Friday, July 31, 2009

Best Fish and Vegetarian Sources of Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids

English walnuts—great vegetarian source of omega 3.

Salmon—excellent fish source of DHA and EPA omega3.

Flax seeds and oil. Highest vegetarian source of omega 3.
Raw chia seeds—high in omega 3 and fiber.

Raw hemp seeds—high in omega 3 and protein.

Over the past years, there has been increased emphasis on obtaining sufficient omega 3 fatty acids. This essential nutrient is needed for healthy arteries, brain development, proper immune function, reducing inflammation, preventing and managing heart disease, depression and joint pain. Symptoms of omega 3 deficiency are extreme fatigue, heart problems, poor memory, lack of concentration, depression, poor immunity, blepharitis (dry eyes), brittle hair and nails and dry skin. Besides taking a daily supplement of fish oil or flaxseed oil, many wonder how to get what they need. Today I want to discuss foods that provide the highest concentration of this essential nutrient.

There are three key omega 3 fatty acids: ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentanenoic acid). DHA and EPA are the fatty acids that are the most beneficial to your health. The body can manufacture DHA and EPA from ALA. Unfortunately, some people are not capable of doing this conversion efficiently so if you are not a vegetarian, your best bet is to eat fish. Vegetarians must either take algae supplements that contain DHA and EPA or consume large quantities of ALA daily.

How Much Omega 3 do you need?

There are many different guidelines for essential fatty acids and I would guess that they will change as more is learned about their benefits. Here are some recommendations and observations:

• The Institute of Medicine, 2002, recommends 1.6 g of omega 3 for adult males and 1.1 g for adult females per day.

• The American Heart Association recommends that healthy people should eat oily fish at least twice a week in addition to consuming (vegetarian) foods rich in ALA. They also recommend that people with cardiovascular disease consume 1.0 g of DHA and EPA per day. (Why wait until you have heart trouble, maybe we should eat that much now!).
• Because vegetarians do not eat fish, the Vegetarian Society recommends 4 g of ALA per day in order for the body to manufacture sufficient quantities of DHA and EPA. Large quantities of omega 6 fatty acids can interfere with the body’s ability to do this conversion so a balance of about 4 to1 omega 6 to omega 3 is said to be beneficial. Omega 6 is abundant in commonly eaten foods such as peanuts, pine nuts, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin and squash seeds, pecans, soybeans, almonds and safflower oil. Unfortunately, the typical American diet provides over ten times the required amount of omega 6.
• A study by the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health showed that Japanese men having twice the levels of omega 3 fatty acids than white American men or Japanese Americans had the lowest levels of atherosclerosis. The average intake of Japanese people is about 2.6 g per day of omega 3, including 1 g per day of DHA and EPA (according to the Japan Society for Lipid Nutrition).

The Optimum Solution
With the objective of obtaining sufficient omega 3 fatty acids, the best thing to do for your health is eat plenty of low mercury fish for DHA and EPA and vegetarian foods high in ALA. The best fish to eat are salmon, herring, American Shad, Pacific and Atlantic mackerel, whitefish, Pacific oysters, Atlantic sardines and trout. The best vegetarian sources of ALA include flax seeds and flaxseed oil, chia seeds, hemp seeds and hemp milk products and English walnuts. For more details, read on…

Fish Rich in Omega 3 (DHA and EPA) and Low in Mercury (Sources for this data include (1) (2) Appendix G2. Description of USDA Analyses, High Omega 3 Fish Analysis and (3) NRDC Consumer Guide to Mercury in Fish).

Salmon is one of the best sources of omega 3, especially in DHA and EPA, while being very low in mercury. Atlantic is the best, both farmed and wild, with 3 dry cooked ounces providing 2.2 g (wild) and 1.9 g (farmed) of omega 3. Most of the omega 3 is in the form of DHA and EPA with 1.6 g in wild and 1.8 g in farmed. Chinook is also very good with 1.8 g of omega 3, 1.5 g of which is DHA and EPA. Pink salmon is next with 1.2 g omega 3 (1.1 g DHA and EPA) followed by canned sockeye with 1.1 g omega 3 (1.0 g DHA and EPA). Wild Coho is lower than the other salmon mentioned but still contains a respectable 0.9 g of omega 3, almost all of which is DHA and EPA.

