While omega-3 supplements such as fish oil have become extremely popular in recent years, many people naturally are interested in obtaining their nutrients from food rather than supplements. They believe, perhaps rightly so, that nutrients in their natural form have not undergone processing that could affect their quality and potency. This is especially true with regards to fish oil supplements, because the omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil are very prone to oxidation, and thus we must be very careful when choosing such supplements.
For those wishing to avoid the supplement route, there are many foods that offer omega-3 fatty acids. However, not all fish oil is the same! Some offer omega-3s that are in a form which the body cannot make use of, while others run the risk of toxic contamination. We’ll discuss all the various food sources in this article, plus their pros and cons:
1. Fish: The “old faithful” of Omega-3 fatty acids. Fish have been the most popular source of omega-3s for perhaps centuries, ever since people began recognizing that fish was “brain food.” Fish contain the two most important omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. However, fish are also prone to accumulating the toxic pollutants that fill our oceans and lakes.
2. Krill: Krill oil, containing both EPA and DHA like fish, has become extremely popular in recent years, but not very many people are keen on eating krill itself. But seeing as it is consumed in Japan, it’s worth mentioning in this article. The reason krill has become a popular omega-3 source is because the omega-3 fatty acids are found in a unique form (phospholipids) versus the triglycerides in fish oil, and the presence of an antioxidant called astaxanthin. There hasn’t been much research to that either of these contribute to krill being a superior form of omega-3. Furthermore, krill are just as susceptible to contamination as fish are, though many people don’t realize that.
3. Algae: Fish don’t actually make omega-3 fatty acids. So where do they get them from? Algae! Fish consume the algae from the ocean floor, which creates omega-3s. The fish accumulate the omega-3s from the algae in their fat, which is what we consume as fish oil supplements. Is this even a food? I don’t really know anyone that consumes algae, but hey — fish eat it, so it must be a food, right? =)
4. Chia: Chia seeds, also known in the botanical community by the name Salvia Hispanica L., are certainly one of the lesser known sources of omega-3 on the market. To be sure, even less attention is paid to the type of omega-3 fatty acid this source yields. Similar to the flaxseed you’ll read about below, this source is rich in ALA. A type of omega-3 that’s not efficiently used by your body. While some people consume chia directly for it’s omega-3 content, others have been interested in it’s ability to produce healthier meat alternatives. One recent study found that feeding pigs chia actually did result in higher ALA content. However, I’ll repeat this is not an ideal type of omega-3 to consume!
5. Walnuts: Chances are, if you’re even the slightest bit health conscious you’ve heard a daily handful of walnuts can be good for high cholesterol. This is more than an old wives’ tale. Walnuts have huge amounts of omega-3s, as much as 2.6 grams of omega-3 can be found in a 1oz portion. Since there are nearly 200 calories in this same serving, most doctors only recommend a handful per day.
6. Flax Seed Oil: Flax, or flax seed oil is very popular with vegetarians since it provides omega-3s without needlessly involving fish. The type of omega-3 fatty acid found in flax is called ALA, which your body doesn’t do a good job at using. In fact, you would need to take 7 times the amount of flax seed oil to get the same benefits as fish oil. Plus, there is research suggesting that what doesn’t get converted can increase your risk for scary health conditions like silent inflammation, and even cancer.
7. Sage: Like flaxseed oil, sage contains ALA and is therefore not as beneficial as other types of omega-3 like EPA and DHA. Not all sage plants are the same, either. Some types like clary sage are better than others. In addition, certain types of sage also contain strong antioxidants which are helpful in balancing the omega-3 and omega-6 ratios.