One of the biggest buzzwords in healthy eating is omega-3. You can see it featured on cereal boxes and in TV commercials. What is omega-3, and why is it important? The answer is simple: It’s one type of fat you can’t live without.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a category of polyunsaturated fats that help maintain the cell membranes for every cell in your body. Like other fatty acids, omega-3 is a collection of nutrients you consume with your food. You can get the omega-3 you need in your diet from certain nuts, fruits, vegetables and coldwater fish. Research has shown that omega-3s can also help reduce the symptoms of high blood pressure, depression, ADHD and joint problems.
Omega-6 fatty acids are also essential polyunsaturated fats. They help support healthy skin and the ability of the blood to clot. You can get your omega-6s in eggs, chicken and plant oil products like vegetable oil, corn oil and margarine. Too many omega-6s, though, can increase your chance of heart attack or stroke. You can reduce that negative impact by balancing the omega-6s with a significant amount of omega-3s.
The latest research suggests that a healthy ratio between these fatty acids is one part omega-3s for every two to four parts omega-6s. The National Institutes of Health say that the typical American diet is a ratio of about 1 part omega-3s to 10 parts omega-6s. The significant difference in these ratios (1:2-1:4 and 1:10) reveals one possible reason heart disease is so prevalent in the United States.
Despite these compelling ratios, the research is still going on to find a recommended daily allowance value for omega-3s. Researchers and physicians seem to vary in their own recommendations. These recommendations cite specific omega-3s eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and alpha-linoleic acid (ALA). The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends 300 to 500 milligrams daily of EPA and DHA, and 800 to 1,100 milligrams daily of ALA.
Omega-3 fatty acids are often associated with fish, but the best source may surprise you. It is important to know that there are other sources of omega-3 besides fish. This article covers the top five food sources that are highest in omega-3.
5. Winter Squash
Before the Americas were settled by Europeans, Native Americans depended on squash among other nutritional foods in their diet. Today, squash and its seeds are still an integral part of Central and South American cuisines, and countries around the world are following their lead. With nutrition research revealing that winter squash has a lot to offer a healthy diet, it’s sure to be a popular choice for years to come.
Summer squash, like zucchini and yellow squash, are soft and light, and they’re a popular vegetable during the summer growing season. Winter squash is denser and drier with a nutty flavor that we’ve come to associate with autumn and winter dishes. That density corresponds with a higher concentration of nutrients. Some varieties of winter squash are pumpkins, butternut squash, acorn squash, spaghetti squash and the visually unique turban squash.
A cup (205 grams) of spaghetti squash, boiled or baked, has almost 121 milligrams total omega-3 fatty acids, or 12 percent of today’s daily recommendations. It’s one of the higher sources among the winter squash, with acorn coming in at 76 milligrams and butternut at 49 milligrams. The list of vitamins and minerals goes on for winter squash, too, making it an excellent addition to any meal.
You can find hundreds of recipes online featuring one or more varieties of winter squash. Use caution when working with a fresh winter squash, however: It’s very firm and challenging to cut through. Be prepared with a sturdy cutting surface and a large sharp knife, and take care when applying the pressure needed to cut it. Several experienced cooks have posted their cutting tips online, including videos on YouTube.
4. Soybeans and Tofu
Chinese farmers first planted and harvested soybeans more than 3,000 years ago. It grew in use throughout Southeast Asia over the centuries that followed. Even today, we associate many soy products like soy sauce, bean sprouts and tofu with Asian cuisine. However, the soybean made its way around the world. In fact, the North Carolina Soybean Producers Association says today’s largest producers of soybeans are the United States, Brazil and Argentina.
Soybeans are earning a wonder-crop status. Products you might use that are made from soybeans include commercially prepared foods, livestock feed and composites for industrial use. Adding to its long list of accolades is soybean’s nutritional value as a food, including as a source of omega-3s.
A cup of edamame (boiled soybeans) has almost 1,029 milligrams total omega-3 fatty acids, or almost all the omega-3s you need daily. Though the edamame has more than 7,600 milligrams of omega-6s, exceeding the recommended 1:2-1:4 ratio, it’s very low in cholesterol and packs a punch with its vitamins and minerals. A serving of edamame gives you 41 percent of your daily recommended allowance of fiber, 49 percent of iron and 18 percent of calcium. Plus, soybeans are an excellent source of protein, Vitamin K and folate.
Besides edamame and tofu, there are other ways to get the benefits of soy in your diet. One way is to substitute some foods you’d normally eat with soy alternatives. For example, you could replace dairy milk with soy milk, or replace potato chips with soy chips. Another way to enjoy soybeans is as a dry-roasted snack called soy nuts. Soy nuts are plain, salted or flavored, and you can often find them with nut snacks at larger grocery stores and niche grocers that specialize in healthy foods.
