Food Sources of Omega 3
There is a variety of foods that contain Omega 3 fats. This article will show you where to get your daily dose of EPA, DHA, and ALA – the 3 major types of Omega 3 fatty acids. You will also learn how to get enough Omega 3 if you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet. Last, but not least, you will find out how to buy, store, and prepare Omega 3 containing foods to get the most from the health benefits that they offer.
Omega 3 fats can be found both in animal as well as plant sources. There are 3 major types of Omega 3 fatty acids:
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
Alpha linolenic acid (ALA)
EPA and DHA are fats that we get from animal-based products, such as fish, fish oil, grass-fed meat, eggs, and so on.
ALA, on the other hand, is an Omega 3 fatty acid that is found only in plant sources, including some vegetable oils, seeds and nuts.
Although all types of Omega 3 fatty acids seem to be beneficial to our health, studies show that EPA and DHA are the ones that are crucial for the normal functioning of our bodies.
Since human body is unable to make Omega 3 by itself, you need to get you daily dose from the food that you eat.
For good health, you should try to eat at least one Omega rich food per day. Eating fatty fish two times per week will get you plenty of both EPA and DHA. You might also try seasoning your salad with soybean or canola oil, which are both excellent sources of ALA. You will also increase your intake of ALA by putting ground walnuts or flaxseed in your morning oatmeal.
Top Food Sources of ALA
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is found in some vegetable oils, such as flaxseed oil, canola oil, soybean oil, mustard oil, and hemp oil. Flaxseed and its oil is the most abundant source of ALA. It contains approximately 55% ALA.
ALA is also found in nuts (especially walnuts) and seeds (for example, chia and mustard seeds). Another good source of ALA are green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, kale, parsley, mint, salad greens, watercress, and Brussels sprouts.
Table: Foods, which contain Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA)
Nuts and Seeds
Chia seeds, dried
60 ml ¼ cup)
60 ml (¼ cup)
Pumpkin seeds, without shell
60 ml (¼ cup)
60 ml (¼ cup)
60 ml (¼ cup)
60 ml (¼ cup
Walnuts, English, Persian
60 ml (¼ cup)
Radish seeds, sprouted, raw
125 ml (½ cup)
Winter squash, cooked
125 ml (½ cup)
2 cups cooked
2 cups cooked
Table source: http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/infocenter/othernuts/omega3fa/ , http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=nutrient&dbid=84 , http://www.dietitians.ca/Nutrition-Resources-A-Z/Factsheets/Fats/Food-Sources-of-Omega-3-Fats.aspx
Top Food Sources of EPA and DHA
Fatty fish are the major food source of both EPA and DHA. This includes cold water oily fish, such as herring, anchovies, sardines, salmon, trout, mackerel, and halibut. Oils from these fish have excellent fat profile as they include about seven times more Omega 3 than Omega 6 fatty acids.
Other fish that also contain Omega 3, although in lesser amounts, are: tuna, flathead, and barramundi.
Fish oil has long been the main commercial Omega 3 supplement. Most of the studies that have been made regarding the benefits of Omega 3 were made with fish oil.
2. Krill oil
Krill is a small shrimp-like crustacean that lives in the open seas. Krill oil is a relatively new source of Omega 3 fatty acids (EPA + DHA). Early reports indicate that it might be even superior to fish oil. However, more studies are needed to confirm long term benefits of krill oil supplements.
3. Calamari oil
Calamari oil (also called squid oil) is a further source of Omega 3 fatty acids. It is considered environmentally friendly because it is prepared from the mostly unused parts of calamari catches.
Marine algae are a source of DHA Omega 3 fatty acids. Algae don’t contain EPA. A small part of DHA that you consume is converted into EPA in your body; however, this percentage is too small to provide adequate levels of EPA.
5. Fortified Foods
Foods, fortified with omega 3 fatty acids, are a big hit in the food industry. Most companies that offer Omega 3 enriched foods add both EPA as well as DHA. You can find Omega 3 added to orange juice, yogurt, bread, milk, eggs, infant formula, pizza, pasta, and more. Infant formula usually contains more DHA than EPA as DHA is important for healthy development of baby’s brain, nervous system, and visual acuity.
Eggs naturally contain Omega 3 fatty acids. Eggs from hens, which are fed greens and insects, contain more Omega 3 than eggs produced by hens on corn diet. To further increase Omega 3 content in eggs, chicken diet can be enriched with fish oil, flax and canola seeds.
Grass is the source of omega 3 fatty acids in grass-fed animals. When cattle is taken of grass and put on grain-based diet, they start to lose their store of beneficial Omega 3 fats. You can see this by taking a look at the Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio of beef: grain-fed beef has a ratio of 4:1, while grass-fed beef usually has a ratio of 2:1, which means that it contains almost double the amount of Omega 3 fatty acids.
When we are buying meat, we usually get more Omega 3 from lamb meat than from beef. The reason for this is that most commercially available beef typically comes from grain-fed animals (cattle is raised in feedlots), while lamb is typically grass-fed.
Omega 3 content in chicken also depends on their diet. Chickens that eat greens and insects have more Omega 3 than chickens who are fed corn. Omega 3 in chicken can be increased by adding flax, canola, and chia seeds to their diet.
