When it comes to understanding the omega fatty acids, things can get a bit complicated.
Are you getting the right amount of omega-3s? What about too much omega-6?
You’ve likely heard that omega-3s are the fats to get more of and that omega-6s are “bad for you.” But the truth is a little more nuanced than that. Learning about each fatty acid type and how they work in your body is a great place to start.
In the world of omega-3-6-9 fats, it’s much more important to balance your fatty acid ratio than condemn omega-6 fatty acids altogether. Here’s how it works.
Omega-3s are a type of fatty acid referred to as polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAS). There are two major classes of PUFAS — omega-3s and omega-6s.
The saturation, or unsaturation, of a fat comes from the number of hydrogens attached to the carbons of the fatty acid chain. In the case of omega-3s, there is “poly” unsaturation. Which means, there is more than one area of the chain that is not saturated with hydrogen.
These areas of unsaturation create what is known as “double bonds” in the fatty acid chain. When a fat has one double bond, it’s considered “mono-unsaturated,” when there are two or more they are “poly-unsaturated.”
If there are no double bonds, meaning the fatty acid chain is entirely saturated — you’ve got a saturated fat.
The “omega” distinguishes where on the fatty acid chain the final double bond occurs. In the case of omega-3 fatty acids that final double bond occurs three carbons from the end of the chain.
Omega-3 fats are essential fatty acids. That mostly means that your body can’t produce them on its own. Therefore, you need to get this type of fat from dietary sources[*].
There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids, which all have their own unique functions in your body.
EPA (Eicosapentaenoic Acid)
EPA contains 20 carbons and can be found most abundantly in fish and fish oils. The original source of EPA (as well as DHA), is microalgae. Fish consume the algae and become rich in these fatty acids.
DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid)
DHA contains 22 carbons and, similarly to EPA, is found mainly in fish and fish oils. DHA is particularly essential for brain health and development[*].
ALA (Alpha-linolenic Acid)
ALA contains 18 carbons and is found mainly in plant oils such as flaxseed, soybean and canola oils. ALA can serve as a precursor to both DHA and EPA; however, the conversion in the liver is not very strong[*]. That means that you’ll have to consume a lot more plant-based ALA if you want to get your omega-3 fatty acid quota for the day.
What do Omega-3s Do?
Omega-3s, as essential fatty acids, play a number of critical roles in your body, including:
Perhaps one of the most well-known benefits of omega-3 fatty acids is their impact on inflammation. With inflammation being the root cause of many chronic diseases, omega-3s can provide a significant level of support to your immune system[*].
Omega-3s seem to have a positive impact on blood lipids by decreasing total triglycerides. Studies conducted have found modest, if any reductions in total cholesterol, but support the idea that omega-3s may change the structure of cholesterol to be a less atherogenic form[*][*][*].
In addition, EPA and DHA in the diet are associated with lowered blood pressure — a key factor in the progression of heart disease[*].
Fatty Liver Disease
Fatty liver disease is a condition where fat accumulates in the liver either due to excessive alcohol consumption or other issues like metabolic dysfunction
When researchers gave a group of volunteers with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease omega-3 supplements, they found that liver fat concentrations decreased. More controlled trials are needed to understand the impact and mechanisms, but omega-3s seem to have a fat-lowering effect on the liver[*].
Omega-3s are excellent brain food. In fact, the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 in your blood can be a predictor of depression. Omega-3s have also been studied for their positive effects on psychiatric conditions like schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder[*][*][*].
This should come as no surprise, as omega-3s (especially DHA) are essential for the growth and development of your brain. Animal studies show that inadequate intake of omega-3s during growth and development can result in a deficit in brain development and neurotransmitter function[*].
A healthy diet is an essential component of any weight management program. While some foods can trigger weight gain, others support your metabolism and the burning of maintenance of fat tissue.
Research shows that consuming omega-3s along with an aerobic exercise program not only reduces risk factors for heart disease but can also reduce body fat[*].
As mentioned above, Omega-6 fatty acids are another type of polyunsaturated fat. Omega-6 fats tend to get a bad reputation, as the evil step-brother of omega-3 — but there’s more to the story.
