omega-3 content than flax oil and flaxseeds, weighing in at a whopping 5064 mg per ounce. (For comparison, one capsule of a typical flaxseed oil softgel contains 500 mg of that very same omega-3 fat, about 10% of the amount found in the chia seeds and only 6% of the amount found in flax oil.)
That’s why I always recommend the actual chia and flax seeds and oils over the capsules if it’s at all possible. If you have to take the capsules, be prepared to take at least four to six to get a decent dosage.
- Wild Salmon
Wild Alaskan salmon is the poster child for animal-based omega-3s. Atlantic salmon has omega-3 also, but there are a lot of problems with farmed salmon and I personally don’t recommend it except if it’s the only salmon available.
You’ll get about 1.7 grams of omega-3 (1700 mg) per six-ounce serving and it’s one of the easiest foods for even non-cooks (like me) to make. Three to four minutes on each side on the grill, or rubbed with olive oil, lemon and garlic, and baked in tin foil at 350 degrees for about 6-7 minutes. It’s, as my grandmother used to say, “to die for.”
Sardines are a health food in a can.
I first discovered this way of thinking about sardines in Florida. My friend, the great New York celebrity nutritionist and author Oz Garcia and I were in Miami Beach to jointly lead a seminar on nutrition for personal trainers.
We were driving around near the hotel looking for something remotely healthy to eat but we were in a food desert. Garcia, who is a Miami native, stopped the car at a local bodega and came out with two cans of sardines and a couple of plastic forks.
They were delicious and filling, loaded with protein and omega-3s, low in calories. What’s not to like? They’re also low on the food chain, so they’re relatively unpolluted.
Ever since that day in Miami, sardines have been on my top ten list of the healthiest and most convenient foods on the planet.
- Bluefin Tuna
Three ounces of Bluefin tuna contains 1136 mg (over 1 gram) of omega-3s, from EPA and DHA. Tuna is a terrific source of protein (as well as omega-3s), is easy to find, and easy to prepare. You can use canned tuna in salads, sandwiches, and casseroles.
Like diamonds, tuna is rated on clarity and color. The deeper the color, and the more translucent the meat, the better the quality.
Mackerel has long been one of the most underappreciated fish.
It’s a sleek, oily fish with a forked tail and it actually contains two different kinds of meat: the red outer meat and the light inner meat. You can get it canned, whole, as mackerel fillets, and as mackerel steaks. Pacific jack mackerel (also called horse mackerel) is often canned, while Atlantic mackerel (also known as Boston mackerel) is often used in sashimi.
Mackerel has a rich flavor and has a similar amount of omega-3 as salmon, though in some databases it has even more.
Walnuts have traditionally been thought of as a “brain food,” perhaps it’s because they actually resemble the human brain (look for yourself).
But “walnuts as brain food” isn’t just another myth – there’s real science supporting it. Walnuts contain the highest amount of omega-3 of any nut, and omega-3 is itself as close to “brain food” as we’re likely to find, so there’s a lot of truth to the “walnuts and brain food” thing.
(Let’s remember, though, that walnuts contain ALA, the plant-based omega-3. That’s not necessarily bad at all – but there’s a significant difference. See the sidebar on plant vs animal based omega-3 to understand it better).
Several studies have demonstrated greater attention, reduction in behavioral problems, and less “ADD-like” behaviors in school kids when they’re given omega-3s. Since it’s hard to get kids to eat fish, let alone carry it to school in their lunchbox, walnuts are a really smart idea for a kid snack.
- Grass-fed Butter
Butter may not be an omega-3 superstar food, but we included it because it’s still a decent (and unexpected) source of omega-3. It also contains an important fatty acid called CLA, which is very hard to get in the diet. But mostly, we included it because it’s a totally misunderstood food that many people wrongly avoid because of misconceptions about “saturated fat.”
Saturated fat isn’t even the main fat in butter – monounsaturated fat (the kind found in olive oil) is. And grass-fed butter has 26% more omega-3 than regular butter. You wouldn’t use butter as a main source of either micronutrients or fatty acids, but it’s nice to know that when you use it as a condiment, flavor enhancer, or cooking oil, you’re getting some nice nutritional bonus points.
Summing It Up
Finally, don’t neglect other unexpected sources of omega-3 that may not be powerhouses like salmon or flax, but nonetheless contribute to your daily intake. A cup of sauteed green peppers, for example, might be the last place you’d look for omega-3. You’d be surprised to learn that one cup of the stuff provides a respectable 886 mg!
Remember what health professionals teach us about exercise, because the same holds true for omega-3s: Every little bit counts, and, at the end of the day, it all adds up!
Salmon, Sunset and Dr. Bill Sears
Dr. Bill Sears – also known as “America’s Pediatrician” – is, with his wife Martha, the author of over 28 books on childhood and parenting. He’s also a good friend of mine. One night we were having “Salmon and Sunset,” which is exactly what it sounds like, at his beautiful home in Southern California.
At the time, I had a friend who was thinking about having a baby with his vegan wife, who took her veganism very seriously and wouldn’t consider eating any animal-based products for any reason. I was concerned about this so I asked Bill about it.
“What do you say to your vegan patients who are pregnant and want to only take plant-based omega-3s like chia seeds and flaxseeds?” I asked him. “Do you worry they won’t be getting enough DHA and EPA since our bodies are so lousy at converting ALA?”
“Oh, I don’t worry at all,” he told me. “I just ask them to monitor their blood levels. I tell them take whatever plant-based omega-3 you want just promise me you’ll measure.”
Then he smiled his wise smile. “I show them a chart that illustrates where their omega-3 blood levels need to be for the optimal health of the baby, and then I tell them to use the home testing kit and measure regularly.”
I asked him if any of his pregnant vegan patients ever reached the optimal levels using only plant-based omega-3s. He smiled again. “Oh, I think there might have been two or three over the last decades.”
I asked him what the women did once they saw the results of plant-only omega-3 supplementation, which was that their blood levels of omega-3 were just not getting to optimal levels.
“Oh, they immediately switch to fish oil,” he said.
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