Omega-3 fatty acids are fats that naturally occur in many types of plants and fish. They are an important component of cell membranes, and they support growth, vision, and immune function.
Their wide range of possible health benefits also includes promoting heart health, lowering cancer risk, and reducing inflammation.
The three main types of omega-3s that are important for your health are:
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA): mostly found in plant foods.
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA): mostly found in fish.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): mostly found in fish.
ALA is a long-chain fatty acid, and EPA and DHA are very-long-chain fatty acids. Experts consider EPA and DHA to be the most important omega-3s for health.
Omega-3 supplements that contain all three are also available. There are also products made from algae that have EPA and DHA that are suitable for vegetarians and vegans.
At ZOE, we run the largest nutrition science study in the world, so we understand the power of food to support your health.
With our personalized nutrition program, you can find the best foods to suit your unique body. To learn more, take our free quiz today.
Read on to discover the top sources of omega-3s.
12 best omega-3 sources
The omega-3 ALA — which is mostly found in plant foods — is an essential fatty acid, meaning your body can’t make it. This means that food is the only way to get it.
Your body can convert ALA into the two other main omega-3 types, EPA and DHA, but only in small amounts. So, eating foods with EPA and DHA is the best way to get these important fatty acids, which are often found in fatty fish.
Here is our list of the best sources of omega-3s, divided into animal and plant sources.
Animal sources of omega-3
Most animal-sourced omega-3s are DHA and EPA, and they most often occur in cold-water fatty fish, like anchovies, trout, and salmon.
Omega-3s can also be added to other animal products, such as yogurt or milk, and very small amounts are present in grass-fed beef.
These small fish have some of the highest concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids, providing 1.2 grams in a 2-ounce serving. They are also a good source of lean protein and many vitamins and minerals, including calcium, selenium, and folate.
Anchovies are widely available and are sold fresh, canned, jarred in oil, smoked, or in a paste. Add anchovies to salad, pasta, pizza, or a sandwich for a rich flavor boost, but be mindful that many anchovy products can have a high salt content.
Herring is another great source of omega-3s, with over 1.7 g in a 3-oz serving. They are very similar to sardines in look and flavor, and both are great for your health, but herring pack a bigger punch when it comes to omega-3s.
Grocery stores often sell them fresh, canned, or smoked, and they are highly versatile with a wide range of ways to prepare them.
Mackerel is a medium-sized saltwater fish with about 1 g of omega-3s in a 3-oz serving. Unlike its larger cousin, the king mackerel, Atlantic mackerel has a relatively low mercury content, which is important for pregnant women and young children.
It is also rich in protein and important vitamins and minerals, such as B6, B12, and magnesium.
Mackerel is most often bought fresh and holds up well to baking, grilling, steaming, or pan searing.
4. Rainbow trout
Rainbow trout is another great option for getting omega-3s. This semi-fatty freshwater fish provides 0.85 g of omega-3s per 3-oz serving and is an excellent source of lean protein and vitamins D, B6, and B12.
Milder in flavor than most fatty fish, rainbow trout is a good option if you aren’t a fan of that “fishy” flavor commonly associated with other options like salmon or anchovies. Baking or pan-searing are easy cooking options for this semi-fatty fish.
A 6-oz serving of wild-caught salmon has over 1.7 g of omega-3s. It also contains other beneficial compounds, such as B vitamins and potassium. Wild salmon is often found fresh, canned, or smoked, and it blends well with various flavors and dishes.
It’s important to note that while wild salmon and farmed salmon are both high in omega-3s, farmed salmon may not be the best option for your health. Farmed salmon often receive high levels of antibiotics, and evidence suggests that this could play a part in antimicrobial resistance. Instead, choose wild-caught salmon whenever possible.
Oysters are one of the few animal sources of ALA in addition to EPA and DHA. With roughly 0.6 g of omega-3s per 3-oz serving, these shellfish are an excellent option for anyone looking to boost their intake.
Oysters are also a good source of vitamins and minerals like zinc, copper, and vitamin B12.
Join our mailing list
Sign up for fresh insights into our scientific discoveries and the latest nutrition updates. No spam, just science.
You can steam, smoke, bake, or fry oysters, and they pair nicely with simple ingredients like lemon and fresh herbs. To reduce your risk of food-borne illness, experts recommend you eat your oysters cooked.
But if you choose to eat them raw, make sure you purchase them from a reputable supplier and toss out any that don’t look, smell, or taste quite right.
We also provide you with detailed information about your gut microbiome — the trillions of bacteria in your gut. To learn more about how your body responds to food, take our free quiz today.
Plant sources of omega-3
Plants and plant oils, such as canola oil, flaxseed oil, and chia seeds, are the best sources of the essential fatty acid, ALA. Experts recommend that women should aim for 1.1 g and men 1.6 g of ALA per day.
Many of the plants and plant oils listed below easily meet or exceed this recommendation in just one serving. Here are some of the best plant sources of omega-3s.
7. Flaxseed oil
Sometimes called linseed oil, flaxseed oil is a yellowish, nutty-flavored oil that is pressed from the seeds of the flax plant. Containing a whopping 7.3 g of ALA in just 1 tablespoon, it can easily help you get enough omega-3s in your day.
Flaxseed oil has a relatively low smoke point, meaning it will burn and turn bitter when exposed to high heat. For the best flavor, eat it without applying heat. Flaxseed oil is a good option for making salad dressing, tossing over cooked pasta, or adding to soups or stews at the end of cooking.
