Imagine if you could take a pill that prevented you from ever feeling fat, dumb, or depressed. Oh, and imagine that same pill happened to protect against heart disease, arthritis, and osteoporosis, too. Not too shabby, right?
Well, omega-3 fatty acids can do all of that, and this life-saving fat comes as a natural ingredient in many of our healthiest foods, especially wild salmon, which has more than 1,500 milligrams in a 3-ounce portion. But as for popping omega-3 pills? Supplements just don’t cut it. “If you want to get more omega-3 fatty acids in your diet, the best way is to get it through food,” Elizabeth Johnson, a researcher at Tufts University who studies the role of antioxidants in eye and brain health, told NPR.
So if you’re shelling out money for fish-oil tablets, consider this good news: You can stop swallowing those horse-pill-sized gel caps and go back to eating real food—including burgers, cheese, and even pizza. We’ve identified some of the most unlikely, and most delicious, ways to get your 1,100 milligrams of daily omega-3s recommended by the National Institutes of Health (men should get 1,600 milligrams daily). Eat up, and let the benefits begin!
First, The Benefits of Omega 3s
In a study in Circulation Journal, researchers looked at the BMI, body fat, and weight gain in 1,053 residents over 40 years of age. Their blood was tested for C- reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation. In the study, BMI and body fat increased significantly as CRP levels increased. “A high concentration of CRP was significantly associated with obesity.” But omega-3s can overcome inflammation. In a second European Journal of Clinical Nutrition study, 17 healthy young adults were put on a 10-week diet of reduced omega-6s and increased omega-3s. After 10 weeks, adiponectin—a healthy protein secreted by fat cells that reduces inflammation—rose significantly, while tumor necrosis factor, a protein involved in triggering systemic inflammation, declined significantly.
Decreased Hunger Levels
In a study of 232 overweight and obese volunteers in the journal Appetite, researchers put obese and overweight subjects who were in the last two weeks of an eight-week weight-loss plan on either high or low doses of omega-3s. Those on the high-dose plan reported being more satisfied and less hungry two hours after their meal than those who got the lower dose of omega-3s.
Reduced Inflammation and Increased Fat Burn
A 2010 report in Nutrients found that at sufficiently high intake, omega-3s decrease the production of cytokines—inflammation-promoting compounds produced by belly fat—and improve fat metabolism by altering the expression of inflammatory genes.
Improved Blood Sugar Regulation
In a Brazilian study of 148 people who were at risk of diabetes, published in the journal Nutrition, subjects with the highest ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s in their blood were more likely to improve their blood glucose levels and reduce their diabetes risk.
Increased Effects of Exercise on Weight Loss
Researchers at the University of South Australia put 75 overweight people on one of four regimens—omega-3 supplements with or without exercise, or omega-6 supplements with or without exercise. Over 12 weeks, the group that combined omega-3 supplements with exercise experienced dramatic weight loss; none of the other three sets of subjects did.
The Best Food Sources of Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 Payoff: 814 mg per 3-ounce serving
It has the reputation of being bland and slimy, but like the high-school-nerd-turned-successful hottie, tofu is worth a second look. A solid curd made from mashed soybeans, it’s a terrific source of plant-based protein with proven weight-loss potential. One study published in the journal European Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed dieters who followed a 12-week meal plan that included a soy-based protein replacement lost twice as much weight and saw greater reductions in cholesterol and belly fat than a control group whose equicaloric diet included protein from lean meats. And the omega-3 count is off the chart. On the fence about soy? We totally understand—that’s why we explain everything you need to know about soy side effects.
Omega-3 Payoff: 352 mg per ½ cup (cooked)
At only 40 calories per cooked cup, spinach is also rich in vitamin E and the compounds betaine
and choline, which work together to turn off fat storage genes. Recent research suggests compounds in the leaf membranes called thylakoids may also serve as powerful appetite suppressants. Participants in the three-month study who drank a breakfast smoothie containing spinach thylakoids had fewer cravings and lost 5.5 pounds more than the placebo group.
Omega-3 Payoff: 448 mg per 2-ounce serving
Dairy has made a dietary comeback, with new research suggesting the high-fat products like cheese may help reduce the risk of obesity. Cheese-eaters lost more belly fat than a control group who took a calcium supplement, one Nutrition & Metabolism study found. The group that nibbled cheese also exhibited increased levels of butyrate, a fatty acid found in the gut proven to improve fat metabolism. Speaking of, make sure your metabolism is fired up and that’s you’re avoiding these 31 Ways You Messed Up Your Metabolism Today.
Omega-3 Payoff: 1 cup has 1,190 mg of ALA
Not only are beans a great source of belly-fat-fighting fiber, a single cup gives you nearly an entire day’s worth of omega-3s. Navy beans are packed with satiating protein, and brimming with vitamins and minerals. Studies show that navy beans, in particular, can help battle diabetes and obesity.
