In the fury over fats, we can all agree on one thing: omega-3 fatty acids have potent health benefits. Dozens of studies suggest that omega-3s can protect against cardiovascular disease, inflammation, arthritis, cognitive decline, mood disorders, and possibly cancer.
Because your body can’t make them, omega-3 fats must be consumed through supplements or food sources. But here’s the catch: not all omega-3s are interchangeable. The omega-3s found in fatty fish such as salmon and sardines are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), while plant sources of omega-3s, such as walnuts and flaxseed, contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). The body converts ALA into EPA and DHA through a series of chemical reactions, but the conversion ratio is very low—in some studies, as little as 5 percent of ALA is converted to EPA, and less than 0.5 percent to DHA.
Additionally, the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats in the diet is crucial. Healthy ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 fats range from 1:1 to 4:1. But the typical Western diet, high in processed foods, is often closer to a 16:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3, which promotes inflammation and increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and autoimmune diseases.
While there’s no RDI for omega-3s, most experts recommend 250–500 mg combined EPA and DHA every day for healthy adults. Here are six great food sources of these healthy fats.
1. Wild Salmon
Is an excellent source of omega-3 fats, with 1,220 mg of DHA and 350 mg of EPA per 3-oz. serving. Omega-3 levels in farmed salmon vary widely, depending on the type of feed used. And while farmed salmon are generally a good source of omega-3 fats, they’re also higher in omega-6s. They’re also likely to contain high levels of PCBs, dioxins, chlorinated pesticides, and other toxins—so wild-caught salmon is a better choice.
Recipe tips: Toss cooked salmon with gluten-free penne pasta and pesto; mix canned salmon with Greek yogurt and dill for a cracker spread; simmer skinless salmon fillets, bok choy, carrots, and onions in coconut milk with green curry paste for an easy stew.
A group of small, fatty fish in the herring family, are high in omega-3 fats. One tin (about 4.35 oz.) has as much as 1,700 mg of omega-3 fats. And because they’re lower on the food chain, sardines are less likely to be contaminated with mercury. If you buy them canned, look for varieties packed in water or olive oil, not soybean oil. And choose the bone-in variety for extra calcium.
Recipe tips: Sprinkle oil-packed sardines with garlic and lemon juice, and broil; add sardines, red onions, and minced tarragon to scrambled eggs; toss sardines with cooked white beans, chopped tomatoes, Kalamata olives, baby spinach, and vinaigrette.
3. Rainbow Trout
A freshwater fish with a mild, light flavor, is rich in omega-3s, with 500–1,000 mg in a 3-oz. serving. Farmed rainbow trout from U.S. ponds, raceways, or recirculating agricultural systems are considered a safe and sustainable choice, and less likely to contain toxins.
Recipe tips: Sauté trout fillets with leeks and wild mushrooms; marinate trout in lime juice, olive oil, garlic powder, and chili powder, then grill; roast trout and green beans with lemon juice and shallots, then top with slivered almonds.
4. Pastured Eggs
From chickens thatare allowed to roam free, tend to be higher in omega-3s and other nutrients. In one study, pastured eggs had 2.5 times the amount of omega-3 fats and a better omega-6 to omega-3 ratio than eggs from caged hens. Omega-3 fortified eggs, produced by feeding chickens a diet supplemented with flaxseeds, may have more than 400 mg of omega-3 fats per egg. But they’re generally raised in cages, unless otherwise specified, so pastured eggs are a more ethical choice.
Recipe tips: Top scrambled eggs with crème fraîche, smoked salmon, and chives; bake eggs in tomato sauce, harissa, and Feta cheese; poach eggs and serve them over grilled asparagus and polenta.
Are high in healthy monounsaturated fats and ALA omega-3 fats, with 1,670 mg per half cup. They’ve been shown to reduce blood pressure and inflammation, and decrease harmful LDL cholesterol by as much as 16 percent. Other studies suggest that eating a handful of walnuts daily can improve blood lipid profiles in people who don’t eat fish.
Recipe tips: Simmer walnut halves, mushrooms, carrots, and lentils in broth until tender; toss toasted walnuts with golden beets, baby arugula, and blue cheese; sauté walnuts in coconut oil, honey, and cinnamon for a sweet, healthy snack.
6. Chia, Flax, and Hemp Seeds
All three of these seeds are good sources of ALA omega-3 fats. One ounce of chia seeds has 5,000 mg of ALA omega-3 fats; flaxseeds have about 6,300 mg of ALA per ounce. And an ounce of hemp seeds has about 6,000 mg of ALA. And all three varieties have about three times as much omega-3 as omega-6.
Recipe tips: Combine chia seeds, rooibos tea, coconut milk, and agave, then refrigerate until chilled for a riff on boba tea; make waffles using ground flax, almond flour, pumpkin purée, and pumpkin pie spice; toss hemp seeds with baby spinach, blackberries, pomegranate seeds, and a sweet vinaigrette for a light-and-healthy lunch salad.
How to Get Enough
Experts recommend getting 250–500 mg combined EPA and DHA in your diet every day. The easiest way to do this is to eat some type of fatty fish twice per week. Mercury usually isn’t a problem unless you’re pregnant or nursing, but if you’re concerned, choose low-mercury options such as sardines, trout, and wild salmon.
If you’re vegan or vegetarian, or just don’t like fish, getting enough omega-3s can be a problem. You can start by focusing on plant sources of the nutrient, but you may also want to consider an omega-3 supplement made from algae.
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