Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids: What are they?
Many of you may have heard these terms before and have a general understanding that omega fatty acids are good for us, but you may be confused as to why they are truly beneficial. Let's tackle this together!
Omega fatty acids are an essential fat (a fat that our body does not produce on it's own); thus we must consume omega fatty acids in order for our body to function optimally. The "omega" naming convention has to do with the placement of the double bond in the fatty acid molecule. Omega-3 fatty acids have the first double bond placed 3 carbon atoms away from the omega end. While omega-6 fatty acids have the first double bond placed 6 carbon atoms away from the omega end. I won't go into too much chemistry, but the main thing to understand is that both fatty acids are polyunsaturated. The term polyunsaturated can be broken down into major parts to be better understood. Poly means "multiple or many" and unsaturated means there are "double bonds within the fatty acid chain". Thus polyunsaturated = many double bonds.
Omega-3 fatty acids come from sources such as fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel) and walnuts, flaxseed, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, and chia (all in lesser amounts). The three main types are ALA, EPA, and DHA.
Omega-6 fatty acids come from plant sources such as corn oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, as well as from nuts and seeds. The most common form or omega-6 fatty acid is linoleic acid (LA).
Why Are Fatty Acids Beneficial?
There is growing evidence that polyunsaturated fats have been helpful in reducing the risk of heart disease, along with protecting against type two diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, and age-related brain decline. In addition, these fatty acids can help promote hair and skin growth, promote bone health, and maintain the reproductive system. So what's the catch? One of these fatty acids promotes inflammation while the other reduces inflammation. And it is the healthy ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 that matters.
The RATIO is Key!
Let me backtrack a little and bring you to ancestral times. There is evidence that hunter-gather ancestors consumed a 1:1 ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. It is also important to note that these ancestors were free of diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancers. Now, fast forward to the industrial revolution when seed oils (canola oil, corn oil, soy oil) were invented; this marked a shift in the ratio of omega-fatty acids. Below is a chart depicting the amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in industrialized oils. Between 1935 and 1939, the ratio of n-6 to n-3 fatty acids was reported to be 8.4:1. From 1935 to 1985, this ratio increased to 10.3:1 (a 23% increase). Other calculations put the ratio as high as 12.4:1 in 1985. Today, estimates of the ratio range from an average of 10:1 to 20:1, with a ratio as high as 25:1 in some individuals.
So what's the problem? To explain it simply: the less omega-3 fat you eat, the more omega-6 will be available to produce inflammation in your tissues. Typically prolonged inflammation results in oxidative stress and potentially disease. A diet with a lot of omega-6 AND not much omega-3 will increase inflammation. A diet with a lot of omega-3 and little omega-6 will decrease inflammation. If you are not familiar with diseases caused by systematic inflammation, the most common are: obesity, liver disease, ulcerative colitis, depression, anxiety, cancer, Alzheimer's disease, type two diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and other autoimmune diseases.
What Can You Do?
Eliminate seed oils like canola, vegetable, and soybean as much as possible. And balance any omega-6 oils you may get in your diet by adding rich sources of omega-3 fat. Fish, seafood, and grass-fed, naturally raised animal products are the best source of omega-3. While chia, flaxseed, and hemp contain omega-3 fat, the value is not near that of fish. The most important thing you can do is to stop using vegetable oils in your home and decrease how often you go out to eat, as most restaurants use vegetable oils in just about everything (deep friers, pan fried food, baked goods, and dressings). And then, eat two 4-5 oz servings of fish a week (salmon, albacore tuna, mackerel, lake trout, sardines). I highly encourage you to cook with monounsaturated fats like extra-virgin olive oil, avocado oil, lard, or saturated fats like coconut oil, palm oil, or real butter (nothing from a tub). In the chart below, you want to avoid all the fats higher in omega-6 fatty acids (the blue bar). Although fatty acids are essential and we must consumer them, we must do so in moderation as they are still a source of fat and thus higher in calories.
If you have questions about any of the material I covered, please leave a comment below or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to follow me on Facebook and Instagram @hitenutrition for additional tips and recipe posts!
- Sexy by Nature; pgs. 110-113, Stephani Ruper
- "The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids." Biomed Pharmacother. 2002 Oct;56(8):365-79.