Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids: The Scoop You Didn’t Know

Over the past few years, omega-3 fatty acids have received a lot of attention and promotion. Yet when you pick up your supplements at the local pharmacy or health food store, the label includes omega-3’s, omega-6’s omega-9’s and oh my mega confusion! What is the difference between these essential fatty acids and what is this talk about keeping a ratio? This blog will help demystify the omega-3 fatty acids versus omega-6 fatty acids confusion. Find out if you need to add omegas to your nutritional intake and which omega.

The Difference Between Omega-3 and Omega-6

Both omega-3 and omega-6 are termed ‘essential fatty acids’ (EFA), since our bodies cannot readily produce these, we must obtain them through foods or supplements.

While there are many types, the three most common omega-3 fatty acids are Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA), Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA), and Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA). DHA and EPA are mainly found in cold-water fish like tuna, salmon, and sardines, while ALA is found in plant sources like canola oil, walnuts, flaxseed, and soybeans. Unlike DHA or EPA, which can be readily absorbed by our bodies, ALA from plant sources like seeds, nuts or vegetable oils are only partially converted (about ten percent) by our bodies into the beneficial forms EPA and then DHA. Studies have shown that the health benefits of EPA and DHA are greater than ALA. Therefore, the goal is to try to get Omega 3 FA’s in the form of DHA and EPA.

Unlike omega-3‘s, omega-6‘s consists of only one type of fatty acid, Linoleic Acid (LA), which is later converted into Gamma-Linolenic Acid (GLA). As opposed to omega-3‘s, getting omega-6‘s from the foods we eat daily, is rather simple. LA is commonly found in seed oils like corn, canola, sunflower and soy — ingredients found in many of the processed foods Americans typically consume in abundance. The better sources of omega-6’s include raw nuts, like pistachios and seeds like chia. Since Americans typically consume much more of the fatty acid omega-6, it is more important for one to focus on including omega-3 fatty acids in their diet or through their supplement. However, for an individual following a low processed food lifestyle such as a paleo, vegan or vegetarian diet, omega-6’s must be included. A great source of an omega-6 fatty acid is the seed known as chia.

Helpful Hint: Two tablespoons of chia seeds provide a 3:1 ratio of omega-3:omega-6 FA. With 3x more omega-3 than omega-6, adding chia seeds to a diet can help an individual reach optimal health by balancing out the ratio of fatty-acid intake in one’s daily nutrition.

Both Are Beneficial

Omega-3’s have been found to lower the risk factors for heart disease and cancer, as well as have anti-inflammatory properties (whereas some omega-6 can contribute to inflammation). This fatty acid is necessary for brain function, healthy development of nerves and eyesight. Omega-3’s have been linked to the prevention and treatment of several other conditions like arthritis, ADHD, Alzheimer’s, depression, diabetes, high cholesterol and blood pressure, diabetes, stroke and osteoporosis to name a few.

Omega-6’s provide a defense against and can aid in reducing symptoms in diabetic neuropathy, rheumatoid arthritis, eczema, allergies and high blood pressure. Studies also show that consuming 5-10 percent of energy from omega-6’s may help decrease the risk of CHD and cardiovascular disease.

Together, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids produce many of the health benefits described above. The catch? Eating them in the right amounts.

As In Most Things, Balance Is Key

In today’s society, the convenience of fast-food and heavily processed snacks makes for a not-so convenient way for us to maintain a balanced consumption of both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Most processed foods contain a high amount of omega-6 and data shows that a Western diet may contain too much omega-6 fatty acids. If we recall, some omega-6’s may promote inflammatory properties but too much can result in inflammation. Recent research suggests that this imbalance may contribute to health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and more. One such study shows that while the dietary intake of omega-3:omega-6 ratio should range from 1:1-4 for optimal health, the evolutionary changes in the Western diet has led to an increase in consumption range of 1:10-20. To reach a healthier balance between the two, experts suggest that a lower ratio of omega-3/omega-6 fatty acids is more desirable for reducing the risk of many chronic diseases.

However, just as important as it is to consume a healthy ratio of the two, it is equally important especially for vegetarians and vegans, to consume enough essential fatty acids as to prevent deficiencies. Remember, as remarkable as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids exhibit in aiding our brain development, immune system function and blood pressure regulation, sources should be consumed in healthy moderation!

Take Home Message:
Aim for a dietary intake with a ratio of 1 omega-3 FA : 1-4 omega-6 FA.

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