Omega-3 versus Omega-6 Fatty Acids
The story of Omega-3 versus Omega-6 fatty acids for our health stated in its simplest form (Gunnars, 2014):
A diet low in Omega-3s but high in Omega-6 but low in Omega-3 produces excessive inflammation.
A diet that includes a balanced amount of each reduces inflammation.
People eating the Standard American Diet (SAD) are consuming a much higher level of Omega-6s relative to Omega-3s and the excessive inflammation resulting from this imbalance causes a whole range of serious health problems – including heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimers, many types of cancers, and others.
Metabolic Syndrome: Conditions occurring together (high blood pressure, high blood sugar level, excess fat around the waist, abnormal cholesterol levels) that increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
Both Omega-6 and Omega-3 essential fatty acids are poly-unsaturated types of oils the human body doesn’t have the enzymes to produce for itself so we must get them from our diets or supplements. These types of fatty acids differ from most other fats in that they are not simply used for energy. They are biologically active, playing essential roles in processes such as blood clotting and inflammation. Without both Omega-3s and Omega-6s in proper ratio, we are highly likely to become sick.
EFFECTS OF OMEGA-3 DEFICIENCY BENEFITS OF OMEGA-3 ESSENTIAL FATTY ACIDS (Watson, 2014) Omega-3 essential fatty acids support heart, brain and mental health; reduce cancer risk and help cancer patients recover; help prevent and ease arthritis; reduce the risk of eye problems; and keep the skin and scalp healthy.
Omega-3s and Heart Health. OMEGA-3s FOR HEART HEALTH
Help lower cholesterol levels
Reduce triglycerides (unhealthy fats in the blood) by as much as 30%. High triglyceride levels are linked to an increased risk for cardiovascular disease.
Decrease the risk of arrhythmias (abnormal heartbeats) which can lead to sudden death
Can help prevent blood clots from forming, breaking off and blocking an artery to the heart (causing a heart attack) or an artery to the brain (causing a stroke
Can slightly lower blood pressure – high blood pressure is another risk factor for heart disease.
Reduce inflammation all over the body, helping prevent blocked arteries.
Prevent the re-narrowing (re-stenosis) of coronary arteries after angioplasty surgery.
OMEGA-3 AND CANCER
Fish oils, high in Omega-3 fatty acids, have been found to suppress the grown of certain types of cancers in animals.
May reduce the risk of hormone-fueled cancers such as breast cancer
May inhibit the growth of lung, prostate and colorectal cancers.
May help cancer patients survive their disease
Since there is a known link between excessive inflammation in the body and the development of certain cancers, Omega-3s likely reduce the risk of developing all cancers.
Omega-3 fatty acid is a crucial nutrient for the brain and for good mental health. Countries where people eat more fish report fewer cases of depression. OMEGA-3 AND MENTAL HEALTH
Omega-3 fatty acids promote blood flow in the brain and are essential for brain health.
People getting insufficient Omega-3s in their diet are at increased risk of developing dementia, depression, ADD, dyslexia and schizophrenia.
Omega-3s keep the synapses (tiny gaps across which nerve impulses must pass) in the brain working properly. Nerve impulses need to get through the membrane surrounding the neurons in the brain – and the cell membranes are made mostly of fats, including Omega-3s.
Omega-3 fatty acids improve learning and memory.
They improve mood in people who are depressed.
They fight age-related cognitive decline due to dementia.
Infants require DHA so their brains develop properly, especially during the first two years of life.
A study found that babies born to mother with higher DHA blood levels scored higher on tests of attention and learning than those whose mothers had lower DHA levels.
Another study found that children of mothers who had taken fish oil supplements during pregnancy had higher IQs than the children of mothers who took a placebo.
Roasted Cauliflower for Arthritis: A cup of cauliflower contains 0.2 grams of Omega-3s – 8% of the recommended daily value. OMEGA-3 AND ARTHRITIS
Arthritis is the result of the immune system’s autoimmune (abnormal) response to the body’s own joints – as if they were infectious agents, foreign invaders needing to be destroyed. The resulting inflammation produces swollen, stiff, painful joints.
Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation throughout the body.
The body also converts Omega-3s to even more potent anti-inflammatory compounds such as resolvins (a family of bioactive products).