Herring is another excellent source of omega 3 fatty acids. Three ounces of dried cooked Pacific herring contains 2.0 g of omega 3 (1.8 DHA and EPA) while Atlantic herring weighs in at 1.9 g (1.7 DHA and EPA). It also contains very little mercury and is a very good source of vitamin B12 and selenium
American Shad, found in the Connecticut River, is a local favorite. A 3 ounce serving (raw weight) contains 2.3 g of omega 3 (2.0 g DHA and EPA) and is also a very good source of niacin and selenium. Shad is also a low mercury fish.
Pacific Mackerel and Atlantic Mackerel are both very good sources of omega 3 and contain little mercury. A 3 ounce dry cooked serving of Pacific mackerel contains 1.8 g of omega 3 (1.6 g DHA and EPA) while a similar serving of Atlantic mackerel has 1.2 g (1.0 g DHA and EPA). They both also provide niacin, vitamin B12 and selenium. Although Spanish mackerel is also a good source of omega 3, it is high in mercury. King mackerel is not a good source of omega 3, has a very high level of mercury and should be avoided.
Whitefish packs in 1.7g of omega 3 (1.5 g DHA and EPA). It can be enjoyed regularly as it contains little mercury.
Pacific Oysters are one of my favorites. A 3 ounce serving provides 1.3 g of omega 3 (1.2 g DHA and EPA). They are also a very good source of vitamin B12, iron, zinc, copper, manganese and selenium and are very low in mercury. For those of us who mostly eat a vegetarian diet with occasional seafood, oysters are a good pick because they provide B12, iron and zinc. These nutrients are more difficult to get from the plant kingdom.
Atlantic Sardines, canned in oil, are a good source of omega 3 in the pantry. A 3 ounce serving yields 1.2 g omega 3 (0.8 g DHA and EPA). It contains little mercury and is a very good source of vitamin D, B12, phosphorous and selenium
Trout, both wild and farmed, are good sources of omega 3, both providing about 1.0 g per dry cooked 3 ounce serving. Farmed contains 1.0 g of DHA and EPA while its wild counterpart provides 0.8 g. Both are very good sources of B12 and niacin.

Not All Farmed Fish are Alike
I typically avoid farmed fish but wild fish is often expensive to buy and sometimes harder to find. I had a long discussion with the people at Whole Foods last night and I feel much more comfortable about eating their farmed fish (in fact I bought some farmed salmon for the first time in years). Here are the standards that Whole Foods uses for their farmed fish:

• Prohibit the use of antibiotics and growth hormones or animal by-products in their feed.

• No “Franken fish”—genetically modified or cloned seafood.
• Free from preservatives.
• Fish are in low-density pens.

What about Tuna? Why didn’t this Popular Fish make the High Omega 3 List?
Without a doubt, a tuna fish sandwich is one of the most popular lunches in America. Ahi tuna is also served in seafood restaurants and sushi bars throughout the country. As far as being a good source of omega 3 and safe from mercury, here’s what I have found out.

Light Canned Tuna in water is not very high in omega 3. Although it’s moderate in mercury content and can be eaten up to 6 times a month safely (according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s guide for pregnant women), you’d have to eat ten 3 ounce servings to get the same amount of omega 3 as a single serving of wild Atlantic salmon.

White or Albacore Canned Tuna in water has more omega 3 than light canned tuna (0.8 g per 3 ounce serving vs. 0.2 g), most of which is DHA and EPA (0.7 g). Unfortunately, it is high in mercury and should be limited to three or less servings a month by those at risk from mercury exposure ((pregnant women, women trying to get pregnant and children).
Ahi Tuna, also known as Yellow-fin or Big-eye, is the worst choice. It is low in omega 3 (less than 0.3 g), has the highest mercury content and should be avoided completely by those at risk from mercury exposure.

