What Are the Best Sources of Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids?

An astonishing range of foods contain omega-3 essential fatty acids that the body can use to make the DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosahexaenoic acid) it needs to keep inflammation in check. Only microalgae and fish oils, however, provide DHA and EPA ready for the body to use.

What Are the Best Sources of Omega-3's?

The most commonly consumed omega-3 rich foods are plant foods that contain alpha-linolenic acid, also known as ALA.

Flaxseed is especially rich in ALA, but the compound is also found in a Japanese herb known as perilla, in both the leaves and seeds, and in phytoplankton, also known as marine algae.

The human body can take ALA and covert 1 to 10 per cent of it into the DHA and EPA it actually uses to make anti-inflammatory hormones. This means you have to consume a relatively large amount of fat to get a relatively small amount of omega-3 essential fatty acids. But fish oil offers a way to get a lot of DHA and EPA with a small amount of fat.

How Fish Oil Concentrates the Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids Your Body Needs

Certain kinds of fish are especially rich in DHA and EPA because they are at the top of a food chain that begins with phytoplankton. These marine algae make more DHA and EPA than any other plant. They are consumed by smaller fish, that are eaten by bigger fish, that in turn are eater by still bigger fish. Each step concentrates the omega-3 essential fatty acid content of the fish.

Which fishes are rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids, specifically DHA and EPA? The answers might surprise you:

  • Jack mackerel caught in the Pacific Ocean and kippered herring tie as best source of omega-3's. Each 3-1/2 oz (100 g) serving of jack mackerel or kippered herring contains about 1,800 mg of DHA and EPA, as much as five fish oil capsules.
  • Wild salmon caught as they return from the Atlantic Ocean is the second best source of omega-3's. Each 3-1/2 oz (100 g) serving of wild Atlantic salmon provides about 1,600 mg DHA and EPA, as much as four fish oil capsules. A serving of Coho salmon contains about 1,100 mg of these fatty acids and a serving of sockeye salmon, about 1,000 mg. Farmed salmon Coho salmon actually has more essential fatty acids than wild Coho salmon.
  • Bluefin tuna is also a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, about 900 mg per serving. The white tuna you get in a can, however, only has about 500 mg per serving, and "light" tuna has just 100 to 200 mg of DHA plus EPA per serving.

Most other fish and shellfish contain omega-3 essential fatty acids, but not very much. If you were to eat 2 pounds (about a kilo) of stewed catfish, for example, you would get about the same omega-3 fatty acid content as you get from 3 oz (85 g) of salmon.

If you were to eat fried catfish, however, you would get very little useful DHA or EPA at all. Fish and shellfish provide more useful essential fatty acids when they are eaten raw.

But I'm a Vegetarian. What Are Other Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids Besides Fish?

If you are vegan or vegetarian, you can get all the omega-3 fatty acids your body needs from microalgae. They are completely vegan, and they are low on the food chain, so there's no danger of concentrating heavy metals or other kinds of ocean pollution.See Vegetarian Fatty Acids

If you don't want to use microalgae, then your next best bet is flaxseed oil (also known as linseed oil). You'll only get about 10 per cent as much DHA and EPA from each serving, but if you can tolerate the additional calories, then you can just consume more oil in salad dressings and smoothies.

There are other plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids, but you should consume them with caution. Canola, peanut, and walnut oil all offer omega-3 fatty acids your body needs to fight inflammation, but they contain much more of the omega-6 fatty acids that your body uses to cause inflammation.

You can never get into an anti-inflammatory state by getting your omega-3's from any plant oil source other than flaxseed or perilla oil. And you consume a lot fewer total calories to get the essential fatty acids your body needs when you use pure fish oil.

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