Your body needs essential fatty acids to thrive — they strengthen our cell membranes and are a core source of energy. Researchers are also studying links between essential fatty acids and a decreased risk of stroke, heart disease, inflammation, joint pain, depression and many others.
Unfortunately, our bodies are incapable of making these fatty acids on their own. Instead, we must rely on food sources or supplementation to meet our daily needs.
Types Of Essential Fatty Acids
There are two types of essential fatty acids — omega-6 and omega-3. We typically get more omega-6 in our diets, which can cause inflammation. Omega-3 foods are known to reduce inflammation and should be a priority in your diet.
Omega-3s have three primary forms: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Your body needs all three, but DHA and EPA are the hardest to get. They’re only found naturally in fish, but some foods like certain eggs come fortified with DHA.
Plant sources of essential fatty acids contain ALA. Plant sources alone will likely not get you enough DHA and EPA since your body only turns 5% of ALA intake into EPA and less than 5% to DHA.
1. Fatty Fish
One serving of most types of fish will put well over your daily requirements of essential fatty acids. Fish give your body much-needed DHAs and EPAs.
Fresh trout, mackerel and salmon will give you the highest amount of omega-3s per serving. However, mackerel is high in mercury, which can deteriorate brain health over time. Stick to wild-caught trout and salmon for the most significant benefits.
If you want the benefits of eating fish but can’t stand the taste, you can talk to your doctor about supplementing with fish oil. Two of the most common choices are cod liver and krill oil.
2. Flax Seeds
Flax seeds have possibly the highest amount of ALA of any plant-based source. Vegans and vegetarians would do well to integrate this powerhouse into their diets since they need more ALA to convert to the other types of omega-3 fatty acids.
You can eat ground flax seeds mixed into anything from a salad to a smoothie. The most potent way to add these is through flaxseed oil, which you can add to smoothies, dressing or sauce. Flaxseeds may also improve heart health, prevent certain cancers, aid in weight loss and reduce inflammation.
Walnuts are a delicious way to add some omega-3s into your routine. Aside from their high essential fatty acid content, walnuts are also full of fiber, potassium, magnesium, iron and folate. They work well to lower bad cholesterol and improve heart health by lowering inflammation. Eat them as a snack, put them on chicken or salads or even grind them into a delicious pesto.
4. Chia Seeds
Chia seeds come packed with nutrition. Besides a healthy dose of omega-3s, they contain powerful antioxidants to reduce oxidative stress on your cells. Chia even has enough calcium, magnesium and phosphorus to help improve bone health.
These tiny black seeds puff up when they’re wet and help you to feel full faster. Substitute soaked chia for eggs in recipes or combine with your favorite flavors to make a delicious pudding.
5. Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
Extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) is arguably the best oil for the kitchen. It has an excellent flavor profile and can even improve the nutrition of the food you’re cooking. EVOO’s nutritional value remains intact when absorbed by other foods, and it can keep nutrients from leaching out during the cooking process.
EVOO has a high essential fatty acid content and is easy to incorporate into many different dishes. Also, a diet rich in it may improve brain and heart health as well as help prevent diabetes.
Always check with your doctor before beginning any new supplements. Most people are able to get enough essential fatty acids through diet alone. However, vegetarians and vegans will have a more difficult time getting the necessary amounts of DHA and EPA. In either case, a physician can help you determine how you should supplement your diet in order to get enough essential fatty acids.