Arthritic patients taking Omega-3s have been able to reduce – or even stop – using corticosteroids and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
Foods containing Omega-3 fatty acids (including salmon, flax seeds, and walnuts) have been known to give skin an almost instant glow. OMEGA-3 AND THE SKIN
Omega-3 fatty acids, especially eisosapentaenoic acid (EPA), are essential for healthy skin and hair. EPA helps regulate oil production, keeping the skin hydrated.
Omega-3s protect the skin from damaging ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. UV exposure produces harmful substances called free radicals, which damage cells and can lead to premature aging and cancer. Omega-3s act as an antioxidant protecting the body from these free radicals.
Omega-3s also help repair skin damage by preventing the release of enzymes that destroy collagen.
Research suggests that Omega-3’s help prevent certain types of skin cancer.
The anti-inflammatory properties of Omega-3s help relieve autoimmune responses expressed through the skin – such as rosacea, psoriasis and eczema.
Insufficient Omega-3 levels can cause the scalp to get dry and flaky (dandruff) and the hair to lose its luster.
Omega-3s can also be given to pets to improve their skin and coat health.
“Omega-3 fatty acids are most important, as they bring balance to our hormones, reduce inflammation, regulate our blood sugar, prevent blood clotting, keep our cholesterol and triglycerides in balance, relax our blood vessels, and and make our cells healthy and resilient.”– The Natural Hormone Makeover by Phuli Cohan
TYPES OF OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS FOUND IN NATURE The principal Omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFA’s) are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid ( DHA), primarily found in certain fish. α-Linolenic acid (ALA), another Omega-3 fatty acid, is found in plants such as nuts and seeds. Wikipedia’s entry for Omega-3 fatty acid lists these as the most common Omega-3 fatty acids found in nature (Wikipedia, 8/28/2014): Hexadecatrienoic acid (HTA) α-Linolenic acid (ALA) Stearidonic acid (SDA) Eicosatrienoic acid (ETE) Eicosatetraenoic acid (ETA) Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) Heneicosapentaenoic acid (HPA) Docosapentaenoic acid (DPA), Clupanodonic acid Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) Tetracosapentaenoic acid Tetracosahexaenoic acid (Nisinic acid)
FOODS NATURALLY HIGH IN OMEGA-3 ESSENTIAL FATTY ACIDS
Foods high in Omega-3s are naturally delicious to the palate. Foods Rich in Omega-3s: SEAFOOD:
FRESH PRODUCE CONTAINING ALA OMEGA-3s: Vegetables, especially green leafy ones, are rich in ALA, a form of Omega-3 fatty acids. Although ALA isn’t as powerful as the other Omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA, these vegetables also have fiber and other nutrients, as well as Omega-3s.
OILS CONTAINING ALA OMEGA-3s:
Cod liver oil
Here are some charts to help you make good choices.
SOURCES OF OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS: ALA , EPA and DHA are most common Omega-3 fatty acids, generally found in sea food. ***********
9 FOODS RICH IN OMEGA-3s
Foods that are rich in Omega-3 fats, fiber and antioxidants top the list of foods to include in your diet.
Seafood sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids. ) You can check out the Omega-3 foods you commonly eat on SELFNutritionData’s comprehensive list of the FOODS HIGHEST IN TOTAL OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS. (Millen, 2014-a)
SOURCES OF OMEGA-3s FOR VEGETARIANS AND VEGANS
Vegetarians and vegans can obtain adequate levels of Omega-3s without eating fish or fish oil-based supplements.
The table below summarizes some of the basic relationships between Omega-3s and types of diet:
The evening primrose flower (O. biennis) produces an oil containing a high content of γ-linolenic acid, a type of Omega−6 fatty acid. OMEGA-6 FATTY ACIDS
Elevated Omega-6 intakes are associated with an increase in ALL inflammatory diseases – which is to say virtually all diseases. The list includes – but isn’t limited to (Kresser, 2014?): Cardiovascular Disease
Type 2 Diabetes
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
All Autoimmune Diseases
For more information on the role of inflammation in the development of disease, see INFLAMMATION. For a list of 80 autoimmune and autoimmune related diseases, see AUTOIMMUNE DISORDERS. Four major food oils (palm, soybean, rapeseed and sunflower) provide more than 100 million metric tons annually, yielding over 32 million metric tons of Omega-6 linoleic acid (LA) and 4 million metric tons of Omega-3 alpha-linoleic acid (ALA). Dietary sources of Omega-6 fatty acids include:
most vegetable oils
OMEGA-6 TO OMEGA-3 RATIO A distorted ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids is a hallmark of the Western diet – and one of its most damaging characteristics. The Standard American Diet (bearing the apt acronym ‘SAD’) has us consuming huge amounts of Omega-6s and way too few Omega-3s.