While both omega-3 and omega-6 are PUFAs, omega-6 has its final double bond on the 6th to last carbon — hence the name omega-6. Omega-6 fats are also considered essential, so they need to be consumed in the diet.
Luckily (or maybe not), there isn’t much of a problem finding omega-6s in the standard Western diet. In fact, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is almost 15 times greater.
There are three main types of omega-6 fats to be aware of:
AA (Arachidonic Acid)
AA is found mainly in animals and fish oils. This fatty acid produces immune chemicals called eicosanoids, which can turn on the inflammatory response in your body. While omega-6s are sometimes frowned upon do their proinflammatory involvement, it’s important to understand the essential role of inflammation in your body.
When your immune system gets triggered, inflammation is a natural response to help protect the cells and tissues from infection or other insults. Inflammation only becomes a problem when the initial assault is not dealt with properly, and the inflammatory feedback loop doesn’t turn off[*].
LA (Linoleic Acid)
LA is found mainly in vegetable oils, including corn, evening primrose seed, safflower, and soybean oils. Of the omega-6 family, LA is the least well-understood. Some sources report that LA can help prevent cardiovascular disease, while others suggest that it may cause cancer[*][*].
A recent study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports that genetics seem to play a role in whether your body will respond well to this type of fat or not. Specifically, in the area of inflammation[*].
One known benefit of LA, however, is that it produces another type of omega-6 called GLA[*].
GLA (Gamma-Linolenic Acid)
GLA is found in evening primrose seed, borage, and black currant seed oils. Of the omega-6 fatty acids, GLA saves the day as far as reputation goes. Although this type of fat isn’t found in abundance in nature, it can be produced from LA in your body.
GLA is further metabolized in your body into DGLA, which can produce anti-inflammatory chemicals to help balance inflammation in your body. GLA also plays a role in immune function and can assist induce apoptosis — cell death[*].
What do Omega-6s Do?
GLA may have anti-estrogenic effects which assist in the fight against breast cancer. When combined with the cancer treatment drug, Tamoxifen, breast cancer patients experienced a decrease in estrogen receptor expression[*].
Rheumatoid Arthritis( RA)
As an anti-inflammatory modulator, GLA may assist in reducing inflammation and symptoms of RA. Administration of GLA to RA patients resulted in an improvement in signs and symptoms of disease activity, reducing the percent of tender joints and swollen joints by 36% and 28% respectively[*].
Much like their omega-3 counterparts, GLA seems to have a positive effect on several markers or heart disease.
One clinical trial showed that consuming GLA every day for four months resulted in decreased total and LDL cholesterol and increased HDL cholesterol. In addition, the GLA supplementation resulted in a 45% decrease in blood clotting[*].
Omega-9 fatty acids, also called monounsaturated fatty acids(MUFAs), differ from omega-3 and omega-6 in that they only have one (mono) double bond. Their double bond is located at the 9th to last carbon on the chain.
These types of fats are also not considered essential, as your body can produce them internally.
The most common and most well-studied type of MUFA is oleic acid, which has a number of health benefits attached to it.
What Do Omega-9s Do?
For diabetics, increasing insulin sensitivity could be the difference between needing medication, or managing through diet alone. Research shows that increasing dietary monounsaturated fat while decreasing saturated fat may have a beneficial effect on insulin sensitivity[*].
Furthermore, When a group of diabetic volunteers was put on a low-carb, high MUFA diet, they experienced decreased levels of both insulin and blood glucose[*].
Complex carbohydrates that are rich in fiber are often recommended for lowering serum cholesterol. MUFAs, however, may offer an even more effective option for bringing cholesterol levels down.
Research shows that while diets rich in both MUFAs and complex carbs seem to lower serum cholesterol levels, MUFA rich diets also raise HDL cholesterol and lower serum triglycerides. Complex carbs, meanwhile, seem to increase serum triglycerides[*].
As mentioned above, high blood pressure is one of the key contributors to heart disease.
In one study, researchers gave 23 hypertensive patients a diet high in either MUFAs (from olive oil)or PUFAs (from safflower oil) for six months. At the end of the six months, those consuming olive oil were not only able to reduce medication — but eight of them came off meds completely[*].
