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15 Foods High in Omega Fatty Acids

How to work this top nutrient into your diet for a longer, healthier life


spinner image illustration of raw salmon on a cutting board seasoned with herbs next to containers of olive oil, salt, and pepper on a light blue background to reflect the health benefits of foods high in omega fatty acids
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If there’s one class of nutrients that packs a punch against unhealthy aging, it’s omega fatty acids — particularly omega-3s. This nutrition superstar can help prevent heart disease and stroke and may even lower the risk of dementia. Even though the nutrient is important to have in our diet as we age, experts say most older adults aren’t getting enough.​​

“Nine out of 10 Americans are deficient in omega-3s,” says James O’Keefe, M.D., cardiologist and medical director of the Charles and Barbara Duboc Cardio Health & Wellness Center at Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Missouri. “Across the board, consuming more of these nutrients is likely to reduce the risk of premature death.”​ ​

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What are omega-3 fatty acids?

​As a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid, omega-3s are essential for every facet of wellness later in life. They deliver alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) to the body, helping to reduce inflammation associated with chronic and acute illnesses.​​

One study in the American Heart Association journal Stroke shows that consuming more DHA is associated with a lower risk of stroke, a leading cause of cardiovascular death. Another study, in Current Clinical Pharmacology, found that EPA and DHA boost the body’s nerve growth factor level, a key element to preventing Alzheimer’s. Omega-3s may even help preserve our hearing, according to the Fatty Acid Research Institute.​

But the average American adult consumes only 115 milligrams of EPA and DHA a day, according to O’Keefe; by comparison, the average Japanese adult consumes 1,300 milligrams of EPA and DHA per day. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Japan is home to just one of five global “blue zones” and has the highest life expectancy in the world: 84.3 years, according to the World Health Organization. A diet high in omega fatty acids isn’t the only reason people in Japan tend to live long and healthy lives, but experts say it is likely one of them.​

O’Keefe suggests getting at least 1,000 milligrams per day and to favor EPA and DHA, if possible. Here are a few delicious foods high in omega-3s.​ 

​Sardines (2 grams of EPA and DHA per 3-ounce serving)​. Don’t be intimidated by tinned fish. “Canned food, if properly handled and reserved, is a very good source of omega-3 as well as protein,” says Artemis Simopoulos, M.D., founder and president of the Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health and author of The Healthiest Diet for You: Scientific Aspects. Eat them right out of the tin, toss them with salad or add them to grain-free crackers (the bones are edible).​ ​

Herring (1.5 grams of EPA and DHA per 3-ounce serving). Savory and perfectly mild, fresh and canned herring also contains less mercury than other fish. It can be boiled, sautéed, baked or pickled.​ ​

Atlantic salmon (2.4 grams of EPA and DHA per 6-ounce serving)​. In one study, eating this versatile fish twice weekly helped lower serum triglyceride levels, which is one key to a strong heart.​ ​

Flaxseed (1.8 grams of ALA per tablespoon)​. These seeds are the perfect high-fiber addition to smoothies, salads and other vegetarian dishes. Along with a healthy dose of ALA, you get the fiber you need to stay regular.​​

Chia seeds (5 grams of ALA per 1-ounce serving). Mix them into sweet and savory dishes to get every essential amino acid you need for better nutrition. Research also shows chia seeds may help improve glucose tolerance and metabolism.​​

The importance of the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio

​Eating your way to longevity doesn’t mean overloading on omega-3s. In fact, they work better when balanced with a proper intake of omega-6s.​  ​Omega-6s are essential polyunsaturated fatty acids that deliver linoleic acid (LA) to the body. They’re also more abundant that the other types of omega fatty acids, and that can be a problem.

“Because of the way our food supply continues to be, there is no way you will ever be deficient in omega-6s. They’re everywhere,” Simopoulos explains.​

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​Most older adults on a Western diet eat too many omega-6s compared to omega-3s. In their unhealthiest form, omega-6s are found in fried foods and foods that come in bags and boxes.​ ​

An imbalanced omega-3 to omega-6 ratio often leads to weight gain. “Omega-6 fatty acids increase the size of the fat cell, the number of fat cells and appetite,” Simopoulos says. “That’s why many people find they lose more weight eating omega-3-rich meals found in the Mediterranean diet.”​ 

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Who Should Take Fish Oil?

