Diet & Nutrition

Omega-3 Fatty Acids: An Essential Food Guide

Omega-3 fatty acids and omega-3 foods. The benefits of fish oil.  No doubt you’ve heard these mentioned before. But is it all true?  While this article will present the fundamentals of omega-3 fatty acids—what they are, how much you need, and how you can get them naturally—be sure to check out the article focused on fish oil supplements and their benefits, with a discussion on what is known about them, what has changed, and what you need to be aware of. In this way, you will be empowered to make the best decisions for your personal health. 

A Guide to Omega-3 Fatty Acids

What are They?

Omega-3 Fatty Acids  Essential Food Guide

Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of polyunsaturated fatty acids (‘the healthy fat’) that are important for the maintenance of normal functioning and metabolism. They are an integral part of cell membranes throughout the body and  provide the starting point for the production of hormones that regulate blood clotting, inflammation, and contraction and relaxation of artery walls. They even bind to receptors in cells and help regulate genetic function. Because of these reasons, omega-3 fats are thought to have a role in modulating many disease processes, including those of cardiovascular and autoimmune origin, those of the brain, as well as some cancers.

There are three main omega-3 fatty acids that you should be aware of: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Of these, EPA and DHA are the two that have been extensively studied, are known for their numerous health benefits, and are the reason why many people take fish oil supplements. It is important to remember the distinction between EPA/DHA and ALA as their sources are different.

So why do you even need to be aware of ALA? Because it cannot be produced by your body and is considered an essential fatty acid that must be obtained through outside sources. With that said—and being mindful to incorporate some ALA-rich foods into your diet—I encourage you to focus on getting enough EPA and DHA. Be aware that while some ALA supplements associate themselves with the health benefits of EPA/DHA, ALA actually has not been specifically studied in this respect, so such claims remain speculative. ALA does, however, convert to EPA and DHA in small amounts in your body, but this should not dissuade you from getting enough through food sources.

Food Sources of Omega-3 Fats

Omega-3 Fatty Acids Essential Food Guide

So what foods are the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids? While the main sources of ALA are plants—seeds, nuts, and vegetables—EPA and DHA are naturally found in seafood. Fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines contain high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, whereas fish with a lower fat content—such as bass, tilapia and cod—contain lower levels of omega-3 fats.

As for omega-3 supplements, fish oil is the primary form for EPA/DHA, while algae oil is a good vegetarian alternative. Flaxseed oil provides ALA.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids: How Much Should You Be Getting?

Below are the daily amounts of omega-3 fats agreed upon by various health authorities for optimal health benefits:

Omega-3 Fatty Acids Food Guide

Adults:           0.5 g/day  (3.5 g/week)
Pregnancy:  0.65 g/day  (4.6 g/week)

Men:              1.6 g/day
Women:        1.1 g/day
Pregnancy:   1.4 g/day

As you can see on the chart, the daily goals for EPA/DHA can be easily met through 2 to 3 servings of fatty fish per week. The reference table below can give you an idea of which foods to look out for and help guide some of your dietary choices.

With that said, some important questions remain: What about omega-3 supplements? Do the benefits of dietary omega-3’s translate to fish oil capsules, and are there any risks in taking them? In this article I will address these questions as well as take a closer look at the specific health benefits of omega-3 fats.

In the meantime, here’s to healthy fats for better health!


*You can find more essential heart health information like this in Being Empowered for a Healthy Heart: A personal guide to taking control of your health while living with chronic conditions, by Phoebe Chi, MD, MPH.


Phoebe Chi, MD
Phoebe Chi, MD

As a physician educator and the managing editor of Health + Inspiration, Dr. Chi aims to inspire, inform, and empower the reader community. She is the author of Being Empowered for a Healthy Heart: A personal guide to taking control of your health while living with chronic conditions, a poetry-infused health guide, and founder of Pendants for a Cause, a nonprofit organization with the purpose of raising funds to fight illness, provide care, and bring awareness to medically vulnerable populations around the world.

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26 replies »

  1. First, congratulations on that appointment. In the distance you have it well deserved because you are a very professional person to give your indications in good health. You have a great blog and you will surely reach the top. I live near the amr and the fish do not lack me. Great your article.

  2. Dear Dr. Phoebe,

    This is an outstanding article. Incredible! You have a distinct talent. You can take complex, scientific data and write it so that it is understandable. You avoid run on sentences. You define your terminology very well.

    One time, when I was working in Public Relations, in the big granddaddy telephone company, Mr. Big was scheduled to give a talk. My department had the job to write Mr. Big’s script. But Mr. Big insisted on throwing out our script and writing his own. Big mistake on his part.

    Well, Mr. Big gets in front of this big audience in the big auditorium, with his slide show. He kept using these acronyms over and over. Well, during the question and answer period someone asked Mr. Big what a certain acronym stood for. Mr. Big just stood there for about 30 seconds with the deer in the headlights look. Then, quietly responded “I don’t know.”

    It never ceases to amaze me how many people in the business field, the academic arena, the scientific research circles, and the healing arts write articles and give talks NOT to communicate concepts, but rather to IMPRESS others.

    I can feel it, that you are dedicated to communicating important information to help us, not to impress us. Please, hold dear that principle.

    When I was in my twenties and early thirties, I would attend about three or four of these “cutting edge healing arts” seminars a year. They would be held at some swanky hotel. Then I would find out that most of them were just infomercials, that some chiropractor, osteopath, medical doctor or nutritionist was holding just to sell their vitamins, books, audio tapes and/or video tapes.

    Your dedication to truth. Your dedication to helping people. Your dedication to communicating clearly and plainly. All of these good qualities and more, are your gift to the world. You are a blessing to hundreds of people. Please hold dear in your heart, your gift to the world. Know that you are making a difference in people’s lives. You are helping a lot of people.


  3. Glad you’re doing these series – I have a couple questions on this :)..If someone is on a vegetarian/vegan diet do they need to eat more of ALA foods in order for the appropriate conversion to EPA and DHA to be enough..same question if taking flaxseed supplements vs fish oil if dietarily restricting? If so how much more? With the fish – there is so much hoopla around mercury poisoning and being careful about not eating too much because you don’t know where the fish is coming from..would love your perspective..thanks!

    • Great questions!

      For those on vegetarian and vegan diets (or those who just want to stay away from fish products), the preferable alternative for an EPA/DHA source is actually algal oil (from microalgae).

      For ALA products, only about 10% of the ALA get converted to EPA/DHA in your body. If you prefer to get your EPA/DHA from flaxseed oil, it would break down like this:

      1 tablespoon flaxseed oil = 7 grams ALA
      1 tablespoon flaxseed oil = 0.7 grams EPA/DHA

      If you look at the omega-3 table, you will see that most of the ALA foods have considerably less ALA than flaxseed oil. But it might work for you, depending on what your diet usually consists of. Just divide the ALA amount by 10, and you got an approximation of your EPA/DHA

      I hope this helps!

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