We’ve all heard the hype by now – omega-3s are good for you. For some around the world, fish are a traditional part of the diet, so acquiring ideal amounts of Omega-3s is not an issue. For those who don’t consume fish as frequently, it would be wise to choose fish that provide the most health benefits when adding them to your weekly meal lineup. Keep reading to learn more about Omega-3s and which fish to eat to get the most out of your meal.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid that plays a significant role in our health. Several different types of Omega-3 fatty acids exist. Still, the majority of health research focuses on three: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Considered “essential fatty acids,” we must obtain these from our diet since our bodies cannot make them independently. EPA and DHA are found primarily in fish and marine algae, while ALA is found in many plant sources such as flaxseed, soybean oil, and walnuts.
Why are Omega-3s so Important Anyway?
When it comes to Omega-3 health benefits, you’re more likely familiar with the effects of EPA and DHA. These two powerhouse nutrients are the most important Omega-3 fatty acids involved in human physiology. DHA and EPA have been associated with neuroprotective benefits, decreases in cardiovascular risk, autoimmune diseases, and inflammation.
They are imperative for neurological growth and development and can lead to higher intelligence and decreased risk for developmental delays in children when maternal intake is adequate. In nature, EPA and DHA are most often found together. Therefore, most research is done on the effects of EPA and DHA combined, but each plays a unique role.
EPA has been found to have greater effects on mood disorders and plays a critical role in depression prevention and decreasing depressive symptoms. DHA on the other hand is a major structural component of the brain and retina, and therefore, has been linked to reduced risk of age-related cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and age-related macular degeneration.
While most health effects of Omega-3s stem from DHA and EPA, there is some evidence that ALA alone may help too. In addition to acting as the parent fatty acid to DHA and EPA, ALA seems to influence cardiovascular health. Studies show that diets high in ALA are associated with a lower prevalence of coronary heart disease, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and heart disease mortality. The National Institutes of Health has a helpful Omega-3 fact sheet for consumers that includes a few other health benefits that can be found here.
How Much Do I Need?
The Institute of Medicine (IOM) has not yet established recommendations (RDA) for DHA and EPA, but RDAs for ALA have been determined. However, ALA consumption does not seem to be the problem. ALA is present in several plant oils and is a prominent traditional Western diet component. Although the body can convert ALA to EPA and DHA, studies suggest that the conversion rate is only 2-10%. Other studies have reported even lower conversion rates. Goyens et al. found an ALA conversion of 7% to EPA and .013% to DHA, and Hussein et al. found an ALA conversion of 0.3% to EPA and <0.01% to DHA. All that to say, EPA and DHA should be consumed directly rather than relying on the conversion of ALA to meet EPA and DHA needs.
Even though the IOM has no official RDA for EPA and DHA, research and health experts have weighed in with suggestions. For example, the World Health Organization recommends a minimum intake of 250mg per day of EPA and DHA, while the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends a slightly higher intake of 250-500mg per day. With recommendations not exactly lining up, another valuable way to ensure you’re meeting your needs is by measuring your Omega-3 Index.
The Omega-3 Index (O3i) test is a simple blood test that reflects the percentage of Omega-3s compared to the total amount of fatty acids present in the red blood cell membranes. A study published in 2019 by Omega Quant’s Dr. Kristina Harris Jackson found that those who took a supplement and ate fish three times per week were most likely to hit the ideal O3i of 8%. Although the research suggests consuming fish three times per week will supply adequate Omega-3 levels, not all fish are created equal.
(If you would like to read more about the Omega-3 Index and how to calculate your personal needs, check out this article here.)
Which Fish Are Richest in EPA and DHA?
Below is a list of the top 10 sources of DHA and EPA, and the amount estimated per a 3-ounce cooked portion per the USDA National Nutrient Database:
- Mackerel (Wild Pacific & Jack) > 1,500mg of Omega-3s. In addition to being high in Omega-3s, Mackerel also contains high amounts of vitamin B12, selenium, vitamin D, and protein. Try it grilled or poached, thrown over a salad, or served with a side of grilled veggies.