There are many varieties of walnut trees around the world. The three most common walnut varieties in the United States are the butternut (white walnut), the Carpathian English walnut and the black walnut. Though all three varieties produce tasty nuts, the black walnut tree is the most popular for both its nuts and its wood.
Among nuts, black walnuts are some of the most nutritious. A cup of chopped walnuts has 2,508 milligrams total omega-3 fatty acids. Like soybeans, walnuts are a good daily source of fiber (34 percent), protein (60 percent) and iron (22 percent), and they’re low in cholesterol. Also like soybeans, the ratio between omega-6s and 3s exceeds the recommended 1:2-1:4 ratio. So, with walnuts, as with any other food, consider all the nutritional pros and cons when working them into your diet.
Besides their overall nutritional benefits, another thing that proves walnuts are a great omega-3 choice is their convenience. Just an ounce of walnuts contains 562 milligrams of omega-3s, or half the amount you need in a whole day. You can drop that in a snack bag to take with you or use it to top a salad or yogurt.
If you’re trying to stay healthy while adding omega-3s, choose your walnut sources carefully. Commercially packaged foods and recipes that include walnuts range from healthy salads and trail mixes to delicious high-calorie desserts. Don’t let the omega-3 hype keep you from looking at all the other important health considerations for each food.
2. Salmon and Other Fish
One of the most popular sources of omega-3s, and one of the easiest to add to your diet, is fresh fish. Salmon is perhaps the most popular and versatile of these fish, and one of the highest in omega-3s. Sardines, halibut and herring are also great omega-3 sources. Shellfish like shrimp, crab, scallops and oysters also put up some impressive omega-3 numbers.
A 3-ounce serving of raw Chinook salmon has 1,991 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids. That’s well above even the highest recommended amounts. Plus, unlike soybeans and tofu, the omega-3s far outnumber the omega-6s (only 104 milligrams). This means you can add salmon to your diet not only as a source of omega-3s, but also to help balance the omega-6s you’re already eating. This same serving of salmon is a good source of protein plus several vitamins and minerals.
Are fish oil supplements a good substitute?
Omega-3 recommendations often feature 2 to 3 servings of cold-water fish per week, especially salmon. Fish oil supplements are recommended only as supplements for those who find it difficult to meet that recommendation. Fish oil supplements are often reported to irritate your stomach and leave a fishy aftertaste. If you take a fish oil supplement, reduce these unpleasant effects by taking it with a meal. There have been recent controversies about whether fish oil supplements have dangerous amounts of other ingredients like polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB).
Salmon is available fresh, frozen, canned or smoked, each type with a variety of uses in recipes. In sushi or sashimi from a good sushi bar, fresh raw salmon has a buttery, melt-in-your-mouth flavor. In sandwiches and entrées, smoked salmon offers a bold savory flavor that’s balanced with ingredients like cream cheese. As a steak, salmon cooks up tender and flaky, with a lot of lean meat packed into each ounce.
When eating salmon for its omega-3 benefits, be cautious of how you cook it. The omega-3s are easily damaged by oxygen, light and heat. That damage affects salmon’s nutritional benefits. Eating the salmon fresh-sliced at a sushi bar is the best way to avoid omega-3 damage. If you’re not a fan of raw fish, though, bake or broil the fish instead of frying it to limit the heat exposure.
1. Flax Seed
By far, your best omega-3 source is flax seed, also called linseed. It’s derived from the flax plant, which some believe originated in Egypt where ancient Egyptians used it for food and medicine. Historically, it’s been used as a laxative. Today’s research, though, reveals it can be a great way to fight cholesterol and heart disease.
A tablespoon of ground flax seed has 1,597 milligrams of omega-3s, and the same amount of flax seed oil has a whopping 7,196 milligrams. That’s seven times today’s popular daily recommendations. Like salmon, flax seed and flax seed oil have far fewer omega-6s, making them a great omega-3 source to balance your omega-6 intake.
Flax seed features the omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). This is different from the EPA and DHA omega-3s found in fish. At the beginning of this article, you read that the World Health Organization recommended 300 to 500 milligrams of EPA and DHA to 800 to 1,100 milligrams of ALA. Your body can convert some ALA into EPA and DHA, but you’d need to take large amounts of flax seed for it to be a substitute for the omega-3s in fish.
Like salmon, the omega-3s in flax seed can be damaged with heat and oxygen. You can afford some damage, since flax seed is so high in omega-3s, but you should still minimize that damage as much as possible. To protect the omega-3s in flax seed oil, keep it in dark glass containers with a tight lid, and place it in the refrigerator or freezer. Also, avoid heating flax seed oil on the stove. Instead, add it to non-heated recipes like salad dressing, and toss it over food only after cooking it.
Not sure what to do with flax seed or flax seed oil? Web sites like FlaxHealth.com can help you find recipes and recipe books dedicated to incorporating flax seed into a healthy diet. Many of these recipes add ground flax seed to existing recipes like cookies or breads.