Omega-3 fatty acids in food

Omega-3 fatty acids make up a family of polyunsaturated fatty acids that are essential for health. They’re an important component of every cell wall, including your heart, brain, and eye tissue. They play a role in reducing inflammation, keeping blood vessels healthy, and developing and maintaining brain, nerve, and eye health. The three main omega-3 fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). The body can’t create ALA or make enough EPA and DHA from the ALA you get from foods to meet your body’s needs, so you need to consume EPA, DHA, and ALA omega-3 fatty acids from food sources. 

Plant-based foods and oils—including walnuts, canola, soybean, and flaxseed/linseed—are sources high in ALA. EPA and DHA can be found primarily in seafood. Cold-water oily fish (salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and tuna) has the most. Other fish and shellfish, such as shrimp and oysters, also contain omega-3 fatty acids, but in lesser amounts. Although not high in omega-3 fatty acids, some game meat (elk, deer, and antelope) contains a small amount. And some foods now have omega-3 fatty acids added, so you can find it in certain eggs, soymilk, juices, and other beverages too.

The Adequate Intakes (AI) for ALA are 1.6 g/day for men and 1.1 g/day for women. There are no official recommendations for EPA and DHA. However, the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests consuming at least 8 ounces (approximately 2 servings) per week of cold-water fish, which will provide about 250 mg of EPA+DHA per day.

Learn more about the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids from the National Institutes of Health. For a list of some foods high in omega-3 content, see the table below.

Foods High in Omega-3 Content

Item

Serving Size

mg/Serving

Flaxseed oil* 1 Tbsp 7,258
Walnuts, English* 1 oz 2,500
Flaxseeds, whole* 1 Tbsp 2,350
Salmon** 3 oz 1,824
Canola (rapeseed) oil* 1 Tbsp 1,279
Soybean oil* 1 Tbsp 923
Tuna, canned white** 3 oz 733
Pollock** 3 oz 460
Clams** 3 oz 241
Shrimp** 3 oz 235
Flatfish** 3 oz 210
Flounder** 3 oz 210
Catfish** 3 oz 201
Walnuts, black* 1 Tbsp 157
Haddock** 3 oz 136
Cod** 3 oz 134
Kale (cooked)* 1 cup 134

Source: USDA Food Composition Databases
*Omega-3 as ALA
**Omega-3 as DHA+EPA


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References

American Heart Association. (2017). Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Retrieved from https://healthyforgood.heart.org/Eat-smart/Articles/Fish-and-Omega-3-Fatty-Acids

Cordain, L., Watkins, B. A., Florant, G. L., Kelher, M., Rogers, L., & Li, Y. (2002). Fatty acid analysis of wild ruminant tissues: Evolutionary implications for reducing diet-related chronic disease. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 56(3), 181–191. doi:10.1038/sj.ejcn.1601307

Food and Nutrition Board, & Institute of Medicine. (2005). Dietary Fats: Total Fat and Fatty Acids Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health. (2016). Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. Retrieved from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/

Whelan, J., & Rust, C. (2006). Innovative dietary sources of n-3 fatty acids. Annual Review of Nutrition, 26(1), 75–103. doi:10.1146/annurev.nutr.25.050304.092605