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Omega-3 fatty acids are considered “essential” fatty acids because the body isn’t capable of producing them on its own. Therefore, we must rely on omega-3 foods in our diets to supply these extremely beneficial fats.
There are actually three different types of “omega-3s”: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). The preferred sources are DHA and EPA, the kinds found in seafood sources, like salmon and sardines.
ALA, on the other hand, is found in some plant foods, including certain nuts and seeds, as well as high-quality cuts of meat, like grass-fed beef.
When it comes to getting enough omega-3s fats into your diet, I recommend eating plenty of omega-3 foods and also supplementing in most cases. Through a combination of both, aim to get at least 1,000 milligrams a day of EPA/DHA and about 4,000 milligrams of total omega-3s (meaning a combination of ALA/EPA/DHA).
Top 16 Omega-3 Foods
What food is highest in omega-3? The best sources are wild-caught, fatty fish. It’s one reason why nutrition experts, including the American Heart Association, recommend consuming fish several times per week, since many kinds of seafood are naturally high in DHA and EPA.
Flaxseed oil is another concentrated source, although it’s very high in ALA, with over seven grams of ALA per tablespoon. However, ALA isn’t absorbed as well as DHA and EPA, so it’s not the ideal source.
The human body is able to turn ALA into usable DHA and EPA to some degree, but this isn’t as efficient as getting DHA and EPA directly from foods. Therefore, seafood is preferable over flaxseed oil and other nuts and seeds.
That said, while EPA and DHA are the preferred type of omega-3 fats, all types are beneficial and encouraged.
Here’s a list of the top 16 omega-3 foods (percentages based on 4,000 milligrams per day of total omega-3s):
Flaxseed oil: 7,260 milligrams in 1 tablespoon (however note that flaxseed oil is high in ALA, not DHA/EPA) Atlantic Mackerel: 6,982 milligrams in 1 cup cooked (174 precent DV) Salmon Fish Oil: 4,767 milligrams in 1 tablespoon (119 percent DV) Cod Liver Oil: 2.664 milligrams in 1 tablespoon (66 percent DV) Walnuts: 2,664 milligrams in 1/4 cup (66 percent DV) Chia Seeds: 2,457 milligrams in 1 tablespoon (61 percent DV) Herring: 1,885 milligrams in 3 ounces (47 percent DV) Alaskan Salmon (wild-caught): 1,716 milligrams in 3 ounces (42 percent DV) Flaxseeds (ground): 1,597 milligrams in 1 tablespoon (39 percent DV) Albacore Tuna: 1,414 milligrams in 3 ounces (35 percent DV) White Fish: 1,363 milligrams in 3 ounces (34 percent DV) Sardines: 1,363 milligrams in 1 can/3.75 ounces (34 percent DV) Hemp Seeds: 1,000 milligrams in 1 tablespoon (25 percent DV) Anchovies: 951 milligrams in 1 can/2 ounces (23 percent DV) Natto: 428 milligrams in 1/4 cup (10 percent DV) Egg Yolks: 240 milligrams in 1/2 cup (6 percent DV)
Best vs. Worst Foods High in Omega-3s
What are some foods you want to stay away from despite the fact they may be advertised as high in omega-3s? Limit or avoid:
Conventionally raised meat (non-organic or not grass-fed), which is lower in omega-3s that grass-fed types
Farm-raised fish (especially common with salmon), which may be contaminated with antibiotics and pesticides and is lower in nutrients — stick to Atlantic mackerel, and avoid King and Spanish varieties, farmed salmon (get wild-caught Alaskan salmon), and tuna (avoid Atlantic bluefin)
Conventional and pasteurized dairy products, which may be hard for some people to digest
Krill oil supplements (which are made from krill, bottom-feeding shellfish that may be contaminated)
Fortified Omega-3s in Processed Foods:
While omega-3s are now artificially added to multiple kinds of processed foods — peanut butter, baby formula, cereal and some protein powders, for example — it’s still best to get them from whole, real sources, especially seafood.
While not always ideal, here are some products that you might find now contain omega-3s to some degree thanks to being fortified:
pasteurized dairy products
conventional (non-organic or cage-free) eggs
many types of baby foods (since research suggests omega-3s help babies’ brains develop properly)
The sources of EPA and DHA in fortified foods usually come from microalgae. They naturally add a fishy aroma to foods, so these processed products must undergo extensive chemical purifying preparations in order to mask the taste and smell.