8. Chia seeds
Thanks to their nutritional value, chia seeds have grown in popularity. These tiny seeds provide 5 g of ALA per 1-oz serving, making them an omega-3 powerhouse. They are also good sources of protein, calcium, and fiber.
Fiber is an essential part of a healthy diet because it helps nourish your gut microbiome. ZOE’s research has shown that foods high in fiber help support your “good” microbes.
Walnuts are another option for boosting your omega-3 intake — they provide 2.6 g of ALA per 1-oz serving. Walnuts are also loaded with other health-benefiting nutrients, including a range of vitamins and minerals, protein, and fiber.
Try adding walnuts to oatmeal, salads, pesto, pasta, or anything that could use a delicious, nutty crunch. Like most nuts, a small handful of walnuts is all you need to get a nutritional boost to your day.
Since flaxseed oil is so rich in omega-3s, it’s no surprise that the seeds the oil comes from would also be a good option. Flaxseed has 2.4 g of ALA per 1 tablespoon, along with protein, fiber, magnesium, and iron.
You can eat flaxseed whole, but ground flaxseed is more common in the kitchen. Add ground flaxseed to smoothies, batters, doughs, or cooked oatmeal for an extra nutritional boost.
11. Canola oil
Canola oil, or rapeseed oil as it is called in the U.K., is a mild, clear-to-yellow oil. In 1 tablespoon, it has 1.3 g of ALA, making it a great option to help you meet your daily recommended levels.
Canola oil is a culinary workhorse for many cooks. Light in flavor and easy to find, canola oil is used in a wide variety of cuisines. It also has a relatively high smoke point, meaning it can stand up to high-heat cooking techniques like searing or sauteing.
12. Soybean oil
Taken from the seeds of the soybean plant, soybean oil is a neutral-tasting oil with 0.9 g of ALA per tablespoon. Even though it is rich in omega-3, experts debate whether soybean oil is a healthy choice.
Widely used by restaurants and in many prepackaged foods, soybean oil is the most consumed oil in America, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Why are omega-3s important?
Omega-3s play many important roles throughout your body. ALA is an essential fatty acid, meaning that your body can’t make it, so you need to take it in through your diet.
Some of the possible health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids include:
promoting heart health
better health for mom and baby during pregnancy
cancer prevention and treatment
reducing or preventing inflammation
possible mental health benefits
Scientists have established that eating foods with omega-3s is good for your health. Although it's best to get your nutrients from whole foods, for some people, this might be a challenge and they may want to take omega-3 supplements as a helping hand.
Experts recommend that nonpregnant adult women get 1.1 g and adult men get 1.6 g of ALA per day. There are no official recommendations for EPA or DHA.
However, in the U.S., the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating 8 oz of fish or shellfish per week. In the U.K., the National Health Service recommend eating at least 2 portions of fish, including 1 portion of oily fish per week.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a subgroup of healthy fats that provide various benefits to your overall health.
There are three main types of omega-3s: ALA, DHA, and EPA. ALA can be found in many plants and plant oils, whereas EPA and DHA are most often found in fatty fish, such as salmon or trout.
At ZOE, we know that a diverse, healthy, and balanced diet is the best way to support your overall health. Our at-home test can help you learn which foods are best for you and your unique biology.
Take a free quiz to see how ZOE can help you achieve your health goals.
7 things to know about omega-3 fatty acids. (n.d.). https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/tips/things-to-know-about-omega-fatty-acids
A balance of omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids is important in pregnancy. Journal of Nutrition & Intermediary Metabolism. (2016). https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S235238591530027X
Antimicrobial resistance in Chilean marine-farmed salmon: improving food safety through One Health. One Health. (2021). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7856317/
Chia seeds. (n.d.). https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/food-features/chia-seeds/
Dietary Guidelines for Americans. (n.d.). https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/
Fatty acid composition of grain- and grass-fed beef and their nutritional value and health implication. Food Science of Animal Resources. (2022). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8728510/
Fish and shellfish. (n.d.). https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/food-types/fish-and-shellfish-nutrition/
Healthy oils at home and when eating out. (2022). https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/healthy-oils-at-home-and-when-eating-out-202204122724
Herring fish. (n.d.). https://www.yummly.com/recipes/herring-fish
Mercury levels in commercial fish and shellfish. (2022). https://www.fda.gov/food/metals-and-your-food/mercury-levels-commercial-fish-and-shellfish-1990-2012
Nuts, walnuts, English. (2019). https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/170187/nutrients
Oil crops sector at a glance. (2022). https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/crops/soybeans-oil-crops/oil-crops-sector-at-a-glance/
Omega-3 fatty acids. (2021). https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-Consumer/
Omega-3 fatty acids. (2021). https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/
Omega-3 fatty acids and heart health. Circulation. (2015). https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/circulationaha.114.015176
Omega-3 fatty acids: an essential contribution. (n.d.). https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/fats-and-cholesterol/types-of-fat/omega-3-fats/
Omega-3 fatty acid-derived mediators that control inflammation and tissue homeostasis. International Immunology. (2019). https://academic.oup.com/intimm/article/31/9/559/5292563?login=true
Omega-3 fatty acids for depression in adults. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. (2021). https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD004692.pub5/abstract
Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and cancer: lessons learned from clinical trials. Cancer and Metastasis Reviews. (2015). https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10555-015-9572-2
Oysters and vibriosis. (2021). https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/communication/oysters-and-vibriosis.html