Omega-3 fatty acids in food

Omega-3 fatty acids are a family of unsaturated fatty acids (fats) that serve an important role in your overall health. They’re considered essential, which means you must get them from the foods you eat. So why are omega-3s so important and what can you eat to make sure you get enough?

The role of omega-3 fatty acids in the body

The three main omega-3 fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Together, they help reduce inflammation, and they support the health of your heart and blood vessels, nerves, eyes, brain, and immune system. Most research on omega-3s links EPA and DHA to these functions. Your body can convert ALA to EPA and DHA, but only in small amounts.

Omega-3 fatty acids are of interest to the military not only for their health benefits, but also for the effect they have on physical and mental performance. For example, omega-3s are being studied for the positive effects they might have in recovery from exercise and injury, as well as their role in protecting the brain and nervous system after a concussion or traumatic brain injury.

How much do you need?

The Adequate Intakes for ALA are:

  • 1.6 grams (1,600 mg) per day for men
  • 1.1 grams (1,100 mg) per day for women

No Dietary Reference Intake or Adequate Intakes are available for EPA and DHA. But many professional organizations and expert groups recommend 250–500 mg/day of EPA and DHA (combined) since your body’s ability to convert ALA to EPA and DHA is so small.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating 8 ounces of seafood each week to meet your need for EPA and DHA. This equates to about 2–3 servings per week. Up to 3 grams (3,000 mg) per day of EPA and DHA from foods is generally considered safe.

The National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements reports most Americans get enough omega-3s as ALA, but it’s still unclear whether Americans get enough EPA and DHA.

Where do you find omega-3s in food?

ALA is found in certain plant-based foods and oils. DHA and EPA are found primarily in seafood and some types of marine plants (such as algae or seaweed). Some examples of foods high in omega-3 fatty acids include:

  • ALA: Flaxseeds, walnuts, chia seeds, canola oil, soybeans
  • EPA and DHA: Salmon, herring, sardines, mackerel, trout, tuna

Many fish high in omega-3s are low in mercury. If you’re concerned about the amount of mercury in some types of seafood, the Food and Drug Administration offers this advice about eating fish.

Many foods are now fortified with omega-3s too. You can find them in certain brands of eggs, milks, juices, peanut butter, and other spreads.

The table below lists the amount of omega-3s in common foods:

Foods High in Omega-3 Content


Serving Size


Chia seeds 1 oz 5,050 mg ALA
Walnuts, English 1 oz (14 halves) 2,570 mg ALA
Herring, Atlantic, cooked 3oz 773 mg EPA + 935 mg DHA
Flaxseed, ground 1 Tbsp 1,600 mg ALA
Salmon, Atlantic, wild, cooked 3 oz 349 mg EPA + 1,200 mg DHA
Canola oil 1 Tbsp 1,280 mg ALA
Trout, rainbow, wild, cooked 3 oz 398 mg EPA + 442 mg DHA
Sardines, canned in oil 3 oz 402 mg EPA + 432 mg DHA
Mayonnaise, regular 1 Tbsp 736 mg ALA
Shrimp, mixed species, cooked 3 oz 115 mg EPA + 120 mg DHA
Tuna, light, canned in water 3 oz 24 mg EPA + 167 mg DHA



Many Service Members might not eat the recommended amount of seafood each week. As a result, omega-3 supplements may seem appealing. But it’s important to discuss this with a healthcare provider. Operation Supplement Safety has an article on omega-3 dietary supplements and other information to use as you discuss your dietary supplement needs with your provider. If you decide to take an omega-3 supplement, be sure the product is 3rd party certified.

CHAMP wants to know:
How useful was the information in this article?


plus icon minus icon

American Heart Association. (2023). Fish and omega-3 fatty acids. Retrieved 31 Mar 2023 from

Anderson, B. M., & Ma, D. W. L. (2009). Are all n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids created equal? Lipids in Health and Disease, 8(1). doi: 10.1186/1476-511x-8-33

Bukhari, A. S., Lutz, L. J., Smith, T. J., Hatch-McChesney, A., O’Connor, K. L., Carrigan, C. T., . . . Montain, S. J. (2022). A food-based intervention in a military dining facility improves blood fatty acid profile. Nutrients, 14(4). doi: 10.3390/nu14040743

European Food Safety Authority Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition, and Allergies. (2012). Scientific opinion on the tolerable upper intake level of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and docosapentaenoic acid (DPA). EFSA Journal, 10(7). doi: 10.2903/j.efsa.2012.2815

Flock, M. R., Harris, W. S., & Kris-Etherton, P. M. (2013). Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids: Time to establish a dietary reference intake. Nutrition Reviews, 71(10), 692–707. doi: 10.1111/nure.12071

Headquarters Departments of the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force. (2017). Nutrition and Menu Standards for Human Performance Optimization (AR 40-25, OPNAVINST 10110.1/MCO 10110.49, AFI 44-141). Departments of the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force, Washington, DC. Retrieved 24 Apr 2023 from

Institute of Medicine. (2005). Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10490

Karpinski, C., & Rosenbloom, C. A. (2017). Sports Nutrition: A Handbook for Professionals (6th ed.). Chicago, IL: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Retrieved 27 February 2023 from

Lutz, L. J., Gaffney-Stomberg, E., Karl, J. P., Hughes, J. M., Guerriere, K. I., & McClung, J. P. (2019). Dietary intake in relation to military dietary reference values during Army basic combat training: A multi-center, cross-sectional study. Military Medicine, 184(3–4), e223–e230. doi: 10.1093/milmed/usy153

McBurney, M. I., Blumberg, J. B., Costello, R. B., Eggersdorfer, M., Erdman, J. W., Harris, W. S., . . . Schurgers, L. J. (2021). Beyond nutrient deficiency—Opportunities to improve nutritional status and promote health modernizing DRIs and supplementation recommendations. Nutrients, 13(6). doi: 10.3390/nu13061844

Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health. (2023). Omega-3 fatty acids. Retrieved 27 February 2023 from

Rittenhouse, M., & Deuster, P. A. (2022). Omega-3 fatty acids: Benefits for performance and recovery. Journal of Special Operations Medicine, 22(4). doi: 10.55460/6I33-5IPR

Ritz. P & Rockwell, M. (2021). Promoting optimal omega-3 fatty acid status in athletes. Retrieved 27 February 2023 from

U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020–2025. Retrieved 27 February 2023 from

U.S. Food & Drug Administration (2010). Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)-rich triglyceride oil from Yarrowia lipolytica. FDA GRAS Notices GRN No. 355. Retrieved 22 Mar 2023 from

U.S. Food & Drug Administration (2019). FDA announces new qualified health claims for EPA and DHA Omega-3 consumption and the risk of hypertension and coronery heart disease. Retrieved 10 Apr 2023 from

Vannice, G. & Rasmussen, H. (2013). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Dietary fatty acids for healthy adults. Retrieved 10 Apr 2023 from