You have probably heard of 'Omega-3', but what is this curious substance and why does it matter so much to the healthy functioning of our bodies?

To understand this properly, we firstly need to know about 'Essential Fatty Acids' (or EFAs). These are substances that our bodies require to functional properly. The 'essential' in this case literally means we need them, and they must be provided by food because our bodies cannot get them any other way.

These are important substances in our bodies because EFAs directly affect inflammation, mood and behavior. And inflammation in particular is linked to many diseases of our modern world, everything from heart disease and diabetes to strokes and cancer.

One of these EFAs in particular is called alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA. This is a highly beneficial Omega-3 fatty acid for which there has been much research.

There are also a group of fatty acids that are still thought of as 'essential', but the body can to some degree convert other substances to make them. ALA for example can be converted to another Omega-3 called DHA (or docosahexaenoic acid). Now DHA is an equally important substance which has also been fairly heavily researched. It has been connected to pretty much all bodily systems, from eye sight to brain and heart health and beyond.

The problem however with these 'conditionally essential' substances is that our ability to convert to them is highly inefficient, ranging from 2% to 5% at best for converting ALA to DHA (it even varies from person to person). This doesn't really matter if you are getting enough DHA in your diet, or are getting plenty of ALA and converting it well. But studies have shown levels of DHA tend to be significantly lower for those on vegetarian and in particular vegan diets, due to the best sources of those substances being non-vegetarian or just not consumed in sufficient quantities.

So How Much Do We Need?

So far we still don't have an RDA or Recommended Daily Amount for Omega-3. This isn't particularly surprising as it takes Government health departments a very long time to make specific recommendations. Although the American Heart Association has for years been recommending we eat fish at least twice a week for the EFAs it contains. The World Health Organization (WHO) also make a recommendation of 300-500mg of EPA and DHA every day, with ALA intake of around 1,000mg.

Where Do We Get Omega-3 From?

Well, 100g of canned light tuna in oil contains around 100mg of DHA, fresh Atlantic cod around 150mg of DHA per 100g. Raw almonds contain about 400mg of ALA per 100g, while cauliflower, lentils and spinach all contain around 100mg per 100g.

What does all that mean in real terms? Well, unless you eat around 1kg of lentils and spinach every day, you may not be getting optimum levels of ALA. Similarly if you're not eating fish every day (and who does?) you may not be getting the most beneficial levels of DHA. Particularly if you're not getting enough ALA either, and will therefore struggle to convert enough to DHA.

If you eat a diet full of fresh wholefoods, plenty of vegetables, pulses, nuts, seeds and fish then you're probably fine. You just may not be getting the optimum amount of Omega-3 for the best of health. If you don't eat healthily, live on junk foods or a very restricted diet lacking in fresh produce, then you are likely not getting nearly enough and could be putting your health at serious risk. Changing your diet would be wise, or at least look at getting an Omega-3 supplement.

What Foods Contain The Most Omega-3?

A lot of good healthy foods contain at least some Omega-3. But there are many foods that have a lot more than others. These are the ones to make sure you eat regularly if you want to keep your Omega-3 levels topped up.

Fish and seafood are particularly rich sources, although it varies greatly across the types of fish. Dairy and eggs also provide good amounts. But there are plenty of vegetarian and vegan sources too.

Seeds are a great source, with flax, hemp and chia seeds all being high in Omega-3. Oils extracted from these are also good too of course. As is mustard seed oil which is much higher in Omega-3 than olive oil.

Beans are also a good source, not as high as nuts, but a lot lower in calories and obviously far more suitable for a meal. Mungo beans (urad dal) are actually one of the best with as much as 600mg of Omega-3 in a cup of cooked beans.

Seaweed or algae are also good sources, and are often the key ingredient in vegan Omega-3 supplements. Algae is technically vegan (biologically it is not an animal, although neither is it a plant).

For vegetables, it's mostly the leafy green vegetables that are best, with spinach, kale, collards and grape leaves all ranking highly. Members of the cabbage family are really good too.

Fruits are not so rich in Omega-3, but they do still have some with berries, mangoes and melon providing more than others.

So there are plenty of ways to get more Omega-3 fatty acids into your diet. As you can see from the list above, it's even more reason to make sure you eat plenty of healthy fresh foods every day.

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Sanders, Thomas AB. "DHA status of vegetarians." Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids 81.2 (2009): 137-141.

Kris-Etherton, Penny M., et al. "Fish consumption, fish oil, omega-3 fatty acids, and cardiovascular disease." circulation 106.21 (2002): 2747-2757.

Simopoulos, Artemis P. "Omega-3 fatty acids in health and disease and in growth and development." The American journal of clinical nutrition 54.3 (1991): 438-463.