- Salmon (Wild King (Chinook) and Farmed Atlantic) >1,500mg of Omega-3s. Salmon is also a great source of protein, B vitamins, potassium, selenium, and the antioxidant astaxanthin, which gives salmon its signature red/pink color. King Salmon is often highest in fat content but also tends to be more expensive. Try salmon grilled, pan-fried or seared, fire-roasted, smoked, or raw at your favorite sushi restaurant.
- Herring (Wild Atlantic and Pacific) >1,500mg of Omega-3s. More popular in Scandinavia and Germany than in the U.S., this fish offers more than EPA and DHA. Herring is one of the very best sources of vitamin D and is rich in vitamin E, selenium, vitamin B12, and protein. This affordable fish is often eaten grilled, smoked, canned, or very popularly pickled in Scandinavia.
- Salmon (Canned Pink, Sockeye & Chum) >1,000mg of Omega-3s. With many of the same benefits as fresh salmon, canned salmon provides a whole new level of convenience. You can add canned salmon to pasta dishes, spread it over crackers or pita wedges, make a dip to be eaten with vegetables, or even form it into patties to be eaten as salmon burgers.
- Mackerel (Canned Jack and Wild Atlantic & Spanish) >1,000mg of Omega-3s. Milder than sardines or anchovies but still possessing savory goodness, canned mackerel is often overlooked in the grocery aisle. Offering the same health benefits as fresh mackerel, the canned version can be added to seafood soup or stew, used in fish cakes or croquettes, added to stir-fries or casseroles, or eaten straight out of the can with some crackers. Be sure to remove any big bones first!
- Tuna (Wild Bluefin) >1,000mg of Omega-3s. Tuna is also a great source of protein, thiamin, selenium, vitamin D, and vitamin B6. Fresh or frozen tuna steaks can be baked, grilled, seared, or sauteed. Switch up the flavor by adding different seasonings or marinades before cooking.
- Salmon (Wild Sockeye, Coho, Chum & Pink) >500mg of Omega-3s. “Salmon” is not just one fish but refers to several species belonging to the same family. Although all types of salmon are excellent choices, the different types can differ in their nutritional content and flavor profile. Chum and Pink salmon tend to be lighter in texture and milder in flavor than other types, so they are great options to try for salmon/fish newbies.
- Sardines (Canned) >500mg of Omega-3s. Sardines have been around for centuries and are unique to the other fish on this list because they feed only on plankton. Because of this, they are at very low risk for containing high levels of mercury and other toxins that can sometimes be found in fish. These small fish are also packed with vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, niacin, iron, and protein. It’s best to buy canned sardines packed in olive oil or water, and it’s common to rinse them under cold water before use. They can then be added to salads, pasta dishes, casseroles or eaten as a snack sprinkled with lemon juice and spices.
- Tuna (Canned White Albacore) >500mg of Omega-3s. With similar health benefits to fresh tuna, the canned version is highly versatile. It can be used on salads, in sandwiches and wraps, turned into burgers by combining with egg and breadcrumbs, added to pasta entrees, or used as a spread or dip in snacks or appetizers.
- Anchovies >500mg of Omega-3s. Despite their small size, anchovies are abundant in nutrients. Rich in EPA and DHA, selenium, vitamin D, and protein. They can be purchased canned, dried, fermented, fresh, frozen, salted, or as a paste. Because of their strong taste, Anchovies are often used to flavor dishes and sauces or topped on pizza or salads.
The amount of DHA and EPA present in fish will depend on the fat content and the diet of the fish, and therefore, it can vary. For example, an analysis of farm-raised Atlantic salmon from Scotland showed that EPA and DHA levels in the fish significantly decreased between 2006-2015 due to changes in the fish feed provided. With so many variables, it’s always a good idea to test your O3i whether you consume fish regularly or not.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s FoodData Central website can provide more information on nutrient content and lists foods containing ALA, DHA, and EPA.
Are There Other Ways to Get EPA and DHA Besides Fish?
While fish is one of the best sources of Omega-3s, they are not the only source. As mentioned above, ALA from plant foods such as walnuts, seeds, and vegetable oils can convert to DHA and EPA. But there is another plant source that is often overlooked. One that is, in fact, the original producer of DHA and EPA in the marine food chain. Marine algae. To read more about marine algae and other plant sources of Omega 3s, stay tuned for next week’s blog on the best plant sources of omega-3s.