This likely reduces or changes fatty acid and antioxidant content within the foods, making them inferior to unaltered sources.
Additionally, omega-3s are now added to animal feed to incorporate higher levels into consumer dairy, meat and poultry products.
Historically, we’ve seen that populations that consume the most omega-3 fats, like people in Okinawa, Japan, live longer and healthier lives than people who eat little of this nutrient.
The typical Okinawa diet — which consists of plenty of fish, sea vegetables and other fresh produce — is actually believed to have about eight times the amount of omega-3s than you’d find in the standard American diet. This is likely one reason why this population is considered one of the healthiest in human history, with lower rates of cardiovascular disease, inflammatory diseases and cognitive decline.
Other populations that consume plenty of foods high in omega-3 include those living in the Mediterranean region, including Spanish, Italian, Greek, Turkish and French populations.
Researchers have even found that although the typical Mediterranean diet is high in overall fat and certain cardiovascular risks, people in these areas suffer much lower incidences of heart disease on average than Americans, plus lower rates of Alzheimer’s/dementia, cancer and type 2 diabetes.
Many studies show that omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory, vasodilating, antiarrhythmic and antihypertensive activities, and they help lower triglyceride and blood sugar levels.
Omega-3 benefits include offering help with:
Preventing cardiovascular disease (according to 2020 study, by lowering blood pressure, blood lipids/cholesterol, plaque buildup in the arteries, heart rate variability, platelet aggregation, endothelial function, inflammation and the chance of having a heart attack or stroke)
Fighting oxidative stress, which damages cells and tissues
Stabilizing blood sugar levels (preventing diabetes)
Reducing muscle, bone and joint pain by lowering inflammation
Helping balance cholesterol levels
Improving mood and preventing depression
Sharpening the mind and helping with concentration and learning
Treating digestive disorders like ulcerative colitis
Reducing risk for cancer and helping prevent cancer recurrence
Improving skin health
Supporting exercise recovery
Currently, there isn’t a set standard recommendation for how many omega-3 fatty acids we need each day, so suggestions range from 500 to 1,000 milligrams daily depending on whom you ask.
How easy is it to get these recommended amounts? To give you an idea, there are more than 500 milligrams of total omega-3 fats in one can of tuna fish and one small serving of wild-caught salmon.
Related: Top 15 Anti-Inflammatory Foods and How to Follow This Diet
How Can Vegetarians/Vegans Get Omega-3?
How can you get omega-3s without eating fish? For example, which fruits and veggies have omega-3s?
Below are the best plant-based sources of omega-3 fats:
Nuts and Seeds with Omega-3s — In addition to walnuts, chia and flaxseeds, butternuts, Brazil nuts, cashews, hemp seeds and hazelnuts have omega-3s in the form of ALA (although walnuts, flaxseeds and chia are definitely the better sources).
— In addition to walnuts, chia and flaxseeds, butternuts, Brazil nuts, cashews, hemp seeds and hazelnuts have omega-3s in the form of ALA (although walnuts, flaxseeds and chia are definitely the better sources). Vegetables — Many vegetables, especially green leafy ones, are good sources of ALAs. While ALA omega-3 foods aren’t as good as those with DHA and EPA, these foods should still make regular appearances in your diet considering how much fiber and other nutrients they also contain. Some of the vegetables highest in omega-3s include Brussels sprouts, kale, spinach and watercress.
— Many vegetables, especially green leafy ones, are good sources of ALAs. While ALA omega-3 foods aren’t as good as those with DHA and EPA, these foods should still make regular appearances in your diet considering how much fiber and other nutrients they also contain. Some of the vegetables highest in omega-3s include Brussels sprouts, kale, spinach and watercress. Oils — Lots of oils contain omega-3s to some degree, usually in the form of ALAs. These include flaxseed oil, mustard oil, walnut oil and hemp oil. A newer vegetarian oil called algal oil is also gaining popularity as early research shows it’s easily converted to DHA in the body compared to other vegetarian omega-3s foods.
Related: Top 12 Cancer-Fighting Foods
Now that you know where to find these fats, you’re probably looking for ways to obtain more of them. For example, what breakfast foods have omega-3, and how can you use things like canned salmon and chia seeds?