The Standard American Diet (SAD) – too little Omega-3 and way too much Omega-6 Our Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio tends to be 25 times higher than it should be. Small wonder we are ill with ailments from allergies to heart disease to cancers. (Kresser, 2014?) Omega-6 is pro-inflammatory. Omega-3s are neutral. Diets containing a lot of Omega-6 and little Omega-3 increase inflammation. Diets containing a lot of Omega-3 and little Omega-6 reduce inflammation. The human body requires both Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids to perform many essential functions. Omega-6 is found mostly in plant oils such as corn, soybean, and sunflower oils as well as in nuts and seeds. The American Heart Association recommends we consume about 5-10% of our food calories from Omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3s come primarily from fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel as well as from walnuts and flax seeds. The American Heart Association recommends that people without coronary heart disease have at least two servings of fatty fish per week. They recommend that people with known coronary heart disease eat more, about 1 gram of EPA and DHA daily, preferably from fatty fish. (Jaret, 2014) This chart shows how Omega-6 fatty acids promote inflammation in the body and how Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory. Omega-6 contains linoleic acid (LA) while Omega-3s contain alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) yielding EPA and DHA. FATTY ACID PATHWAYS IN THE BODY: How OMEGA-6 fatty acids become inflammatory in the body & OMEGA-3s become anti-inflammatory
FATTY ACID PATHWAYS IN THE BODY: How OMEGA-6 fatty acids become inflammatory in the body & OMEGA-3s become anti-inflammatory Linoleic acid (LA), the shortest-chained Omega-6, is an essential fatty acid. Arachidonic acid is a physiologically significant Omega 6, the precursor for prostaglandins (mediator cells with a variety of regulatory functions in the body), endocannabinoids (a group of neuro-modulatory lipids), and other physiologically active molecules. Excess Omega-6 fatty acids from vegetable oils interfere with the health benefits of Omega-3 fats, in part because they compete for the same rate-limiting enzymes. A high proportion of Omega-6 to Omega-3 shifts the physiological state in the tissues to become pro-thrombotic, pro-inflammatory and pro-constrictive – and hence push bodily tissues toward the development of many diseases. (Wikipedia, 7/19/14) A chart showing the Omega-6 versus Omega-3 contents of various food oils – you can see that fish oils are the healthiest (anti-inflammatory) for us while safflower and sunflower oils are the unhealthiest (inflammatory): To correct a poor intake ratio, you can supplement with Omega-3 fatty acids or eat lots wild fish, while avoiding the polyunsaturated fatty acids that have high levels of Omega-6s.
To correct a poor intake ratio, you can supplement with Omega-3 fatty acids or eat lots wild fish, while avoiding the polyunsaturated fatty acids that have high levels of Omega-6s. The graphic below provides an inkling of how our diet is making us sick: Industrially produced eggs deliver 20 times more Omega-6 than Omega-3 while the ratio for range-fed eggs is much more balanced. Industrially produced beef delivers 21 times more Omega-6 than Omega-3 while the ratio for grass-fed beef is considerably better.
