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Nothing Fishy About It: The Importance of Your Omega-6 to Omega-3 Fatty Acid Ratio

This week’s blog is a deeper dive into a subject that was mentioned in our previous post on dietary fat. The importance of paying attention to your Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acid ratio. If you haven’t read my previous post on dietary fat, I suggest you check it out for a general background discussion on fat. You can find it here:

Of all the different types of fatty acids, there are two that are considered essential to human health: linoleic acid (LA), an omega-6 fat, and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fat. This means that our bodies cannot make these fats on their own, but we need to consume it. The balance between these two essential fatty acids is delicate, however, and if out of balance there can be negative health consequences. Before the industrialization of food in the last century, scientists estimate that the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats in the human diet averaged between 1:1 and 4:1.2. Today, the standard American diet is highly shifted toward omega-6 fats. This is largely attributed to the substituting of animal fats in the standard US diet with vegetable oils in processed foods, margarines, salad dressings, and others. As a consequence of these dietary changes, the current omega-6 to omega-3 ratio has reached an all-time high and is estimated to be somewhere between 10:1 and 20:1.2

It currently is recommended that we strive for a ratio of 4:1 or less for optimal health.

Why is this important? The excess of omega-6 fats and the deficiency in omega-3s in the American diet is thought to be associated with today’s increased prevalence of chronic and inflammatory diseases, especially cardiovascular disease, as well as there being associations with obesity, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), and cancer.

Omega-6 and omega-3 fats carry out essential tasks. omega-6 fats tend to have a mostly proinflammatory effects, whereas omega-3 fats seem to elicit anti-inflammatory actions. We need some omega-6 and inflammation is lifesaving when appropriate, however when chronically elevated, there are many negative health consequences.

Excessive polyunsaturated fat intake can cause damage due to its high susceptibility of reacting with oxygen, resulting in harmful compounds responsible for oxidation and inflammation involved in the aging process.

What can we do to help correct our balance of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids? It is suggested that people eat omega-3–rich, cold-water fatty fish two to four times per week, or supplement with Omega-3 fish oil. I encourage marine sources of omega-3s over vegetable sources, such as flaxseeds, hemp, and chia seeds, as our bodies are limited in converting them into the all-important EPA and DHA. This is actually the information that personally played a big part in my leaving vegetarianism. Research findings consistently show that increased plant-based Omega-3 consumption can result in slightly higher EPA concentrations but sadly doesn’t seem to affect DHA levels. In fact, less than 5% of ALA gets converted to EPA, and less than 0.5% (one-half of one percent) of ALA is converted to DHA. In other words, plant-based Omega-3 does not convert to DHA well at all. Some experts even believe that DHA should be considered an essential fatty acid given our poor ability to convert ALA to DHA.

Hundreds of studies suggest that DHA may provide some benefits to a wide range of diseases ranging from cancer, asthma, depression, cardio cardiovascular disease, ADHD, to autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis. It is essential in brain development and brain health and improves cognition, learning ability, decreases risk for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia and improves eye health among other benefits. Let’s just say, it’s a big deal for health and wellness.

So, what can we do to correct our Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acid ratio? While it’s very important to include more food sources of omega-3 fats to glean the many health and anti-inflammatory benefits, reducing omega-6 fats in the diet is probably the most effective strategy to balancing the ratio.

This being said, an important point to make is that omega-6 fatty acids in natural whole foods are less likely to be associated with the negative consequences associated with high Omega-6 fat intake as in their whole food form, there are properties present that make them more stable as well as it is much harder to overconsume them in their whole form.

What are the take aways?

  • Omega-6 fats are essential in the right quantities; however, the western diet contains too many and too many are associated with inflammatory disease.

  • The majority of the overconsumption and negative health consequences are most likely associated with the high intake of processed oils and processed foods and these should be avoided.

  • Aim to increase your omega-3 containing foods, especially cold-water fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel and herring. Vegetable sources like flax and chia are good, but marine sources are much better.

Make sure and share this post with a friend who could benefit!


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