Omega-3 fatty acids are essential, unsaturated fats that your body needs to work well. You need to take them in through your diet, so it’s a nutrient to keep in mind even when you’re dining out. While they’re mostly found in fatty fish and other seafood, there are plant-based sources that can help you meet your omega-3 needs. Here’s why omega-3s are important and how to make sure you’re getting enough of these fatty acids.
By Amy Magill
Omega-3s and your health
There seems to be a link between omega-3s, particularly those found in seafood, and better heart health. Foods rich in omega-3s may reduce triglyceride levels (a type of fat in the blood) and blood pressure (slightly). They may also lower the risk of heart disease, heart failure, and arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm). Plus, if you already have heart disease, omega-3s may reduce your chance of fatal heart events.
The benefits of omega-3s may go beyond the heart. While results haven’t been consistent, some studies show that consuming omega-3s from foods such as fish may:
Lower the risk of dementia, cognitive decline, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Reduce the chance of age-related macular degeneration.
Improve some symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
Benefit visual and neurological development in babies when mothers consume omega-3s during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Cut the risk of breast and colorectal cancers.
While more research is needed, experts are also exploring the possible benefits of omega-3s for other health conditions, including depression, inflammatory bowel disease, allergies in kids, cystic fibrosis, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Types of omega-3s
The three key omega-3 fatty acids are:
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
During digestion, your body converts small amounts of ALA into EPA and DHA. This amount isn’t large enough to justify skimping on sources of EPA and DHA, though. Even if you eat plenty of foods that contain ALA, you need to make sure you get enough EPA and DHA, which can be tricky if you don’t eat seafood.
What to eat
The best sources of EPA and DHA are oily, fatty types of fish, including salmon, mackerel, and herring. If you’re a non-fish eater, you can find ALA in many plant-based foods. Just keep in mind that they don’t contain DHA and EPA. Some ALA-rich foods include flaxseed oil, chia seeds, walnuts and soy products.
Manufacturers also fortify some foods with omega-3s that don’t naturally contain them (check labels or ask your server at restaurants). These include certain brands of eggs, yogurt, juices, milk, and soy beverages.
Eating a variety of foods can help ensure you’re getting enough omega-3s. Consider these vegetarian-friendly ideas when you’re dining out or preparing food at home:
How much to eat
Ask for ground flaxseeds in your smoothies.
Top your oatmeal with walnuts.
Add chia seeds to yogurt or cereal.
Try soybean or tofu stir-fry dishes.
While experts haven’t set target intake amounts for EPA and DHA, fish-eaters should get enough by eating 8 ounces of seafood each week, as recommended in the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans
As for daily ALA intake: Men should aim for 1.6 grams, and women should consume 1.1 grams (pregnant and nursing women need slightly more). For vegetarians and vegans, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that taking in higher amounts of ALA may be best.
Dietary guidelines stress that your nutrition needs should be met mostly from foods. But if you don’t eat fish, you may not be able to get enough omega-3s through diet alone. In this case, ask your doctor if you need a supplement like fish oil or krill oil.
Amy Magill, MA, RD, LDN is Manager of Clinical Programs at Walgreens, where you can find omega-3 dietary supplements including krill oil. Amy is passionate about helping others achieve a healthier lifestyle through important nutrients like omega-3s.
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. What are omega-3 fatty acids?
National Institute of Health. Omega-3 fatty acids. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/#en29
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/
Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
When eating out, order dietitian-recommended menu choices like these to help you add more omega 3's and other nutrients to your diet: