The fatty acids known as Omega 3 and Omega 6. What are they? Are they good or bad? Do we even need to know or care about them?
The short answer is…yes. Here, I aim to provide concise, easy to understand facts about them and how to use this information to make healthy food choices.
There are three macronutrients in the human diet – carbohydrates, proteins and fats – and all three are essential for life. Today, I’m honing in on fats. Fats fall into three categories: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Foods that have fats will contain at least one of these categories of fats, many will contain more than one category of fats. Polyunsaturated fats come in two forms: omega 3 fatty acids and omega 6 fatty acid. There’s a lot of confusion and misinformation regarding these two fatty acids, so let’s break through the clutter.
Necessary & Natural: Omega 3s & Omega 6
Both omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids are necessary in our diets and both exist naturally in plant and animal-based foods. What’s more, humans can’t produce either and, therefore, must consume them.
The primary function of omega 6, gamma linolenic acid (GLA), is energy production. Its secondary role is as a pro-inflammation agent to fight infections and heal injuries.
Omega 3 fatty acids are referred to in the plural because there are three types: ALA (alpha linolenic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) but they’re not equal in importance when it comes to health.
- DHA: a component in skin and eye retinas. It’s also important for healthy brain development and function. Along with EPA, DHA is a powerful anti-inflammatory. Recent omega 3 studies show a likelihood sufficient amounts of DHA can fight inflammation-causing diseases such as arthritis, hypertension, diabetes and some cancers. Other studies show a link between low DHA and dementia, including Alzheimer’s, and high levels of bad (LDL) cholesterol.
- EPA: functions similarly to DHA. Some scientists believe EPA may be even more beneficial than DHA.
- ALA: doesn’t directly benefit the body. Rather, the body converts ALA to DHA and EPA. However, the body is inefficient with the conversion process and requires nearly a dozen other dietary nutrients to do so. Most dietary ALA isn’t converted and is stored or used for other purposes. The jury is still out on whether large amounts of “extra” ALA is detrimental, helpful or neutral to health.
If you’ve been paying attention, here’s what you’ve figured out. We need both omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids but for completely opposite reasons. One is a pro-inflammatory and the other is an anti-inflammatory. Therefore, we need a balance between the two. The good news is the pro-inflammatory role of omega 6 is a secondary role, so it isn’t necessary to get a 1:1 ratio of omega 6 to DHA/EPA omega 3s in our diet. Most dieticians agree that anywhere from a 4:1 to 1:1 omega 6 to omega 3 ratio is healthy. The bad news is the average American diet consists of a ratio close to 16:1. Furthermore, many get the bulk of their omega 3s in the form of ALA, which is a poor counter to high omega 6 intake.
This may explain why there’s been a rise in heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and autoimmune diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis, over the last several decades.
What’s complicating all of this is, well, it’s rather complicated for the average consumer. Entities that have an agenda – food conglomerates, supplement companies and diet promoters – know it’s complicated and seize on that to trick people into buying their products or adopting their preferred dietary habits. All kinds of products now promote the omega 3 moniker because it’s known we need to increase our intake. However, most of these products don’t say what form of omega 3 they contain and, you guessed it, a lot of them contain ALA and no DHA or EPA.
Plants that contain omega 3s contain only ALA, the inefficient version. Furthermore, most plant oils contain high amounts of omega 6 fatty acids. Only animal-based foods contain DHA and EPA omega 3s naturally. Fish are, by far, the best sources of these omega 3s because other animal fats contain lower amounts of DHA and EPA (compared to fish) and many also contain omega 6 fatty acids. Follow these recommendations to improve your omega 6 to omega 3s ratio.
The following foods contain high amounts of DHA/EPA omega 3s and very little or no omega 6. The higher they are on the list, the more omega 3s per serving they contain. Aim to consume these at least twice per week:
- Smoked fish (listed above)
- Canned fish (listed above)
- Grass fed animal meat and dairy
Decrease Omega 6
The following contain high amounts of omega 6 with comparatively small amounts, if any, omega 3s. The higher on the list, the worse they are for your ratio. Avoid these as much as possible:
- Safflower, Grapeseed, Sunflower, Corn, Wheat Germ and Soybean Oils
- Foods deep fried in above oils (most restaurants fry in industrial soybean oil)
- Mayo, Dressings, Margarines/Spreads made from above oils
- Mass-produced pastry and dessert items made with above oils (candy, cookies, cakes, brownies, muffins, breads, ice creams)
- Mass-produced snack foods made with above oils (chips, crackers, bars, cereals, processed cheese)
- Processed Meats (hot dogs, sausage, deli meats, bacon)
- Fatty cuts of grain fed meat
These contain lower amounts of omega 6 and higher amounts of omega 3s (predominantly ALA) compared to the list above. Those with the best ratios are near the top. Substitute these (or foods that contain them) for high omega 6 foods:
- Olive, Canola, Avocado, Coconut, Walnut and Cod Liver Oils
- Omega 3 fortified Eggs and Dairy
- Flaxseed, Chia Seed, Walnuts
- Cruciferous veggies, Kale, Spinach
- Non-fortified Eggs and Dairy
- Lean, non-processed Meats/Poultry
- All other Nuts and Seeds
- Omega 3 fortified Whole Grain Products
To achieve a healthy balance of omega fatty acids, ignore packaging claims and use the knowledge you now possess to make smart food choices.
Sources: WebMD.com, healthline.com