Excellent Vegetarian Sources of ALA Omega 3 Fatty Acid - Always Better Raw and Organic

Flax Seeds have long been known for their high content of omega 3 weighing in at 6.3 g per 1 ounce serving. They are high in fiber (8.0 g per ounce) and are a very good source of thiamine and manganese. The omega 6 content is low at only 1.7 g per ounce so if you are trying to balance out the high omega 6 content of your diet, eating flax seeds is a good way to do it. One teaspoon of flaxseed oil contains 2.0 g of omega 3 and only 0.5 g of omega 6.

Chia Seeds provide 4.9 g of omega 3 per ounce and only 1.6 g of omega 6. Chia seeds are very high in fiber (11 g per ounce) and are a very good source of manganese, phosphorus and calcium.
Hemp Seeds are a very affordable source of protein, providing over 10 g per 1 ounce serving. They provide 2.8 g of omega 3 for every 7 g of omega 6 yielding a favorable 2.5:1 omega 6 to omega 3 ratio. You can get the same benefits of hemp seeds from hemp milk and even hemp ice cream (just bought this new yummy ice cream called Temp by Living Harvest Foods).
English Walnuts have an optimal omega 6 to omega 3 ratio of 4.2:1. They provide 2.5 g of omega 3 and 10.7 g of omega 6 per one ounce serving. English walnuts are a very good source of manganese. Do not confuse them with black walnuts that only provide 0.6 g of omega 3 and contain over 16 times as much omega 6 as omega 3.

I hope you have found this information useful. I devoted a lot of time on this because I think the low amounts of omega 3 in the American diet contribute greatly to the increasing level of illness and exploding costs of healthcare. So go and grab a handful of English walnuts, grill some salmon and top your meal off with a bowl of hemp milk ice cream!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great post. What a great summary to keep handy as a reference.

A question for you. I have often chosen Chia seeds over flax seeds as I understand that Chia has the right balance of Omega 3 and 6. However, as I consume many foods that contain high levels of Omega 6, should I instead choose flax seed over chia? As well, flax is much more economical than Chia.

Thanks for the great site. I look forward to reading through the whole site (I found you by searching for sugar free jam recipes).

Dr. Joanne L. Mumola Williams said...

I agree that flax is a good, inexpensive choice if you are trying to balance out your high omega 6 consumption but variety is always good too. Chia is high in fiber, hemp is high in protein and walnuts are a great source of manganese and have an optimal balance of omega 3:6. Enjoy them all!

Anonymous said...

Just came across this wonderful blogpost when searching for vegetarian diet and pregnancy. It was linked in as a source for info on Omega 3 foods. I was wondering if any of the non-fish choices were counter-indicated for pregnant women? I'm guessing not, but wanted to ask. Thanks- Megan

Dr. Joanne L. Mumola Williams said...

I don't think so but what I want to share with you is something I learned last weekend at Andrew Weil's Health Conference in Phoenix. DHA and EPA are key nutrients needed by all, especially during pregnancy. Although there are many plant sources of omega 3 (ALA), the most important ones (EPA and DHA) are best obtained from fish like salmon or a good quality fish oil pill. Although I write a lot about veggie sources of omega 3 (ALA), most people can not efficiently convert the ALA into enough EPA and DHA and 12% of people can't convert it all at. Also, the doctors and researchers at this conference encouraged pregnant women to eat fish, not avoid it like most of us have been told. I just want to pass this on. I asked many researchers at this conference about vegetarians getting enough omega 3 (especially during pregnancy) and none of them thought they could.

Justin said...

Hey Joanne,

I've noticed that the info in this blog, as well as posted recipes (in the Omega 3 category specifically) promote a higher Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio, which is contradictory to many things I've read. Is there a reason for this?

Thanks for any reply :)

Dr. Joanne L. Mumola Williams said...

Hi Justin,
A four to one ratio or less is fine as long as that ratio reflects your entire diet. Many people consume more like twenty times the omega-6 than omega-3.

Unknown said...

So omega 3 can help me avoid dry eyes? I work 6 hours a day in front of the computer, so I'm prone to it. Recently, It's starting to hinder my performance at work. I did learn some eye exercise from my Arizona Eye Doctor but I can't possibly stop often to do that. Anyway, I hope that this does work. Thank you for sharing this.

Unknown said...

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