I talk about omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids often. I’m passionate about educating people about how these compounds affect your body and your health.
I often get really great questions from readers about omega-3s and omega-6s—questions that I’m sure many others wonder about as well. This is why I’ve decided to write a two-part “back to basics” series on these essential fatty acids. Today, I’m going to explain what essential fatty acids are, the differences between omega-3s and -6s, how they work, and more.
Essential fatty acids defined…
The body can make most of the fats it needs to function. But certain fats—known as essential fatty acids (EFAs)—must come from the diet alone. Our bodies don’t have the necessary enzymes to make them. Such is the case with the omega-3 and omega-6 families of fatty acids.
Types of omega-3 EFAs
Within each family of fatty acid, there are specific fatty acids that come from different parts of our food supply. For example, there are a few types of omega-3 fatty acids; the most common omega-3s are alpha linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
ALA is found in plants, primarily flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and their oils. EPA and DHA are called long-chain omega-3 fatty acids because they have 20 or more carbons in their structure. These fatty acids are found in fatty fish such as albacore tuna, herring, salmon, mackerel, sardines, and trout. Most scientific and clinical studies carried out to date have examined the effectiveness of these long-chain omega-3s found in fish. Consequently, most scientists who work in this area believe these are the omega-3s that have the greatest anti-inflammatory and brain-protective benefits.
ALA is a plant-based precursor to EPA and DHA, meaning your body in some cases can convert it into EPA and DHA. However, some research has shown that this conversion is not all that effective, and credible studies indicate that individual humans have dramatically different capacities to carry out this conversion. So to be safe, most studies indicate that you are better off getting your omega-3s from fish rather than plant sources.
Types of omega-6 EFAs
There are also several commonly found omega-6 fatty acids that include linoleic acid (LA), gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), and arachidonic acid (AA). LA is by far the most common fatty acid found in the human food supply. It is a primary fatty acid found in cooking oils, including vegetable, corn, canola, peanut, soybean, safflower, and sunflower. GLA is in less common oils—mainly borage, black currant seed, and evening primrose. AA is found in red meat, eggs, and poultry products.
The proper omega-6:omega-3 ratio
Do we need both omega-6s and omega-3s in our diet? The short answer is, yes, we do. Our body requires both of these fatty acids for proper growth, immune response, repair, and brain development.
However, omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids have very different functions. Omega-6 fatty acids are the precursors of several molecules that cause inflammation, which we now know is the primary driver of most human diseases. In addition to inflammation, omega-6 fatty acids impact blood clotting and cell growth.
In contrast, the omega-3 fatty acids—and especially the long-chain omega-3s—reduce inflammation and blood clotting and are critical for brain development and function. When both families of fatty acids are in balance, good health results.
But herein lies the problem.
The standard American diet is very high in omega-6s, particularly LA. Especially in the past several decades, with the rise of LA-enriched cooking oils and processed foods, our intake of omega-6s has skyrocketed. In fact, the amount of omega-6s we ate 50 years ago represented about 1.5 percent of our calories. Today, it’s an astounding 7-10 percent. There is no single nutrient in the modern Western diet that has increased so dramatically over the past 50 years as omega-6 fatty acids.
Since omega-6 fatty acids are converted to pro-inflammatory molecules, several studies suggest that this high omega-6 (and, comparatively speaking, low omega-3) intake is increasing our risk of systemic inflammation and inflammatory diseases—Alzheimer’s, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, and asthma, to name a few.
Today, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is typically 10 to 1 or greater. Ideally, your ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids should be closer to 2 to 1. But with vegetable oils and processed foods so common in the standard American diet, even the most diligent dieter tends to consume way more omega-6s than necessary. This imbalance both reduces the amount of omega-3s in circulation and in tissues, and overrides the powerful and important benefits of omega-3s that you do get in your diet.
To tip the scales in favor of anti-inflammatory omega-3s, you need to limit processed foods and vegetable-based oils, while at the same time consuming more of the omega-3 rich foods listed above. And as an extra insurance policy, I take an omega-3 supplement every day.
Now that you have this basic primer on omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, next week I’ll discuss the difference between the omega-3s EPA and DHA and why both are so important to good health.