Here are ideas for adding foods high in omega-3s to your diet:
Risks and Side Effects
Omega-3s are considered very safe and effective, even when taking up to 20 grams at a time, but some people experience mild side effects when taking fish oil supplements. Some side effects that can occur from omega-3 fish oil include:
“Fish burps” or a fishy taste in your mouth (this is definitely the biggest complaint but shouldn’t happen if you take a high-quality supplement)
Stomach pains or nausea
Trouble going to the bathroom normally (diarrhea)
Potential for excess bleeding if you take more than three grams per day
Changes in blood sugar levels (or complications with diabetes medications)
Talk to your doctor about side effects if you are taking higher doses than the recommended amount.
One thing to note is that you definitely shouldn’t take omega-3 supplements from fish oil if you have an allergy to most fish, since this runs the risk of causing a serious reaction.
Omega-3 fatty acids are vital to proper cell functioning and play an important role in various bodily systems. Some food sources include fatty fish, seaweed, flaxseeds, and chia seeds. Omega-3s are a type of essential fatty acid, meaning people must obtain them from their diet. There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids: DHA, EPA, and ALA. Fish and seafood sources of omega-3 tend to be higher in DHA and EPA, while plant sources are typically higher in ALA. Eating a variety of omega-3 foods is important for optimal health. Read more to learn about the health benefits of omega-3s, food sources, supplements, and more.
Overview of omega-3 fatty acids Share on Pinterest alvarez/Getty Images There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) While ALA is present in plant oils, DHA and EPA are in fish, krill, and algae. The body can convert ALA to EPA and DHA, but the conversion rate is less than 15% . Therefore, people may need to consume more of these to get enough omega-3s.
Health benefits of omega-3 Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for both physical and mental health. Physical health benefits Omega-3s are an integral component of cells and help them function effectively. They also help form signaling molecules called eicosanoids, which play a vital role in the: Cardiovascular system: This includes the heart, blood vessels, and blood.
This includes the heart, blood vessels, and blood. Pulmonary system: This is the lungs, airways, and blood vessels.
This is the lungs, airways, and blood vessels. Immune system: This includes the bone marrow, spleen, lymphatic system, and white blood cells.
This includes the bone marrow, spleen, lymphatic system, and white blood cells. Endocrine system: This includes the pancreas, adrenal glands, thyroid gland, pituitary gland, and hormones. Mental health benefits According to a 2020 review, omega-3 also plays an important role in brain development, functioning, and aging. The review states that polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) — including omega-3 and omega-6 — make up 20% of the brain’s overall weight. The review also notes that an omega-3 deficiency has links to an increased risk of developing a range of mental health conditions. These include depression, bipolar disorder, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The authors add that increasing one’s intake of omega-3 may beneficially affect neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Vegetarian and vegan sources Below are some vegetarian and vegan food sources of omega-3. 1. Seaweed and algae Seaweed, nori, spirulina, and chlorella are different forms of algae that many people eat for their health benefits. Algae and seaweed are important sources of omega-3 for people on a vegetarian or vegan diet because they are one of the few plant foods containing both DHA and EPA. The DHA and EPA content varies depending on the type of algae and the particular product. There are many ways to include these foods in the diet. For example: nori is the seaweed used in sushi
dried seaweed is a tasty, crispy snack
chlorella and spirulina make a nutritious addition to smoothies Seaweed is also rich in protein, and it may have antidiabetic, antioxidant, and antihypertensive properties. People can find chlorella and spirulina in health-food stores or online. 2. Chia seeds Chia seeds are an excellent plant-based source of ALA omega-3 fatty acids. They are also high in fiber and protein. They contain 5.055 g of ALA per 1-oz serving. People can use these seeds as an ingredient in granola, salads, or smoothies, or they can mix them with milk or yogurt to make chia pudding. Mixing chia seeds with water can also serve as an egg substitute. 3. Hemp seeds Hemp seeds contain 2.605 g of ALA in every 3 tablespoons (tbsp). They are also rich in many nutrients, including: protein
zinc 4. Flaxseeds Flaxseed oil contains 6.703 g of ALA per tbsp. Flaxseeds are rich in many nutrients, including: fiber
manganese As with chia seeds, people can mix flaxseeds with water to create a vegan egg replacement. It is also easy to incorporate them into the diet by adding them to oatmeal, cereal, or salad. 5. Walnuts Walnuts are an excellent source of healthful fats, including ALA omega-3 fatty acids. They contain 3.346 g of ALA per cup. People can enjoy walnuts on their own, in granola, or in a trail mix, snack bar, yogurt, salad, or cooked dish. 6. Edamame Edamame beans are immature soybeans that are particularly popular in Japan. They are rich in both omega-3s and protein. A half-cup of frozen edamame beans contains 0.28 g of ALA. Boiled or steamed edamame beans work well in a salad or as a side dish. 7. Kidney beans Kidney beans are one of the most common beans to include in meals or eat as a side dish. People can add them to curries or stews or eat them with rice. They contain 0.10 g of ALA per half-cup. 8. Soybean oil Soybeans are popular legumes from Asia. Many people use soybean oil for cooking. Soybean oil contains 0.92 g of ALA per tbsp. It is also a good source of: vitamin B2
vitamin K 9. Wheat germ Wheat germ is the internal part of the wheat grain. It has a mild, nutty flavor, making it suitable as a topping for salads, cereals, or yogurt. One cup of wheat germ contains 6.91 g of ALA. Wheat germ is also high in Vitamin B1, Vitamin B6, and folate.
