Omega 3’s vs. Omega-6s: What you need to know

Top view of different types of hummusRemember when fat used to be a dirty word? We’re looking at you, 1990s fad diets. The truth is, we as Americans were misguided by bad information. Somewhere along the way, we were taught to believe that all fats are created equally. In reality that couldn’t be further from the truth. Any knowledgeable provider will tell you that certain so-called “good” fats are essential for achieving and maintaining optimal health. You may be deficient in some of these fats. We’re talking about the good guys, omega-3s.

“Good” fats

For context, the major omega-3 fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). The latter are the fatty acids found in cold-water fish and fish oils are a darling of the integrative nutrition community today. But they weren’t always in favor. Scientists first became interested in omega-3s while studying native peoples in Alaska known as the Inuit. This ethnic group eats nearly 10 pounds of meat and blubber a day, with almost no reports of cardiovascular disease! You read that right!

News flash: Fat isn’t the enemy. The researchers soon concluded that there had to be something about omega-3 fats that was different from other types. In contrast to omega-6 fats, it has health-promoting properties.

Benefits of omega-3s

Fast forward to today and the benefits of omega-3 oils are still being studied. However, we do have hard data that can guide patient care and outcomes. First, it’s known that omega-3 oils decrease VLDL (very low-density lipoproteins). These are the worst of the worst when it comes to causing coronary artery disease. In other words, eating foods rich in omega-3s has the effect of lowering triglycerides, the fat found in your blood.

Secondly, omega-3 oils are helpful in that they promote the production of good prostaglandins over bad prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are hormone-like substances that serve many functions in the body. The good ones make blood more “slippery” and tend to relax the smooth muscles in blood vessels, promoting good cardiovascular health. Of course, this is an overly simplified explanation, but you get the idea.

Other research indicates that increasing omega-3 oils and decreasing omega-6 oils (most vegetable oils) decreases the risk of cancer. The benefits of eating omega-3 oils extend into other diseases as well, including arthritis, asthma, depression, and possibly bipolar disorders. As the saying goes, “you are what you eat,” and omega-3s can really help you in the quest for a long, healthy and happy life.

“Bad” fats

Some research suggests that early humans consumed equal amounts of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in their diets and that this was beneficial to their health. But we’re no longer hunters and gatherers and our bodies work differently than they did centuries ago. Today, many people in the U.S. eat far more omega-6s than omega-3s. Researchers believe that the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats in a typical Western diet is 20-to-1 or higher. Wow!

A lot of omega-6 fats are “hidden,” in that they’re found in common processed foods such as cookies and crackers, as well as in fast food and fried foods. You can also find them in safflower oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, soybean oil, sunflower seeds, walnuts and pumpkin seeds.

Just as omega-3s might be a boon to health, omega-6s can have adverse effects. For instance, a 2018 study found an association between a higher dietary intake of omega-6 fats and inflammation associated with tissue damage and disease. What’s more, the Arthritis Foundation claims that omega-6 fatty acids may trigger the body’s production of pro-inflammatory substances, potentially worsening symptoms in people with arthritis. Other data has linked diets high in omega-6 fats to obesity.

Dietary changes

Now for the good news? Armed with this information, you can make better choices when meal planning. For example, organic meat and milk differ markedly from their conventionally produced counterparts in measures of certain nutrients. In particular, levels of omega-3 fatty acids were 50 percent higher in the organic versions. The higher levels of omega-3 are because organic milk and beef come from cattle that graze on grass, while most conventional milk and beef come from grain-fed cows.

It’s recommended that Americans do their best to ensure that no more than 5% to 10% of their daily calories come from omega-6 fats. For someone consuming 2,000 calories a day, that translates into 11 to 22 grams. A salad dressing made with one tablespoon of safflower oil gives you 9 grams of omega-6 fats; one ounce of sunflower seeds, 9 grams; one ounce of walnuts, 11 grams. On the other hand, omega-3 fats can be readily found in oily fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, and sardines; fish oil and flaxseed oil; flaxseeds, walnuts, and chia seeds.

If you still have questions about omega-3 and omega-6 fats and how they might affect your health, we’re just a phone call away. (703) 822-5003