Add to that the vast amounts of potato chips, French fries, micro-wave popcorn, margarine, most salad dressings, frying oils, and processed foods we consume and it’s not at all surprising that chronic, degenerative diseases pervade our culture. You can check out the Omega-6 foods you commonly eat on SELFNutritionData’s comprehensive list of the FOODS HIGHEST IN TOTAL OMEGA-6 FATTY ACIDS. (Millen, 2014-b)
Joseph Hibbeln, MD, a researcher studying Omega-3 and Omega-6 intake at the National Institute of Health (NIH) observed about the rising intake of Omega-6: The increases in world linolaic acid (LA) consumption over the past century may be considered a very large uncontrolled experiment that may have contributed to increased societal burdens of aggression, depression and cardiovascular mortality. (Kresser, 2014?) OMEGA-3 SUPPLEMENTS
Omega-3 supplements must be taken in a form that delivers the fatty acids in a bio-available form or your body won’t be able to get the benefits. These are some high quality Omega-3 supplements recommended by my health care providers to augment my Omega-3 intake from foods:
Carlson’s Super Omega-3 Fish Oil Concentrate 1,000mg soft gels
The dose for me is 1 soft gel 2x/day.
NutraSea 2X Concentrated 1250 mg EPA + DHA
The dose for me is 1 soft gel 3x/day.
This company also makes a vegan version. It’s a liquid, not a soft gel. I don’t know the dosage.
Integrative Therapeutics’ Eskimo-3 Fish Oil gel caps
The dose for me is 2 gel caps 2x/day.
In addition to Omega-6 fatty acids, most polyunsaturated oils are highly prone to oxidation and rancidity, which turns these so-called ‘heart healthy’ oils to toxic liquids. ******************** REFERENCES Cohan, P. (2008). The Natural hormone Makeover: 10 Steps to Rejuvenate Your Health and Rediscover Your Inner Glow. See: http://www.amazon.com/The-Natural-Hormone-Makeover-Rejuvenate/dp/0471744840 Gunnars, K. (2014). How to Optimize Your Omega-6 to Omega-3 Ratio. Authority Nutrition: An Evidence-Based Approach. See: http://authoritynutrition.com/optimize-omega-6-omega-3-ratio/ Jaret, P. (2014). Understanding the Omega Fatty Acids. WebMD. See: http://www.webmd.com/diet/healthy-kitchen-11/omega-fatty-acids Kresser, C. (2014?). How too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3 is making us sick. See: http://chriskresser.com/how-too-much-omega-6-and-not-enough-omega-3-is-making-us-sick Millen, K. (2014-a). Foods Highest in Total Omega-6 Fatty Acids. SELFNutritionData. See: http://nutritiondata.self.com/foods-000140000000000000000.html Millen, K. (2014-b). Foods Highest in Total Omega-6 Fatty Acids. SELFNutritionData. See: http://nutritiondata.self.com/foods-000141000000000000000-1w.html Watson, S. (2014). Benefits of Omega-3. How Stuff Works. See: http://health.howstuffworks.com/wellness/food-nutrition/facts/benefits-of-omega-31.htm Wikipedia. (8/28/2014). Omega-3 fatty acid. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omega-3_fatty_acid#List_of_omega-3_fatty_acids Wikipedia. (7/19/2014). Omega-6 fatty acid. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omega-6_fatty_acid © Copyright 2014 Joan Rothchild Hardin. All Rights Reserved.
DISCLAIMER: Nothing on this site or blog is intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Comments submitted prior to 8/25/2021
Thanks for this very informative blog, Joan. It’s good to know that flaxseeds and walnuts are so high in Omega 3’s. We vegans have to stay up on our nutrients to make sure we eat enough of the right foods. I recently decided to forego added vegetable oils (mostly Omega 6) as much as possible and get my fats from whole foods such as avocado, nuts and
seeds and nut and seed butters. Delicious, and healthy! I made babaganoush with eggplants from the farmers market, plus garlic, tahini, lemon juice and sea salt. Amazing, and our Lebanese friends raved at the tennis social.
In reply to Sonnische
I’m so glad you’re eschewing Omega-6 vegetable oils in favor of real foods high in Omega-3’s! Your body will thank you. Your baba ganoush sounds fabulous!
