by Stephanie Margolis, R.D
As our diets have changed and the focus became quick, cheap, shelf-stable foods scientists started noticing a trend. People were becoming sicker – but why? There are many compounding reasons but one thing that has presented itself in the research is the impact of two fatty acids – commonly called Omega-3s and Omega-6s. These essential fatty acids are not made in the body, so need to be in our food. However, when consumed they are the precursors to a whole metabolic process that is impacting the body. Without diving into the difficult to pronounce names and mechanisms used to convert these acids in the body, we know that omega-3 fatty acids are converted to anti-inflammatory acids, while omega-6s are turned into pro-inflammatory acids. (1)
Why Does This Matter?
Well, we’ve been talking a lot about inflammation in this series, and you now know that inflammation can be the root of many serious diseases including cardiovascular disease, obesity, and some cancers.(3) What is even more interesting with these two fatty acids is when omega-3s and omega-6s are imbalanced we also see an increase in nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, irritable bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease. (2)
It is also worth noting that when omega-6s are over-consumed and omega-3s under-consumed there is an increased prevalence of depression and other mental health issues. Furthermore, we know that this imbalance can lead to more obesity and even changes in adipose tissue (fat) in the body, particularly around the brain-gut-adipose tissue axis. (1)
Sounds very dooms-day huh? While it is something to give pause to, the good news is that there are ways you can help change your ratio.
You Keep Mentioning “Ratio” – More Details Please
It is believed that the ideal omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is 4:1 – currently, the average American’s ratio is 16:1 or 20:1. Way out of whack! This has happened because of the increased processing of foods in our market. For example, adding highly processed oil is a really cheap, fast way to produce foods that are tasty (fats make foods more palatable) and shelf stable, but they also tend to be the highest in omega-6s. The research is conflicted on the right amounts of omega-6s you should be getting (and truth be told, it is not an easy thing to track for most). However, what there is agreement on is that it’s more about achieving the 4:1 ratio than hitting an exact numbers of grams (but there are recommendations out there). You can also talk to your doctor about measuring your ratio through a special lipid profile test, if you are concerned.
Even without the special medical tests, we can make the assumption that your omega-6 to omega-3 ratio needs some tweaking. Here are some ways you can keep your in check:
This can be a deep topic, but if you are up for some heavy reading you can find great information here with links to other studies and resources.
The reason you hear less about those omega-6s (refers to a whole family of polyunsaturated fatty acids) is because they are so abundant in our food supply we don’t need to try to get extra.
How do I eliminate omega 6’s?
You can find omega-6s in poultry, eggs, nuts, cereals, wheat, whole-grain breads, and most oils. When you zoom out and start looking at all the foods out there, these omega-6s are found in so many foods that we don’t have to make the extra effort to get enough. One of the biggest sources of omega-6s in an average diet comes from soybean oil, mainly because it is used in processed foods
Cut back on processed seed and vegetable oils such as soybean oil, cottonseed oil, sunflower oil instead consider using butter, coconut oil, plan oil, and olive oil (always with moderation and portion control in mind) This includes salad dressings. Most store-bought salad dressings contain large amounts of oils. Check out our homemade salad dressings!
Avoid Unhealthy Additions. When food companies make foods they are typically looking to create products that will last a while on the shelf at the lowest cost. When you make foods from scratch at home you are going to be avoiding some of the additives. For example, a typical additive used to help to emulsify (bind together) foods to increase shelf life is soy lecithin. Lecithins are naturally found in soybeans and egg yolks and can be beneficial to your heart and brain; however, when consumed in large quantities there are studies that have linked chronic inflammation, mineral deficiencies, and GI distress.