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Omega-6 fats are healthy in their own right, but when the omega-6/omega-3 ratio is too high (which it usually is in the case of the modern diet), serious problems can result.
For decades, the American food industry (or at least part of it) has villainized fat in all its forms, when really, we need healthy fats like omega-3s and omega-6s to survive.
These essential fatty acids share a degree of “cross talk” that can help or harm your health depending on the ratio of one to the other.
In this article, we’ll explore how the omega-6/omega-3 ratio affects health, including how you can make this ratio work to your benefit with simple dietary changes and supplements.
The Problem with Omega Fatty Acids
A healthy fatty acid profile requires maintaining a balance between omega-3 and omega-6. If one is off, health-related risk factors increase.
This isn’t as simple a case as consuming too much of a fundamentally unhealthy substance.
Each of these polyunsaturated fats is healthy, but with a major caveat applied to not only their individual amounts, but their ratio to each other.
When the omega-6/omega-3 ratio is too high (as it commonly is in the American diet especially), bad things can happen.
Before we take a closer look at the specifics of how this ratio can negatively impact health, it’s important to understand where each fatty acid is found and how they contribute to our makeup and overall function.
A Crash Course In Fat
Omega-6s are often thought to be saturated because they are perceived as less healthy, but none of the omega fatty acids are saturated (omega-9 acids are a thing, but not so relevant right now).
All omega fatty acids are polyunsaturated, a term assigned to molecules that contain multiple double or triple bonds between carbon atoms.
Also, these kinds of fats don’t simply get packed onto your frame without taking care of a little business first; they are highly bioactive, meaning they’re involved in many important physiological processes.
For example, the omega-3 acid EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) supports neurological function, heart rhythm, blood vessel health, menstruation, and much, much more.
These functions, combined with the fact that our bodies don’t produce these fats, are the reason why these are called “essential fats.”
Here’s a quick breakdown of how these fats work and where they are found.
Sources: Salmon, mackerel, flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil, soybeans, fortified foods.
Functions: Vital for formation of cell membranes (especially in the brain), hormone synthesis, inflammation control, arterial wall health and more.
Sources: vegetable oils, corn, nuts, meat, poultry, some fish, peanut butter, and more.
Functions: Aid in growth and development, skin and hair health, bone health, metabolism regulation, heart health, and more.
Studies Warn Against Omega-6/Omega-3 Imbalance
The prevalence of vegetable oil in chips and processed snacks has been a major contributor to our collective increase in omega-6 consumption.
Studies have linked this high omega-6/omega-3 ratio to the following health issues.
The excessive consumption of omega-6 acids (particularly, linoleic acid) was found by this Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute study to increase the presence of many inflammatory markers (oxidised linoleic acid metabolites, proinflammatory cytokines, chemokines, and more).
On the less gloomy side, the same academic review points out how “marine omega-3s” can fight systemic inflammation caused by omega-6 consumption by activating anti-inflammatory mechanisms.
The relationship between these fatty acids is far too complex to presume that a one-to-one ratio will simply “cancel out” inflammation in the body, but getting the ratio as close as possible to that level has been shown to help with inflammatory conditions like atherosclerosis and many others.
The relationship between omega-6 acids and atherosclerosis (formation of plaques in arteries increasing heart attack risk) is likely the greatest point of contention surrounding this type of fat molecule.
On the one hand, this Harvard report and other findings show that even a high intake of omega-6 acids is actually linked with a lower risk of heart disease, not an increased risk of atherosclerosis.
On the other hand, this study from Harvard’s Laboratory for Lipid Medicine and Technology shows that the anti-inflammatory ability of omega-3s we just mentioned can reduce “atherosclerotic lesions” in mice.
These seemingly contradictory points have seen the furrowing of many a brow, but experts in each camp are slowly meeting in the middle.
To reiterate, it’s all about how these two fats play off of each other – more on that below.