Omega-3 Payoff: 160 mg per 6-ounce steak
Because they wander around in fields eating things like flax and purslane (about which you’ll read, below), grass-fed cows yield meat that contains four times more omega-3s than grain-fed animals, according to a Nutrition Journal review.
Omega-3 Payoff: 597 mg per 1 ounce boneless
The debate over pizza toppings is settled. While salmon, tuna, halibut, and other popular fish grab all the omega-3 glory, the humble anchovy is often forgotten about. But just a couple of slices of anchovy pizza get you more than halfway to your daily quota. The superfish is also rich in calcium and potassium (both essential weight-loss minerals) as well as vitamin A.
Omega-3 Payoff: 230 mg per tablespoon
One tiny teaspoon of ground mustard provides 100 milligrams of omega-3s, plus serious fat-burning potential. Scientists at England’s Oxford Polytechnic Institute found that a teaspoon of the hot stuff was enough to boost the metabolism by up to 25 percent for several hours after eating. Researchers attribute the weight loss benefits to allyl isothiocyanates, compounds that give the mustard its characteristic flavor. You can use ground mustard seed as you would black pepper—put a dash on your salmon for a double dose of omega-3 goodness!
Omega-3 Payoff: 2,500 mg per ¼ cup
Walnuts pack the most omega-3 punch of any nut or seed, and they’re also high in disease-fighting antioxidants. This combination, according to a recent study, is highly protective against heart disease. The benefits of walnuts include helping reduce blood pressure and decrease inflammation in the blood vessels during times of stress. Toss some into salads or eat a handful as an afternoon snack.
Omega-3 Payoff: 332 mg per cup (baked)
More squash = less squish. A cup of winter squash provides one-third the recommended daily intake of vitamin C—a nutrient that researchers say is directly related to the body’s ability to burn through fat. In fact, one study by researchers at Arizona State University showed deficiencies of vitamin C were strongly correlated with increased body fat and waist measurements.
Omega-3 Payoff: 225 mg per egg
Eggs turn up on many of our “best lists” because they are chock-full of protein, vitamins, antioxidants, and a fat-fighting nutrient called choline. Omega-3-enriched eggs are laid by hens that are fed flax seeds, chia seeds, and fish oil, thereby automatically improving your cluck!
Omega-3 Payoff: 300 mg per ½ cup
What the heck is purslane? While not a common food in most of the U.S., this sour, slightly salty green is often used in Greek and Turkish cooking. You can find it at farmers’ markets in spring and summer, but the most likely place you’ll encounter it is growing in the cracks of your driveway. A weed to most, it was a regular part of Gandhi’s diet, and a mere half cup has more than 1,000 IUs of vitamin A. This might be the cheapest stealth health food in the world!
Omega-3 Payoff: 7,300 mg per Tbsp
While whole flaxseeds are high in omega-3s, their hard exteriors often resist digestion, meaning you don’t necessarily get the nutritional bang for your buck. Go for the ground version (also known as flax meal), or get nearly a week’s worth of the good stuff by drizzling a little of the oil onto your salad. Studies have found flax to be helpful for cardiovascular disease symptoms like hypertension, according to a recent study in Hypertension.
Omega-3 Payoff: 240 mg per ½ cup (uncooked)
Diet experts go ga-ga for brown rice, but it’s wild rice that tugs on our heartstrings as a weight-loss wonder food. After all, the native American grain has nearly double the fiber and protein, and fewer calories, as its arguably more popular cousin. Whole grains have a proven reputation as a weight-loss staple. In one study, Tufts University researchers found dieters on a calorie-restricted diet who ate whole grains like rice lost significantly more belly fat than a group who consumed the equivalent number of calories from refined carbohydrates. Another grain high in omega-3s: kamut.
Omega-3 Payoff: 2,500 mg per Tbsp
These nutty-tasting seeds of Chia Pet fame can be added to salads, smoothies, stir-fries and more to give your meals an omega-3 boost, and a tiny shake each morning on your cereal ensures you’re hitting your daily quota.
Omega-3 Payoff: 480 mg per cup (raw)
Lentils are an inexpensive dietary plus, touted by weight-loss experts for their ability to boost fat metabolism and regulate appetite. Researchers say the slimming benefits can be attributed to resistant starch, a form of slow-digesting fiber that triggers the release of acetate, a molecule in the gut that signals the brain when it’s time to stop eating. In fact, people who ate a daily serving of lentils (about ¾ cup) felt an average 31 percent fuller compared with a control diet,
an American Journal of Clinical Nutrition systematic review of clinical trials on legumes found.