Q: “Fish, eggs, flaxseeds, oils – I’m confused about which ones provide omega-3s and which ones don’t. Can you recommend the best ways to boost my omega-3s?”
Answered by Haley Hughes, MS, RD, clinical dietitian, Providence Alaska Medical Center
A lot of people are confused about how to get this essential, heart-protecting fatty acid. Some think that eating fish and flaxseeds is all it takes, but there’s more to it than that. You could still be deficient in omega-3s if you’re not making the right choices. Knowing a few key details can make all the difference.
Know your omega-3s
Omega-3s are called “essential” fatty acids because they are essential to your health. Two types of omega-3s, in particular – EPA and DHA – provide powerful cardiovascular protections, including:
- Reduced risk of clots and heart attacks
- Reduced arrhythmias
- Relaxed blood vessels and lower blood pressure
- Lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol
- Reduced plaque buildup in the arteries
In addition, EPA and DHA also play a vital role in early brain development, and may reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease later in life. These are the omega-3s that are found in certain kinds of fish. Most people could use more EPA and DHA.
A third form of omega-3 is called alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA. (Don’t confuse this ALA with alpha-lipoic acid, which is very different.) While also very beneficial, the science behind its heart benefits isn’t as strong. Most people don’t need to make a special effort to get more ALA – it’s the most plentiful type of omega-3 in our diets. However, your body can convert a small fraction of ALA into EPA and DHA, and since ALA is found mainly in plants, it may have special importance to strict vegetarians and vegans.
Where to get your omega-3s
- Fatty fish: The richest source of EPA and DHA, by far, is fish, and the type of fish makes a big difference. Tilapia and shrimp don’t really cut it. Darker, fattier, cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, wild trout, sardines and tuna are some of the best sources. Wild fish, which feed on omega-3-rich algae and sea greens, are often better sources than farmed fish. The American Heart Association recommends eating fatty fish (3.5 ounces per serving) at least twice a week. Check the omega-3 levels of popular fish and seafood choices here.
- Grass-fed meats, eggs and dairy: Pasture-raised animals, as well as wild game, have a diet that’s higher in omega-3s than their corn-fed counterparts, and those benefits are passed on to us when we consume their meat, eggs and dairy products.
- Ground flaxseeds: Flaxseeds are very high in ALA, but your body can’t process the whole seeds. They need to be ground up or pressed into oil to release their benefits. A tablespoon of ground flaxseed or a teaspoon of oil supplies all the ALA you need in a day.
- Chia seeds: These seeds are packed with ALA, and they don’t have to be ground. One tablespoon a day is more than enough.
- Walnuts and walnut oil: Walnuts are higher in ALA than any other nut. They contain omega-6s, as well, but in a balance that is considered healthy. A quarter cup of nuts or a tablespoon of oil meets your day’s needs.
- Leafy greens: Like the algae and grasses that omega-3-rich fish and pastured animals eat, green leafy vegetables are a good source of ALA – just one more reason to eat your veggies.
Considering omega-3 supplements?
Getting your omega-3s from food is ideal, but if you have cardiovascular risks or you can’t get enough EPA and DHA from food, you might benefit from a supplement.
- Talk with your health care provider first to make sure it won’t interfere with other health issues or medications.
- Choose a supplement with EPA and DHA.
- Look for a brand that’s NSF certified.
- Avoid mega doses: 1 gram of DHA/EPA per day is plenty. Taking more than 3 grams a day can cause excessive bleeding.
- Most omega-3 supplements come from fish oil, but algae supplements are a good alternative if you’re a vegetarian or vegan or you’re allergic to fish.
A caution for pregnant women and children
EPA and DHA are crucial to children’s brain development, but pregnant women and children should avoid fish that may be high in mercury. Choose carefully - salmon and sardines are safer choices; mackerel and tuna pose more contamination risks. Fish oil supplements aren’t a problem.
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