It’s no secret that people living in the Mediterranean have superior health markers compared to the standard American. One of the foods that gets the most shout-outs for the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet is olive oil.
Olive is particularly high in MUFAs, and specifically oleic acid.
When comparing different fat sources and obesity worldwide, the WHO (world health organization), reports that a diet high in MUFA is the best predictor for low levels of obesity among populations worldwide[*].
Many food sources include a combination of omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9, but some are higher in one or two than others. The goal in your diet should be to increase omega-3s, while possibly decreasing omega-6 for an optimal ratio.
Here’s a breakdown of foods that are rich in each of these fatty acids:
Foods High in Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fats are essential because your body can’t make them. Of all three fats, these are the ones you’re going to want to focus the most on in terms of diet.
ALA can be found in some seeds and seed oils, while DHA and EPA are almost strictly going to come from fish and fish oil.
Some foods high in omega-3s include:
- Salmon (EPA and DHA)
- Mackerel (EPA and DHA)
- Sardines (EPA and DHA)
- Herring (EPA and DHA)
- Krill oil (EPA and DHA)
- Chia seeds (ALA)
- Flax seeds (ALA)
- Walnuts (ALA)
Foods High in Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Your body can’t make omega-6 fatty acids, so they need to be consumed through your diet. This typically isn’t a problem for most people because omega-6s fats can be found in a wide variety of foods.
When it comes to omega-6 fats, make sure you’re getting them from healthy sources, and balancing them with enough omega-3s.
Some foods that are high in omega-6 include:
- Soybean oil (not recommended)
- Corn oil (not recommended)
- Sunflower seeds
- Almond oil
- Pumpkin seeds
Foods High in Omega-9 Fatty Acids
Although your body can make omega-9s internally, it’s always a good idea to get a variety of fat in your diet. Omega-9s can be found in a variety of nuts, seeds, and oils.
Some foods high in omega-9 include:
Taking a supplement to help reach the ideal ratio of omega 3-6-9 in your diet can be a good idea. However, you’re likely already getting enough omega-6 through the foods you eat.
As mentioned earlier, the standard American diet contains 15 times more omega-6 than omega-3, with the ideal ratio being 1:1.
Omega-9s are naturally produced through your body. While it’s a great idea to eat MUFA-rich foods, supplementation generally isn’t necessary.
Choosing a supplement that contains Omega-3, however, could be a helpful way to get your ratios in balance. Omega-3s are the most difficult of three fats to get through your diet, so in addition to food, sources supplements may be the answer.
Standard 3-6-9 supplements will supply the fatty acids in the ideal ratios for your body. This is helpful, but if you’re already getting enough of one or two of them, it might continue to push the ratio farther apart.
When it comes to taking omega-3 supplements quality is essential. Polyunsaturated fats are not very stable when exposed to heat, and can therefore easily oxidized.
And taking an oxidized oil is worse for your health than taking nothing at all.
With this in mind, make sure that when you buy omega-3 supplements, they’re cold-pressed, and don’t use heat extraction. Many omega-3 supplements also contain some sort of antioxidant to keep them fresh. Look for antioxidants like rosemary oil or vitamin E.
The Takeaway: It’s the Fatty Acid Ratio That Matters
All three types of fats, 3-6-9, have their own unique properties and benefits. It’s important to get enough of each of these nutrients in your diet for optimal health, but the ratio is what really matters.
As a culture, Westerners tend to get way more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3’s. The ratio between these two fats is essential for the proper balance of your body. Too many omega-6s without omega-3s can lead to uncontrolled inflammatory responses.
While omega-6s are crucial for helping your immune system turn on inflammation, omega-3s are equally as critical for turning off the inflammatory response[*]
As humans, we evolved consuming a ratio of 1:1 omega-3s and omega-6s in our diets. Today that ratio looks more like 15:1, with omega-6s taking the lead[*].
Aside from the inflammatory response, another area where the importance of this ratio shows up very clearly is in brain health.
A deficit in omega-3 fats leads to an increase in omega-6 fats in brain tissue. This can result in diminished brain growth, neurotransmitter function, and altered learning[*].
What’s more, high levels of pro-inflammatory omega-6 in the brain are associated with depression, while omega-3 supplementation may be an effective antidepressant[*].