A few people have asked about the Omega-3 vs Omega-6 content of olive oil and coconut oil.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
OLIVE OIL – CONTAINS MOSTLY MONOUNSATURED FAT, SOME POLYUNSATURED FAT,
SOME SATURATED FAT, ZERO TRANS FAT
Olive Oil contains both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are important in preventing cardiovascular disease and are particularly high in oily fish such as salmon and flax seed oil. There is currently debate about how much omega-3 versus omega-6 one should have in their diet. According to the Merck Manual, an authoritative medical text, essential fatty acids should make up 1-2% of the dietary calories for adults with a suggested ratio of 10:1 for omega-6:omega-3 fatty acids. Olive oil is on average 10% linoleic acid (an omega-6 oil) and less than 1% linolenic acid (an omega-3 oil), therefore the ratio is 10:1 on
average. If you were using only olive oil for your dietary fat and fats represented 30% of the calories in your diet, then you would be getting 3% of your calories in the form of essential fatty acids in a 10:1 ratio. Other more recent studies suggest closer to a 5:1 ratio would be
A large body of literature spanning numberous cohorts from many countries and with different demographic characteristics does not provide evidence to suggest a significant association between omega-3 fatty acids and cancer incidence. Omega-3 fatty acids are unlikely to
prevent cancer. JAMA 2006;295:403-415 http://www.jama.com– from “Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids”. See: http://www.oliveoilsource.com/definition/omega-3-and-omega-6-fatty-acids
COCONUT OIL – A SATURATED FAT WITH MANY HEALTH BENEFITS
Coconut oil is saturated fat that has been consumed in tropical places for thousands of years. Studies done on native diets high in coconut oil consumption show that these populations are generally in good health, and don’t suffer as much from many of the modern diseases of western nations. Coconut oil was once believed to be unhealthy because of its high saturated fat content. It is now known that the fat in coconut oil is unique and different from other fats and possesses many healthy benefits. It is now being recognized as a nutritious health food – one of the healthy fats. What makes coconut oil different from all other oils, especially other saturated fats? What Makes Coconut Oil Special The difference is in the fat molecule. All fats and oils are composed of molecules called fatty acids. There are two methods of classifying fatty acids. The first is based on saturation. You have saturated fats, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats.
Another system of classification is based on molecular size or length of the carbon chain within each fatty acid. Fatty acids consist of long chains of carbon atoms with hydrogen atoms attached. In this system, you have short-chain fatty acides (SCFA), medium-chain fatty acids (MDFA), and long chain fatty acids (MCFA), also known as medium-chain triglycerides (MCT). The vast majority of fats and oils in our diets, whether they are saturated or unsaturated come from animals or plants, and are made up of long-chain fatty acids (LCFA). Some 98 to 100% of all the fatty acids consumed are long-chain fatty acids (LCFA). The size of the fatty acid is extremely important. Why? Because our bodies respond to and metabolize each fatty acid differently depending on its size. So the effects of MCFA in coconut oil are very different from those of LCFA more commonly found in our foods. The saturated fatty
acids in coconut oil are predominately medium-chain fatty acids. Both the saturated and unsaturated fat found in meat, milk, eggs and plants (including most all vegetable oils) are made up of LCFA. MCFA are very different from LCFA. They do not have a negative effect
on cholesterol and help to protect against heart disease. MCFA help to lower the risk of both atherosclerosis and heart disease. It is primarily due to the MCFA in coconut oil that makes it a healthy fat and beneficial to our health. There are only a very few good dietary sources of MCFA. By far the best sources are from coconut oil and palm kernal oils. Much research on the nutritional and medicinal benefits of coconut oil has surfaced in recent years. Much of that research has been done by Dr. Mary Enig. Dr. Enig has classified coconuts as a “functional food,” which provides health benefits over and beyond the basic nutrients. In
other words, it is a healthy fat! She has specifically identified lauric acid as a key ingredient in coconut products: “Approximately 50% of the fatty acids in coconut fat are lauric acide. Lauric acid is a medium chain fatty acid, which has the additional beneficial function of being formed into monolaurin in the human or animal body. Monolaurin is the anti-viral, antibacterial, and antiprotozoal monoglyceride used by the human or animal to destroy lipid
coated viruses such as HIV, herpes, cytomegalovirus, influenza, various pathogenic bacteria including listeria monocytogenes and heliobacter pylori, and protozoa such as giaradia lambia. Some studies have also shouwn some antimicrobial effects of the free lauric acid.”
Even though coconut oil is a healthy fat, it is important to use unrefined coconut oil to get the best and most nutritious oil.
– From “Healthy Fats – Omega 3, 6, 7, 9 and Coconut Oil”.