Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are just two of the essential nutrients our bodies need to function. Essential means our bodies can’t make them, so we have to get them from other sources, either through food or supplementation.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been researched for their cardiovascular and neurological benefits while omega-6 fatty acids have been linked to a number of diseases, such as cardiovascular , autoimmune , and irritable bowel disease (IBD.) But, why then if omega-6 fatty acids are essential, can they be so detrimental to our health? Well, as with many things in life, too much of anything is never good and this is especially true when it comes to omega-6 fatty acids. It’s all about balance.
By simply being aware of what foods in your diet contain omega-3s vs omega-6s, you can maintain a healthy balance of the two, allowing you to benefit from what each has to offer.
Omega-3 fatty acids consist of a long chain of fatty acids characterized by where the first double bond takes place, just three in from the left. These fatty acids go onto produce substances from the eicosanoid family that have a very healthy effect on our blood vessels. They not only dilate the blood vessels to allow for blood to flow through the body with ease but also act as an anti-inflammatory. It’s omega-3 fatty acid’s anti-inflammatory properties that make it extremely beneficial in optimizing health. A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids has been associated with low incidences of diseases, such as atherosclerosis , obesity , and diabetes . These powerful effects of omega-3 fatty acids were first seen in the Inuit population, whose diet consisted largely of cold-water fatty fish, known for being high in omega-3.
Another long chain of fatty acids, omega-6 fatty acids are also essential, but rather than dilate blood vessels as omega-3 fatty acids do, they cause them to contract, restricting the amount of space your blood has to flow through the body. Less space for blood volume not only reduces blood flow but also creates pressure within the blood vessels, increasing your blood pressure. As with other essential vitamins, such as iron, vitamin-D, and calcium, our body needs them to function, but only to a certain extent. When consumed in excess, omega-6 fatty acids can advance the progression of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), especially when they aren’t balanced out by their counterpart, omega-3. But when we consume omega-3 fatty acids, our body partially replaces the omega-6 fatty acids in our cells with the newly ingested omega-3.
The diets of our ancestors were not only less dense in calories and higher in fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, lean meat, and fish, but they also had an equal balance of omega- 6 to omega-3 essential fatty acids. Today we’re eating closer to a 15:1 ratio. Why? It can mostly be traced back to the evolution of modern agriculture, factory farming, and the food industry as a whole. Foods that would otherwise have a natural balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids have been tampered with by farmers to increase food production by adjusting the animal feed used for chicken, egg, and fish production. The consumer packaged goods industry’s emphasis on processed, grab n go snacks has also contributed to our disrupted ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. These snacks are packed with omega-6 fatty acids, filling our diets with more than we need to function. Given the changes in our diet, the way we shop, and food production, the 1:1 ratio of our ancestors or even the optimal range of 1:1: to 1:4 seems further and further away.
One study of fatty acids in the diet showed a strong correlation between a ratio closer to that of our ancestors and disease resistance. A ratio ranging from 3-4:1 showed a reduction in rectal cell proliferation in patients with colorectal cancer, lowered inflammation in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, and was linked to a 70 percent decrease in total mortality in those with cardiovascular disease. In asthma patients, a difference of just 5 degrees in favor of omega-6 fatty acids showed adverse effects. While scientists are still studying the exact ratio to optimize overall health, Parsley Health doctors and health coaches typically recommend a 1-3:1 ratio and help members figure out how exactly to do this in their diets.
Buy organic free-range eggs, milk, and meat.
Organic, free-range animal products contain higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids than conventional because of the feed they grow up on. A typical feed in conventional farming consists of cereal, soy, corn, and palm kernel cake, all of which contain below 10 percent omega-3 fatty acids, whereas those that are left to graze feed on plants, such as grass, red clover, and roughage, which contain 30 to 50 percent omega-3 fatty acids. A meta-analysis looking at fatty acids in organic versus conventional milk found a 58 percent higher concentration of omega-3 fatty acids in organic.
Pay attention to the source of your fish.
Aim for fresh, wild-caught fish as farmed fish contain less omega-3 fatty acids than those that have naturally grown in the ocean, rivers, and lakes. For options, try Sea to Table .
Swap your cooking oils.
Swapping the vegetable oils in your kitchen from those high in omega-6 (corn, safflower, sunflower, soybean, cottonseed) to oils high in omega-3 (flax, perilla, chia, rapeseed) and monounsaturated oils (olive, macadamia nut, hazelnut) is an easy way to start balancing your consumption. Also, keep an eye out for oils on the ingredients list of packaged foods and avoid ones that are high in omega-6s.
Helaine Schonfeld is a nutritionist and health coach with seven years of experience. She is comfortable supporting a wide range of health issues such as digestive issues, fertility, sports nutrition, and mold toxicity. She holds a Master’s of Science in Human Nutrition from the College of Saint Elizabeth.