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
|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.