Discover 10 top sources of essential omega-3 fatty acids.
What are these omega-3s you keep hearing so much about, and how do they benefit your health? Omega-3 fatty acids, also known as n-3 fatty acids, perform a wide range of functions in the body. They help control blood clotting and build cell membranes in the brain, and they may also protect against heart disease, stroke, cancer and autoimmune diseases, according to the Harvard University School of Public Health.
Our bodies don’t make omega-3s, so we have to get them from food. There are three types of omega-3s: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA); eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA); and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is often found in vegetable oils, flaxseed and walnuts, while EPA and DHA can be found in fatty fish.
How can you increase your intake of these beneficial fats? Here, registered dietitian Julie Fortenberry shares the top 10 foods that are rich in omega-3s, plus tips to work them into your diet.
1. FLAXSEED The seeds of the flax plant have recently gained mainstream popularity for their enormous omega-3 content. Though you may have to seek flaxseed out at specialty food stores, it can be incorporated into all sorts of meals! Try adding ground flaxseed to muffins, bread dough and smoothies, or sprinkling a handful of the raw seeds over a salad.
2. WALNUTS These tasty nuts contain a high percentage of omega-3s. Since walnuts are high in calories, though, limit your intake to a handful here or there for a heart-healthy snack.
3. COLD-WATER FISH Sardines, salmon and tuna top the list of fish that contain the most EPA and DHA. Cooking doesn’t destroy these beneficial acids, so feel free to prepare fish however you like it best! However, stick to fish that are sustainably raised, since overfishing severely damages marine ecosystems.
4. GRASS-FED BEEF Though it’s not an option for vegetarians, beef is a solid way to take in the omega-3s you need. As cows graze, they convert the ALA in grass into EPA and DHA; this is why it’s important to choose grass-fed animals over grain-fed.
Don’t worry too much about choosing the leanest cut. “Healthy fat comes from healthy animals,” Fortenberry says. “So, actually, eating the fat in a ribeye from a grass-fed cow will have health benefits that are not available in a conventionally raised cow.”
5. SOYBEANS Edamame, which translates to stem beans in Japanese, is one of the easiest and most popular ways to include soybeans in your diet. Boil or steam a bowl of these bright-green pods, and season them with a sprinkle of sea salt. Kids will have fun squeezing the beans out of the pods — and you might too.
6. TOFU Arguably the most popular soy-based protein source, tofu is also full of omega-3s. Try firm tofu in a stir-fry with crushed peanuts and rice noodles, and top with a lemongrass- or curry-based dressing!
7. SHRIMP They can be a pain to peel, but shrimp are a great source of both protein and omega-3s. Next time you host a barbecue, toss a few skewers of shrimp, sliced red onions and cherry tomatoes on the grill.
8. BRUSSELS SPROUTS Rich in ALA, Brussels sprouts are a way to double up on healthy foods in your diet, since they also fulfill the green veggies requirement. Slice sprouts in half, toss them with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of black pepper, and pop them in the oven for 15 minutes at 425F.
9. CAULIFLOWER This cruciferous veggie — a close relative of broccoli and kale — often gets overlooked. But cauliflower has its own benefits, and one of these is its solid percentage of omega-3s. Cut a fresh head of cauliflower into florets, sauté in olive oil and season with curry powder, turmeric or both for a filling and nutrition-packed side.
“Cauliflower rice is a good substitute for high-carbohydrate conventional rice,” Fortenberry says. “Just grind up the cauliflower florets without the stem, and sauté in coconut oil with some garlic.”
10. EGGS A great source of DHA and EPA, eggs have a lower percentage of ALA. Look for eggs from hens eating a diet of greens and insects, as these eggs contain higher concentrations of omega-3s than those from grain-fed hens.
FISH OIL: SUPER SUPPLEMENT OR SNEAKY SCHEME?
You can get omega-3s from over-the-counter fish-oil supplements. Quality is important — just as you’d be suspicious of discounted fish, you may have to read labels carefully to uncover the source(s) of a supplement’s omega-3s. In general, aim to get most of your omega-3s from food, since you’ll be consuming protein, carbs, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other nutritional essentials along with these necessary fats!