Fortified foods and beverages Some foods and beverages are not naturally high in omega-3s, so manufacturers may add the nutrient to the product. A person may be able to buy omega-3 fortified versions of: fruit juices
butter, margarine, and spreads
Omega-3 supplements People who cannot meet their omega-3 dietary requirements and those who experience high levels of inflammation may benefit from taking omega-3 supplements. There are several types of omega-3 supplements to choose from, including: Fish oil: Fish oil is the most common omega-3 supplement, and it offers the highest available dose. Fish oil supplements include both DHA and EPA.
Fish oil is the most common omega-3 supplement, and it offers the highest available dose. Fish oil supplements DHA and EPA. Cod liver oil: Cod liver oil is rich in DHA and EPA omega-3s.
Cod liver oil is DHA and EPA omega-3s. Krill oil: Krill oil is another seafood oil that is rich in DHA and EPA.
Krill oil is another seafood oil that is rich in DHA and EPA. Algae oil: For people following a vegetarian or vegan diet, algae oils are an excellent source of omega-3s. However, they contain a lower dose than most fish oil supplements, so people may need to take more of them.
For people following a vegetarian or vegan diet, algae oils are an of omega-3s. However, they contain a lower dose than most fish oil supplements, so people may need to take more of them. ALA supplements: Flaxseed, chia seed, and hemp seed supplements contain only the plant-based omega-3 ALA, which is not sufficient on its own. Although ALA supplements are not a substitute for fish or algae oil, they can be a good addition to the diet. The amount of omega-3 in each of the above supplements depends on the type of supplement and the specific brand. Certain plant-based supplements, such as some algae and ALA supplements, include gelatin and are not suitable for vegetarians and vegans. People should always read supplement labels carefully.
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 Essential
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).
Omega 3: Good for you, or not?
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).”
So Should I Take Omega-3 Supplements?
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.
Omega-3 Rich Foods
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 are compared on an equal playing field.)
ALA Rich Foods
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:
Flaxseed Oil (60.4 mg/kcal) Chia Seeds (36.7 mg/kcal) Hemp Seeds (17.7 mg/kcal) Canola Oil (10.3 mg/kcal) Margarine (8.4 mg/kcal) Mayonnaise (7.8 mg/kcal) Soybean Oil (7.4 mg/kcal) Walnuts (4.3 mg/kcal) Zucchini (3.6 mg/kcal) Hummus (3 mg/kcal)
EPA Rich Foods
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:
Menhaden Fish Oil (14.6 mg/kcal) Salmon Fish Oil (14.4 mg/kcal) Sardine Fish Oil (11.2 mg/kcal) Caviar (10.4 mg/kcal) Cod Liver Fish Oil (7.6 mg/kcal) Herring Fish Oil (7.0 mg/kcal) Roe (6.9 mg/kcal) Salmon (6.1 mg/kcal) Shad (5.5 mg/kcal) Oyster (5.4 mg/kcal)
DHA Rich Foods
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:
Cod Liver Fish Oil (20.2 mg/kcal) Goat Cheese (14.4 mg/kcal) Menhaden Fish Oil (12.2 mg/kcal) Herring Fish Oil (11.8 mg/kcal) Mackerel (9.7 mg/kcal) Lard (9.5 mg/kcal) Ground Beef (7.9 mg/kcal) Beef Tenderloin (7.3 mg/kcal) Papaya (7.1 mg/kcal) Pheasant (7.0 mg/kcal)
Omega 3 Requirements and Health
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!