Omega 3 & 6 Fats: What, Where & Why

Omega fats are an important part of a healthy diet, but what are the differences between omega 3 and 6 fats and what’s the “right” ratio for optimal health? You’ve likely already heard that omega-3 fats are “good” for you and that you should limit omega-6 fats. The story is a bit more complicated and we’re here to break it all down for you. 

What are omega-3 fats?

Omega-3 fats are a group of essential fatty acids. “Essential” means that our bodies require them but can’t make them on our own, so we need to get them through food. The three most common omega-3 fatty acids are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). Fatty fish (i.e. salmon, mackerel, sardines and tuna are good sources of EPA and DHA), while flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds and walnuts are good sources of ALA. Seaweed and algae are two of the few plant sources of EPA and DHA.

These fats help increase HDL cholesterol and reduce triglycerides, increase cognitive and cardiovascular health, support a healthy weight and balanced mood, fight inflammation, prevent neurodegeneration and promote healthy bones.

What are omega-6 fats?

Omega-6 fatty acids are like omega-3 fatty acids in that we get them through our diet. Our bodies use these fats primarily for energy.  The most common omega-6 fat is linoleic acid. Our body’s ability to properly regulate inflammation depends on a balance of both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-6 fats are found in refined vegetable oils and foods cooked in vegetable oils (i.e. soybean, sunflower, safflower, canola, cottonseed and corn). Excessive omega-6 fat can interfere with the health benefits of omega-3s (e.g. EPA and DHA) partly because they compete for the same enzymes that help with the process of regulating cellular activity and inflammation. 

Some high-quality omega-6 foods include raw (and sprouted) sunflower seeds, brazil nuts, walnuts and pumpkin seeds. Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), found in evening primrose oil, borage oil and Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), shown to reduce body fat, are also good supplemental options. 

What’s the optimal ratio?

Believe it or not, while the recommended ratio is 4:1 or 2:1, many western diets are as high as 50:1 or even 200:1!

Imbalances in this ratio are connected to many chronic diseases including obesity, fatty liver diseases, cardiovascular disease, cancer and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases including rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD). Research suggests that looking at your Omega-3 Index could provide information on mortality risk for coronary heart disease (CHD). You can ask your health care provider if he or she recommends this blood test during your next visit.

Your best bet, as always, is to eat a whole foods diet. For a healthy omega 3 to omega 6 ratio, try including some of these in your meals:

  • 1-2 servings of omega 3-rich DHA foods sources like salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, and algae if you are vegetarian; try this sardine recipe as a tasty introduction to omega-3 rich fish 
  • Walnuts, flaxseeds and chia seeds
  • Borage, evening primrose, black current and hemp seed oil
  • If you feel like your diet is still lacking, ask your health care provider to recommend a high-quality omega-3 supplement and the best dosage for you. 

 And try eliminating or reducing these:

  • Vegetable oils, (canola, soy, corn), margarine, mayonnaise
  • Corn and grain-fed red meats, dairy and eggs
  • Processed meats
  • Pre-packaged foods
  • Candy and sweets
  • Fried foods
  • Refined grains, potatoes, corn
  • High-fructose corn syrup

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