Table: Omega 3 (EPA + DHA) content in fresh fish, canned fish, and seafood
Fresh fish (150 g serving)
More than 500 mg EPA + DHA
400-500 mg EPA+DHA
300 – 400 mg EPA+DHA
Flathead: deep water,
southern sand, tiger
200 – 300 mg EPA+DHA
Blue grenadier (Hoki)
Garfish: eastern sea,
southern, snub-nosed, river
King George whiting
> 1500 mg EPA + DHA
Canned salmon (some varieties)
300 - 1000 mg EPA+DHA
Canned salmon and tuna
500-600 mg EPA+DHA
Oyster, Sydney rock
300-500 mg EPA+DHA
Oyster: Pacific, raw
Crab, blue swimmer
Table source: www.heartfoundation.org.au/
Mercury Contamination in Fish
Eating fish is widely recommended due to their high Omega 3 content. However, there is one thing you should be careful of when considering which fish to eat. Some fish that live in contaminated areas have higher levels of PCB, mercury, and other toxins. These typically include larger species of fish, such as shark, swordfish, mackerel, tilefish, and certain types of tuna.
Fish and seafood that are usually low in mercury and other contaminants are sardines, anchovies, salmon, catfish, smaller types of tuna, squid, and shrimp.
You should choose fish that are low in PCB, mercury, and other contaminants. Usually, this means going for smaller species of fish, preferably wild-grown.
To learn more about mercury levels in different types of fish, take a look at Consumer Guide to Mercury in Fish.
Farm raised fish may also contain other contaminants, including medications used for treating and preventing fish diseases.
Pregnant women and small children are especially vulnerable to contaminants in food, so they should take extra care to what kind of fish they consume.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids in Vegetarian and Vegan Diet
Of the 3 major Omega 3 types, ALA is the one that can be found in many plant sources, including vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds. However, DHA and EPA are mostly found in animal source (with the exception of algae, which are a source of plant DHA).
That is why getting enough EPA and DHA from a strictly vegan diet can be a challenge. Some percentage of ALA that we consume is converted into EPA and DHA in the human body. The percentages of this conversion, however, are extremely low.
Research shows that men are able to convert approximately 8% of the ALA that they consume into EPA and between 0 to 4% to DHA. Women are a little better at this conversion. They are able to transform about 21% of ALA that they get from food into EPA, and about 9% to DHA. The conversion process becomes even less efficient as we get older.
For this reason, you should get plenty of ALA from your food. You should aim for consuming approximately 4 grams of ALA per day. Here is a short list of food choices that will help you achieve this goal:
2 tablespoons flaxseeds 3.19 g ALA
2 cups cooked Brussels sprouts 0.54 g ALA
¼ cup walnuts 2.72. g ALA
8 ounces tofu 1.32 g ALA
Alternatively, you can supplement your diet with DHA, made from marine algae. Since a certain proportion of DHA is converted into EPA in our bodies, this is also a source of EPA – albeit in smaller quantities than DHA.
Getting enough EPA and DHA from food can be tricky if you don’t eat fish and seafood. This means that you should increase your intake of ALA to 4 grams per day by eating lots of nuts, seed, and oils with high ALA content.
Adding a marine algae supplement to your diet is also a good way to get your daily dose of DHA.
Vegetarian choices of Omega 3 foods also include eggs (from chicken raised on green diet) and dairy products from grass-fed animals.
How to Buy, Store, and Process Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega 3 fatty acids are very easily spoiled. The damage may be caused by heat, oxygen, or light. That is why you should store all foods containing Omega 3 fatty acids in refrigerator in a sealed, opaque container. This applies to animal products, such as fish, meat, dairy, and eggs; but is also true for vegetable products, such as oils, seeds, and nuts.
Buying and Storing Omega 3 rich foods
- Always check expiration date on products with Omega 3
- Buy only oils stored in refrigerator, protected from light (opaque container)
- Pre-ground seeds and nuts have shorter shelf life than whole seeds and nuts
- Freshly grinded seeds and nuts will give you largest amount of healthy nutrients
Omega 3 Oils
Once you open Omega 3 oil (such as fish, soybean, or flaxseed oil), you should use it all within one month. Oil that is not used within a month should be thrown away as rancidity reactions rapidly increase after this period. The oil, which was once full of beneficial fats, becomes rancid and is in fact harmful to your health.
When you are buying Omega 3 rich oils, you should look for the expiration date. These oils have very short shelf life. Always buy oil that is kept in the refrigerator or you might get an already spoiled product.
Seeds and nuts with Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Many seeds contain valuable Omega 3 fatty acids in the form of ALA (Alpha linolenic acid). The problem is that seeds are often so small that it can be difficult to chew and grind them with your teeth. That is why many people buy pre-ground seeds or decide to grind them with their home grinder (a coffee grinder does a good job, you just need to be careful that you don’t overheat the seeds).
Once you grind the seeds, their shelf life is significantly reduced. For comparison - whole flaxseeds, correctly stored and protected from light, will usually last between 6 months and a year before they go rancid. If you buy pre-ground seeds, they usually have a storage time between 6-16 weeks if they are packed in air-tight and light-protective pouch. The seeds that you grind at home will usually need to be consumed within one month. The best thing to do is grind the seeds just before eating them as you get the most nutrients from freshly grinded seeds.
When buying nuts, the same rules apply. Check ‘best before’ date and store them in refrigerator, protected from light. Like seeds, nuts are also best eaten whole or freshly grinded. Many choose to sprinkle them on top of their morning oatmeal or use them to prepare healthy raw desserts.
- WHFoods Omega 3. http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=nutrient&dbid=84
- Fish and Omega 3 Fatty Acids American Heart Association. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/HealthyDietGoals/Fish-and-Omega-3-Fatty-Acids_UCM_303248_Article.jsp
- Mercury Contamination in Fish. National Resources Defense Council. http://www.nrdc.org/health/effects/mercury/guide.asp
- Mercury Levels in Commercial Fish and ShellFish. FDA. http://www.fda.gov/food/foodborneillnesscontaminants/metals/ucm115644.htm