There's a lot of misunderstandings out there about omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The most common misconception is that all omega-3s are anti-inflammatory and all omega-6s are inflammatory. I want to dispel that notion because you can get omega-3s and omega-6s that can be both anti-inflammatory as well as pro-inflammatory.
Where Do Omega-3s and Omega-6s Come From?
Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are two main types of polyunsaturated fats. These essential fatty acids are needed for healthy brain function and for building cell membranes. Our bodies are not able to make essential fatty acids on their own, so we need to get these from food.
Omega-3s and omega-6s both have short-chain and long-chain forms. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is the short-chain form of omega-3s, which can be found in plants. You can get ALA from flax seeds, chia seeds, and hemp seeds.
You probably know that omega-3s are also often found in fish. The omega-3s found in fish are called the eicosapentaenoic (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acids (DHA). These are the long-chain forms of omega-3.
Linoleic acid (LA) is the short-chain form of omega-6. You can commonly find omega-6s in seed and vegetable oils, like safflower oil, soybean oil, and grapeseed oil. The long-chain form of omega-6 is called arachidonic acid (AA), and you can get this from eggs and animal meat.
The Truth About Omega Fats
Many people believe that omega-3s are anti-inflammatory and omega-6s are inflammatory. This isn’t accurate. What’s true is:
1. First of all, inflammation is not always bad. There is a healthy kind of inflammation. Your body needs inflammation to help fight bugs and infections, so it is not necessarily a bad thing. Inflammation also helps repair cells, especially when you get injuries. This is a response that your body turns on when it needs it. Inflammation is bad for you when it becomes chronic.
2. Too much omega-6 consumption can increase your risk for chronic inflammation and that’s because it throws your omega-3 and omega-6 out of balance. One thing you need to watch out for is the ratio between your omega-3s and omega-6s.
The problem with the modern diet is people are consuming too much animal meat and vegetable oils, resulting in a very high omega-6/omega-3 ratio. When you have that ratio that's so skewed, then you are going to get inflammation where you don't need it. Studies have linked high omega-6/omega-3 ratio to an increased risk for obesity, depression, and chronic diseases.
The Healthy Omega-6 to Omega-3 Ratio and How to Get It
What you're seeing in modern American diets is often a ratio of 1:20 and 1:40 when it comes to their omega-3s and omega-6s. People are consuming way more omega-6 fats than omega-3 fats.
To correct this ratio, look at traditional diets. In the past, the common ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 is 1:3 or 1:2. That’s one part omega-3 to two part omega-6. Here are ways to help you improve your omega-3 and omega-6 balance:
1. Eat nuts and seeds.
Nuts and seeds are where you get the prime compounds. Flaxseed is an excellent source of omega-3s. Hemp seeds and hemp seed oil are also good because it has a 3:1 ratio of omega-6 and omega-3, which is close to what our ancestors ate. With hemp seed oil, you are getting both LA and ALA. For people in my medical practice whom I suspect have a relative essential fatty acid deficiency, I recommend hemp seed oil.
2. Avoid or reduce consumption of vegetable oils.
Vegetable oils like sunflower oil, cottonseed oil, soybean oil, and corn oil are all high in omega-6 fats. When you include these in your diet, they can easily mess up your omega-3 and omega-6 ratio, resulting in a ratio that is pro-inflammatory.
Another problem with vegetable oils is they’re mostly rancid. When you remove the fat from its original packaging in the nut or the seed, it oxidizes when exposed to oxygen. That means the oils will use up the antioxidants in your body to counteract the negative effects of these oxidized oils.
You need to be cautious when using oils because most what we find in a standard American diet are these omega-6 oils. Pay attention to packaged goods that have added oils. Most added oils are omega-6 oils.
3. If you’re going to use oils, go for high quality olive oil or coconut oil.
Limit to two to three tablespoons of these oils per day because one tablespoon of oil is 120 calories. If you’re buying olive oil, read these tips on how to choose your olive oil.
4. Have a handful of nuts per day.
I recommend two tablespoons of flax, chia or hemp seeds per day. Walnuts are also a good source of omega-3s. You will be getting the raw materials of all these other beneficial compounds that are created. These nuts and seeds provide the chemical foundation that leads to the formation of longer chain omega-3 and omega-6 compounds.
When you consume flaxseed, you're also getting lignans and fiber that are going to create additional benefits because they can feed the beneficial bacteria in your skin. Whole flaxseeds are not digestible unless ground, sprouted, or soaked.
When eating nuts, be careful not to overdo it. It’s easy to overeat nuts because they’re a tasty and easy snack. There are also a lot of people who overdo nut butters. Consuming too many nuts can also throw your omega-3 and omega-6 ratio out of balance. If you’re having a nut butter like almond butter, limit to just a large tablespoon per day. One tablespoon of nut butter is already equal to a handful of nuts.
5. The longer chain omega-3 fatty acids so beneficial for your brain are best eaten already formed in fish or as found in vegan algal DHA supplements.
The conversion of the ALA found in flax for example to the end product of DHA is variable in people, so convert a very small amount to DHA, so if you are vegan or don’t eat any fish, I recommend an algal DHA supplement.
If you have questions about omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids or how to improve your ratio, comment below or join the discussion on our Weight Loss Awakening Friendship Group on Facebook.