If fat—or raw caloric intake—were directly and exclusively related to weight gain, obesity would be trending down in the USA.
Americans have actually decreased fat consumption over the past three decades, but we’ve greatly increased the omega-6/omega-3 ratio at the same time by shifting away from healthy omega-3 sources.
Since obesity is much more involved than we think, involving systemic inflammation, liver insufficiency, pancreas problems, and much more, defining the role of omega fatty acids in this case requires looking beyond the mere presence of fat in the diet to more obscure cellular interactions.
This review from the Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health in Washington, DC concluded after a tour of 108 contemporary findings that byproducts of omega-6 metabolism encourage pre-adipocytes to mature into full-blown adipocytes, or fat cells.
The review also explains that omega-3 fatty acids “reduce fat deposition in adipose tissues by suppressing lipogenic enzymes.”
Unpacked and translated, this means omega-6s helps fat cells to develop, and omega-3s fight fat accumulation by suppressing enzymes that turn usable carbs into stored fats.
Per another finding from the Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health in DC, “A ratio of 2.5/1 (omega-3/omega-6) reduced rectal cell proliferation in patients with colorectal cancer … the lower omega-6/omega-3 ratio in women with breast cancer was associated with decreased risk.”
Importantly, this finding also pointed out that the ideal ratio of omega-3/omega-6 varies depending on a person’s health and genetic predispositions, making the identification of the “ideal ratio” a tricky prospect.
Instead, research is aiming to highlight which ratios are best for which scenarios.
The jury is virtually unanimous, however, in agreeing that Westerners need to drastically improve their omega-3/omega-6 balance.
Speaking of, let’s take a look at how you can shift this ratio for the betterment of your overall health without completely sapping the joy out of your dietary habits.
How to Rebalance Your Omega Fatty Acid Consumption
In the vast majority of cases, it’s a matter of increasing omega-3 consumption and decreasing omega-6 consumption.
The operative word here is “balance” because, according to the American Heart Association, restoring a healthy balance of omega fatty acids is not about reducing omega-6 intake.
The AHA conducted a two-year science advisory to further explore the link between omega-6s and coronary heart disease risk, eventually concluding that “an omega-6 PUFA (polyunsaturated fatty acid) intake of at least 5 to 10%” is the optimal level for heart health, and that reducing omega-6 PUFA levels “would be more likely to increase than to decrease risk for coronary heart disease.”
Since we know, or at least very strongly suspect, that a high omega-3/omega-6 ratio is always a good thing, then the only logical conclusion is that an increase in omega-3s is the best way to safely balance your omega fatty acid consumption.
Fatty fish like salmon and mackerel are widely regarded as the best dietary sources of omega-3s, but you can also up your intake with eggs, walnuts, canola oil, and soybeans.
Finally, supplements are an excellent way to keep the omega-3/omega-6 ratio where it needs to be, even if you “cheat” a little on the diet side every now and again.
Recommended Supplement: Natrol Cognium
Of course, sourcing omega-3s from their natural “habitat” is extremely important for a number of reasons, and supplementing isn’t a green light to abandon healthy dieting, but with high-quality helpers like Hi-Health Omega-3 Fish Oil, you can add that much more oomph to your dietary changes.
This particular supplement contains both omega-3s and omega-6s at an almost 5:1 ratio, and will give you all the benefits of fish oil with organic, non-fishy-tasting capsules.
To bolster our hopes that this seemingly self-contradictory review of omega-3s and omega-6s hasn’t completely crossed your eyes, we would like to close with a quick summary of the key takeaways.
- Omega-3s and omega-6s are both vital for various aspects of heart, brain, and overall health.
- Research suggests that consuming high amounts of omega-6 acids is only harmful when omega-3 consumption is too low.
- The AHA supports this idea, suggesting that it’s better to raise omega-3 intake than to lower omega-6 intake.
Finally, the best way to make this change is with increased intake of fatty fish, walnuts, eggs, and omega fatty acid supplements.