You hear some nutrients chattered about constantly, but you may not know if you’re getting enough of them — or why you should even be paying attention. That may describe how you feel about omega-3’s: Sure, they’re important, but … why again?
Omega-3’s are a type of fatty acid. (Omega-6’s and omega-9’s are others.) They’re considered “essential” fatty acids, which means your body can’t make them — but it needs them — so you have to get omega-3’s from food.
According to the National Institutes of Health, omega-3’s make up the membranes surrounding every cell in your body. They also play a role in the proper function of your brain, eyes, heart and hormones. When it comes to your ticker, getting ample omega-3’s keeps your lipid levels in check (like triglycerides), helps keep your arteries clear and may also lower blood pressure. Adequate intake of omega-3’s may also lower your risk of dementia — perhaps because they support blood vessel function (and your blood vessels feed your brain), as well as reduce inflammation.
If you’re thinking to yourself, ‘wow, that’s a big job,’ you’re right. And yet, most of us aren’t getting enough, says Gabrielle Mancella, a registered dietitian with Orlando Health. Traditionally, some of our omega-3’s came from grass-fed beef, but now that most cattle eat a corn-heavy diet, cows don’t produce much omega-3’s in their beef and milk, she explains. A great source of the essential fatty acid is fish (such as salmon and mackerel), but if you’re not getting the 1–2 fish servings per week recommended by the AHA, you could be missing out.
Consuming too few omega-3’s can throw off the balance between the fatty acids in your body (particularly 3’s and 6’s), says Mancella. It’s estimated that a standard American diet has a ratio of 16:1 of omega-6’s to omega-3’s. While omega-6’s are necessary, the ideal ratio, says Mancella, is actually 4:1. An imbalance in these fatty acids promotes inflammation, which may encourage your body to accumulate fat, and is one potential factor responsible for rising obesity rates.
Of course, no one’s asking you to sit down and calculate your ratio of omega-6’s to omega-3’s. Instead, simply aim to fill your diet with more omega-3’s. Here are seven top sources:
FRESH AND CANNED FISH
When it comes to omega-3’s, there are three types: ALA, EPA and DHA. EPA and DHA come from fish and seafood, while ALA comes from plants like flax. ALA is a precursor to EPA and DHA, meaning ALA can be converted to EPA/DHA. That means the most direct and effective way to get the omega-3’s you need is from fish.
If you eat fish, try to commit to eating two servings of fish per week. Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines are the richest in omega-3’s. Tuna counts, too, though if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, stick to no more than 2–3 servings per week (ideally canned light tuna) to lower risk of mercury exposure, per the FDA.
One of the reasons our omega ratio is off is because we’re using the wrong oils, says Mancella. “Switching your cooking oil is one of the easiest ways to get your ratio back in a better range,” she says. The benefit to canola oil is it can be used at any temperature and has no taste, making it one of the easiest oils to use.
When chickens are fed flaxseeds, their bodies produce eggs rich in omega-3’s. While it’s present in much lower amounts compared to fish, buying omega-3 eggs (look for language that calls this out on the carton) is a smart way to round out your diet.
FLAXSEEDS AND OIL
Flaxseeds offer fiber for few calories, plus omega-3’s in the form of ALA. That’s why they’re good for improving cholesterol levels and regulating digestion, says the Mayo Clinic. You can buy flax as whole or ground seeds, but whole seeds pass through your digestive system largely undigested. To reap the benefits, you should stick with ground. As for flax oil, go ahead and use it for cold applications, like DIY-ing salad dressing or to sneak in some ALAs, but it’s not an adequate substitute for fish.
These little black seeds are trendy, and that’s a good thing: They’re packed with protein, fiber and omega-3’s. In fact according to the Harvard School of Public Health, chia is the best plant source of omega-3’s. Sprinkle them on yogurt or oatmeal, add to a smoothie or stir together with your milk of choice (and let sit overnight) for chia seed pudding.
These nuts contain omega-3’s, but like the other plant sources, this is the ALA variety. If you rely solely on plants for your omega-3’s, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian about adding a fish or algae oil supplement to get the complete omega-3 package.
Choosing grass-fed beef has some advantages, mainly a healthier ratio between omega-6’s and omega-3’s, research shows. (However, the amount it contains comes nowhere near a salmon filet.) If it’s in your budget, consider buying grass-fed when you can.