Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat. We need these fats to build brain cells and for other important functions. Omega-3s help keep your heart healthy and protected against stroke. They also help improve your heart health if you already have heart disease.
Your body does not make omega-3 fatty acids on its own. You need to get them from your diet. Certain fish are the best sources of omega-3s. You can also get them from plant foods.
Omega-3 fatty acids should make up 5% to 10% of your total calories.
Omega-3s and Your Heart
Omega-3s are good for your heart and blood vessels in several ways.
- They reduce triglycerides, a type of fat in your blood.
- They reduce the risk of developing an irregular heart beat (arrhythmias).
- They slow the buildup of plaque, a substance comprising fat, cholesterol, and calcium, which hardens and blocks your arteries.
- They help to slightly lower your blood pressure.
These healthy fats may also help with cancer, depression, inflammation, and ADHD. Health experts are still discovering all the possible benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.
How Much you can eat
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends eating at least 2 servings a week of fish rich in omega-3s. A serving is 3.5 ounces (100 grams), which is slightly bigger than a checkbook. Oily fish rich in omega-3s include:
- Albacore tuna
Fish and Safety
Some fish can be tainted with mercury and other chemicals. Eating tainted fish can pose health risks for young children and pregnant women.
If you are concerned about mercury, you can reduce your risk of exposure by eating a variety of fish.
Pregnant women and children should avoid fish with high levels of mercury. These include:
- King mackerel
If you are middle-aged or older, the benefits of eating fish outweigh any risks.
Other Sources of Omega-3s
Oily fish, such as salmon and tuna, contain 2 kinds of omega-3s. These are EPA and DHA. Both have direct benefits for your heart.
You can get another kind of omega-3, ALA, in some oils, nuts, and plants. ALA benefits your heart, but not as directly as EPA and DHA. Still, eating nuts, seeds, and healthy oils as well as fish can help you get a full range of these healthy fats.
Plant-based sources of omega-3s include:
Of all plant-based foods, ground flaxseeds and flaxseed oil have the highest amount of ALA. You can eat ground flaxseed over granola or in smoothies. Flaxseed oil goes well in salad dressing.
What About Fish oil Supplements?
Most health experts agree that the best way to reap the benefits of omega-3 is from food. Whole foods contain many nutrients besides omega-3s. These all work together to keep your heart healthy.
If you already have heart disease or high triglycerides, you may benefit from consuming higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. It may be hard to get enough omega-3s through food. Ask your doctor if taking fish oil supplements might be a good idea.
Cholesterol - omega-3s; Atherosclerosis - omega-3s; Hardening of the arteries - omega-3s; Coronary artery disease - omega-3s; Heart disease - omega-3s
Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality website. Omega-3 fatty acids and cardiovascular disease: an updated systematic review. effectivehealthcare.ahrq.gov/products/fatty-acids-cardiovascular-disease/research. Updated April 2018. Accessed January 13, 2020.
Eckel RH, Jakicic JM, Ard JD, et al. 2013 AHA/ACC guideline on lifestyle management to reduce cardiovascular risk: a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2014;63(25 Pt B):2960-2984. PMID: 24239922 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24239922/.
Hensrud DD, Heimburger DC. Nutrition's interface with health and disease. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 26th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 202.
Mozaffarian D. Nutrition and cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. In: Zipes DP, Libby P, Bonow RO, Mann DL, Tomaselli GF, Braunwald E, eds. Braunwald's Heart Disease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine. 11th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2019:chap 49.
US Department of Agriculture and US Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th ed. www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans_2020-2025.pdf. Updated December 2020. Accessed January 25, 2021.
Review Date 5/26/2020
Updated by: Meagan Bridges, RD, University of Virginia Health System, Charlottesville, VA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team. Editorial update 01/25/2021.