Nutrition is a complex and ever-changing science.
One of the more confusing aspects of nutrition is fats.
Which ones are “bad,” and which ones are better choices?
While some aspects of nutrition advice have changed over recent years, the recommendation to eat omega-3 fatty acids has not.
If you’re wondering which types of fats are the best to eat for your health, you’re in the right place.
What is omega 3?
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat you get from certain foods. There are three types of omega-3 fats: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
EPA and DHA primarily come from fish, while ALA is found in nuts, seeds, and the meat of some grass-fed animals.
Polyunsaturated fats like omega-3s are considered heart-healthy fats, along with monounsaturated fat. Unsaturated fats like omega-3s are associated with better blood cholesterol levels and heart health than saturated fats. Saturated fats primarily come from animal products like red meat and full-fat dairy (1).
Omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential, which means your body can’t make them on its own. You must obtain omega-3 fats from foods or supplements in order to get enough of them.
What are the health benefits of omega 3?
Omega-3 fatty acids play many roles in your body and have several health benefits. Omega-3 fatty acids help make hormones responsible for blood clotting, the contraction of blood vessels, and hormones that regulate inflammation.
Omega-3 fatty acids are well-known for their ability to help reduce inflammation. While inflammation can be helpful in some cases, chronic inflammation can lead to health problems like heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers.
Many studies note the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3s (2).
Reduce the risk of heart disease
Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide. Your cholesterol levels and blood pressure play a large role in the many factors that determine your heart disease risk.
Omega-3 fatty acids may help lower LDL cholesterol, which is known as “bad” cholesterol because it can increase plaque buildup in your arteries. While they lower LDL cholesterol, omega-3s can increase HDL cholesterol, which is “good” cholesterol that can help reduce your risk of heart disease (3).
In addition, omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help reduce triglycerides, a type of fat in your bloodstream also associated with abnormal cholesterol levels and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Promote brain health
DHA is particularly important for brain health and development. Including enough DHA in your diet can improve learning ability, whereas a lack of DHA is associated with learning deficits (4).
May help protect healthy vision
EPA and DHA are important omega-3s for vision health. DHA is especially high in the cells of your retina, which is the part of your eye that converts light into images, which allows you to see.
Might help reduce preterm birth
DHA supplementation during pregnancy is associated with a lower risk of preterm birth, which is when a baby is born before 37 weeks gestation (5). Preterm births can result in complications like developmental issues and problems with organ development in the preterm baby.
Support healthy blood pressure levels
Omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce blood pressure levels, especially in people with high blood pressure (6). Untreated high blood pressure can increase your risk of heart attack, stroke, kidney disease, aneurysms, dementia, and other health conditions.
Help improve mental health
Omega-3 fatty acids are associated with an antidepressant effect, which means they may help ease depression symptoms.
8 foods that are high in omega-3
Some of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids come from fish sources, but they can also be found in plant-based foods. If you’re not a big fan of fish, you can also get enough omega-3 fats by choosing a supplement that contains omega-3 from plant-based sources.
Here are some of the richest sources of omega-3s:
Salmon is very popular for its omega-3 fatty acid content, but they come in second after mackerel. Mackerel are small fatty fish that pack more omega-3 fatty acids than salmon per serving.
Mackerel is also rich in coenzyme Q10, which may help reduce your risk of certain cancers.
Salmon is one of the most nutritious foods you can eat, primarily due to its rich omega-3 content. Eating salmon might help reduce your risk of heart disease by promoting healthy cholesterol levels (7).
Salmon (especially wild, not farmed) is also a good source of vitamin D, a nutrient important for bone health, immune system support, and mental health.
Another benefit of salmon is that it is low in mercury, making it a safe option for pregnant women who want to get enough EPA and DHA in their diets.
3) Algae oil
Algae oil, or algal oil, is a vegan-friendly source of omega-3 fatty acids. Algae oil contains both DHA and EPA. You can buy algae oil in capsules and drops for improved palatability, which many people prefer over fish oil supplements for that reason.
One of the benefits of taking omega-3 supplements is that you’ll more likely meet the recommended amount daily compared to the potential sporadic intake of omega-3 whole foods.
For instance, breastfeeding mothers who took an omega-3 supplement have higher levels of EPA and DHA in their breast milk, which shows how beneficial consistent omega-3 consumption can be.
4) Cod liver oil
Like fish oil, cod liver oil is high in omega-3 fatty acids. One teaspoon of cod liver oil provides around 1,100 milligrams of omega-3 fats.
It’s recommended that adults consume anywhere between 250-500 milligrams of DHA and EPA (combined) daily. One serving (a teaspoon) of a popular brand of cod liver oil provides 500 milligrams of DHA and 370 milligrams of EPA, which easily meets the recommended amount for adults.
5) Chia seeds
Of all the different seeds, chia seeds are by far the richest source of omega-3 fats. Most fats in chia seeds are ALA, which is more prevalent in plant-based sources of omega-3s than fish sources.
Chia seeds are also very high in protein and dietary fiber, which can help boost satiety and may be a part of a diet to promote weight loss.
Like fatty fish, oysters are naturally rich in omega-3s. They’re not as high in omega-3s as salmon, but a 3-ounce portion still provides an impressive 585 milligrams of omega-3 fats.
Nuts and seeds are good sources of plant-based healthy fats. While they aren’t high in EPA and DHA like seafood and algae oil, walnuts are a great source of ALA omega-3s.
Thanks to their omega-3 content, walnuts are associated with reduced inflammation. Eating walnuts might also help improve cognition and reduce the risk and progression of certain types of dementia, which might be rooted in inflammation (8).
Along with walnuts and chia seeds, flaxseeds contain an impressive amount of omega-3s. You can use ground flaxseed in everyday meals and snacks, such as adding it to smoothies, yogurt, and whole-grain cereal, or sprinkling it on top of salads.
Flaxseed oil is also a great option compared to other vegetable oils because it’s high in omega-3s, whereas other types of vegetable oils tend to be higher in omega-6 fats.
Eating too many omega-6 fats and not enough omega-3s may promote inflammation. Therefore, it’s important to eat plenty of omega-3s to balance the omega-6 content of a typical Western diet.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of essential fats your body can’t make on its own. There are three types of omega-3 fats: ALA, EPA, and DHA. ALA is primarily in plant-based foods like nuts and seeds. On the other hand, you can find EPA and DHA in seafood and algae.
Omega-3s are beneficial for their anti-inflammatory properties and their positive impact on your heart health. Whether you choose whole foods or a fish oil/omega-3 supplement, be sure to eat enough omega-3 fats regularly to benefit from them.