by Stephanie Margolis, R.D.
Updated December 19, 2022
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 they need to come from 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) A warning, don’t take this last sentence and think all omega-6s are bad. You will see that in our typical Western diets, it’s not that Omega-6s are bad it’s that we eat too many of them and that’s where the concerns arise. Keep reading and you’ll see what I mean.
Omega-3 is an important good fat that helps the body function, helps keep the brain healthy, and can fight inflammation. There are many good sources of omega-3s. Some of the highest per serving sources are fish, but we know not everyone is a fish lover. There are several foods that actually have higher amounts of omega-3s but are not foods you either eat in larger quantities or eat on a regular basis. For example, flaxseed oil and flaxseeds have the highest concentrations but it is very unlikely you are going to sit down and eat a whole tablespoon of flaxseed oil at once. This is why we add these types of things into a meal plan to help inch up your overall intake. Other foods like walnuts and fortified eggs can also help boost your omega-3s if you aren’t eating seafood, as well as vegan spirulina.
The reason you hear less about omega-6s (refers to a whole family of polyunsaturated fatty acids) is because they are so abundant in our food supply that we don’t need to try to get extra.
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.
Research has shown, individuals who consumed omega-6s and omega-3s in a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio, saw a decrease in diseases such as heart disease, cancer, inflammatory and autoimmune disease. However, the average American diet is 15:1 or 17:1, meaning we eat way too many omega-6s and not enough omega-3s. (1)
We talk a lot about inflammation, 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.
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.