We collected data from USDA Food Database on nearly 4,000 foods to rank them based on their density of three different omega-3 fatty acids to identify the most omega-3 rich foods.
Before we get into it though, what are omega-3 fatty acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are specific polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) found in a variety of foods your body needs for proper metabolic health. Thus, they are deemed “essential,” because your body needs them and it does not possess the capability to produce them itself.
Therefore, you need to get them from your diet.
There are multiple fatty acids that fit within the omega-3 category. The fatty acids primarily of concern to nutritional health are ALA, EPA, and DHA (we’ll pass on the scientific names).
They’re essential nutrients, yes.
But do omega-3 supplements, or fish oil supplements, improve your health?
This question isn’t easy to answer.
A 2018 Cochrane Review analyzed the breadth of studies on the matter of whether increased intake of these omega-3 fatty acids was protective against cardiovascular events. Their conclusions read (emphasis added):
This is the most extensive systematic assessment of effects of omega-3 fats on cardiovascular health to date. Moderate- and high-quality evidence suggests that increasing EPA and DHA has little or no effect on mortality or cardiovascular health (evidence mainly from supplement trials). Previous suggestions of benefits from EPA and DHA supplements appear to spring from trials with higher risk of bias. Low-quality evidence suggests ALA may slightly reduce CVD event and arrhythmia risk.
But, as pointed out in response to this publication, Prof. Tom Sanders says:
“Most of the trials in this review were in patients with pre-existing cardiovascular disease (CVD), which is a further limitation when extrapolating to the prevention of heart attacks in the general population…Previous observational cohort studies, not looked at here, suggest that omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of sudden cardiac death. This outcome can only be studied in a primary prevention trial (that is among individuals who have not had a cardiovascular event).”
You should first and foremost speak with your doctor before making any changes to your diet.
But unfortunately, the answer is not so clear.
Prof. Tom Chico says:
“Such supplements come with a significant cost, so my advice to anyone buying them in the hope that they reduce the risk of heart disease, I’d advise them to spend their money on vegetables instead.”
But some of the benefits and metabolic needs may be dose-dependent. If your diet does not routinely meet dietary intake recommendation, will a fish oil supplement, much like a multivitamin, act as a “backup” to get you to your minimum required needs?
Again, there are not good answers here.
What does seem to be the case is that regular omega-3 supplement does not produce obvious negative health effects.
But what is also clear as that optimal health can be obtained through diet, alone.
To rank these foods by omega-3 density, we divided the omega-3 content (ALA, EPA, and DHA, separately) by the number of calories in 100 grams.
Therefore, we can compare each food on an equal basis. (Did you eat one handful of walnuts? A half pound of salmon? Doesn’t matter….these are compared on an equal playing field.)
In general, vegetable oils, nuts, some vegetables, and most meats contain some ALA. Ranked by density (ALA per calorie), the top 10 most ALA rich foods are:
Fish, shellfish, and fish oils are the most EPA dense foods. Other foods that contain EPA include a variety of meats, as well as cheeses. Ranked by density (EPA per calorie), the top 10 most EPA rich foods are:
In general, vegetable oils, nuts, some vegetables, and most meats contain some DHA. Ranked by density (DHA per calorie), the top 10 most DHA rich foods are:
The USDA Guidelines recommend 1.1 grams/day of ALA for adult women and up to 1.6 grams/day of ALA for adult men.
ALA acts primarily as a precursor for other metabolic products, including the conversion to EPA and DHA.
Among many uses in the body, these are related to neurological development and anti-inflammation.
Although the verdict is still out on whether omega 3 supplementation provides an added benefit to health, the need for omega 3 fatty acids in the diet in general is not argued.
So if you’re looking for omega 3 rich foods, add these to your grocery list!