Many studies have found that eating fresh food is better than taking supplements, but if fresh fish is too expensive or if you don’t like the taste, consider fish oil.

study in the Mediterranean Journal of Rheumatology found that fish oil may ease aches and pains associated with rheumatoid arthritis and reduce inflammation. For concerns about cognitive decline, joint problems and high triglycerides, O’Keefe suggests fish oil that delivers 1,500 mg to 2,000 mg of EPA and DHA per day. ​ 

​However, O’Keefe recommends that older adults with atrial fibrillation — an irregular heartbeat — take no more than 600 to 700 milligrams of EPA and DHA per day. “If you start taking high doses of EPA and DHA — around 3,000 to 4,000 milligrams per day — your risk of A-fib goes up as much as 15 percent,” he says.​ 

​Before you take fish oil, smell it to make sure it isn’t rancid. And always keep fish oil liquids refrigerated.​

​According to Simopoulos, people should aim for an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 4:1. That means getting enough EPA and DHA in your diet and opting for healthier sources of omega-6s, like these:​ ​

Sunflower seeds (10.6 grams of LA per 1/4 cup). ​Sunflower seeds are not only full of healthy fats, but research suggests that they can help regulate blood pressure. Mix one tablespoon into salads or trail mix.​ 

​Peanut butter (1.9 grams of LA per tablespoon). Peanut butter is rich in nutrients we sometimes lack as we get older, including iron. Opt for brands made without artificial sweeteners or added sugars.​ ​

Egg yolks (1.8 grams of LA per large egg)​. Eggs are packed with vitamin D and other key anti-aging nutrients. Most older adults with normal cholesterol levels can eat up to two per day.​ ​

Cashews (2.6 grams of LA per ounce)​. Cashews can satisfy our cravings for crunchy, salty snacks. As a bonus, they’re also rich in the omega-3 fatty acid ALA and high in protein.​ 

​Tofu (3 grams of LA per 1/2 cup)​. With a mild, nutty flavor, tofu pairs well with many dishes. Science also shows that eating the soybeans in tofu may ease hot flashes.​​

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What about omega-9 fatty acids?

Along with omega-3s and omega-6s, there’s one other important and often overlooked source of omega fatty acids: omega-9s.

While they aren’t considered essential, they’re the major source of monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) expressed mainly as oleic acid (OA). They offer several health benefits.​ ​Here are a few omega-9-rich foods packed with anti-aging properties.​ ​

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Choosing the Best Olive Oil

Not all olive oils are made equal. For an olive oil high in omega-9 fatty acids and polyphenols — one of the best sources of antioxidants for aging, O’Keefe offers this tip: “If you cleanse your mouth with a little water and then taste a half-teaspoon of olive oil, in about 15 to 20 seconds you should feel a black pepper-like sting at the back of your throat. The more intense the burn, the higher the polyphenols.”​

Olive oil (10.2 grams of MUFAs per tablespoon)​. Reach for extra virgin olive oil; it has the highest level of polyphenols. These powerful compounds may help protect you against cancer, diabetes and dementia.​ ​

Almonds (9 grams of MUFAs in 23 nuts). ​Swap processed snacks for a small handful of these high-fiber nuts. Almonds may even help lower bad cholesterol — pair them with dark chocolate for a healthy treat.

Hazelnuts (6.4 grams of MUFAs in 10 nuts)​. Slightly sweet and toasty, hazelnuts can help satisfy your chocolate cravings. They’re also high in magnesium, an electrolyte that nourishes the heart.

​Walnuts (9 grams of MUFAs per 3/4 cup)​. These delicious nuts are perfect for toasting and adding to salads or yogurt or eating by the handful (just not too many if you are watching your weight, because they are high in calories). According to the American Heart Association, eating walnuts every day could reduce the risk of heart attack.​​

Avocados (14.7 grams of MUFAs per cup)​. Avocado toast might seem trendy, but the benefits stack up. A study in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that eating avocados may lower the odds of death from heart disease.

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