It has been argued that one of the main causes behind the rise of modern disease is the constantly increasing gap between the ratio of Omega 6 fats to the Omega 3 fats we consume.
In ancestral times, before the industrial revolution and the development of the vegetable oil industry, the ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 consumption was about 1:1. Since the rise in vegetable oil consumption from fast food, processed foods, and even some of our meat/dairy products, that ratio has been reported to be between 10:1 and 25:1 (source). So why is this a problem?
Before we dive into this, it is important to first understand the difference between these fatty-acids and why the increasing ratio gap could be deteriorating our health in big ways!
Types of Fatty Acids
There are technically 3 different types of fatty acids - Omega 3’s, Omega 6’s, and Omega 9’s.
Omega 3’s -
- Omega 3’s are polyunsaturated fats that are an essential type of fatty acid, meaning our body cannot make them and we must obtain them from our diet.
There are different types of Omega 3’s which differ based on chemical base and size (souce):
- EPA’s (Eicosapentaenoic acid) - Main function is to produce a chemical that helps reduce inflammation.
- DHA’s (Docosahexaenoic acid) - DHA makes up about 8% of our brain weight (fun fact!) and is extremely important for normal brain development and function.
- ALA’s (Alpha-linolenic acid) - This can actually be converted to EPA and DHA, but this process is not very efficient. ALA is mostly used for energy within the body.
Some other known benefits of Omega 3 consumption include improved heart health, mental health, reduced weight/waist size, decreased liver fat, fight inflammation, and prevention of memory loss (source).
- Main food sources: fatty-fish including mackerel, salmon, herring, oysters, sardines, anchovies and nuts and seeds including flax seeds, and chia seeds.
Omega 6’s -
- Similar to Omega 3’s, Omega 6’s are polyunsaturated fats and they are essential fats, meaning we must obtain them from the diet.
Omega 6’s are mainly used for energy by the body, the most common Omega-6 is linoleic acid, which can be converted into ARA (arachidonic acid), which is similar to EPA from Omega 3’s, but where EPA is anti-inflammatory, ARA from Omega 6’s is pro-inflammatory (source).
- Pro-inflammatory chemicals are important to our immune system to fight off disease and heal the body, but too much inflammation, we know, can be harmful and unhealthy to the body.
- Main Food Sources: Vegetable oil/corn oil, safflower oil, tofu, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, peanut butter, avocado oil, eggs, almonds, cashews, and walnuts.
- Omega 9’s are monounsaturated fats, and they are not essential, meaning our body can and does produce this type of fatty acid.
With that being said, consuming foods rich in Omega 9’s has shown to have a number of health benefits including the ability to reduce triglycerides, and overall cholesterol by up to 22% (source).
Research has also shown that diets high in monounsaturated fat result in less inflammation and better insulin sensitivity (source).
- Main food sources include olive oil/canola oil, avocados, sesame oil, and olives.
As we just discussed, Omega 3 fats areanti-inflammatory, and Omega 6 fats arepro-inflammatory. We wantsome inflammation in the body, but too much can lead to chronic disease, digestive issues, metabolic issues, and a whole host of other problems. So not only is the major increase in Omega 6 consumption driving these concerns, but also the fact that Omega 6 and Omega 3 actually fight for conversion within the body.
When consumed, Omega 6’s and Omega 3’s have to battle for what are known as conversion enzymes. That means that the quantity of Omega 6 in our diet negatively impacts our ability to convert Omega 3’s ALA, found in plant foods, to the useful long-chain EPA/DHA, which protect us from disease. When we consume a high level of Omega 6, we are unable to utilize and get the full benefits of plant-based Omega 3’s (non-fish food sources) because our body simply cannot convert that form since the conversion enzymes are being used up by the Omega 6 sources (source).
This is a concern for plant-based diets without any seafood because those Omega 3 food sources become essentially nutrient-bound and we do not receive the nutritional benefits from them. Omega 6’s limit the conversion of the plant-based Omega 3 to the useful EPA/DHA.
The bottom line is, a diet with more Omega 6 and not much Omega 3 increases inflammation. The same is true for the opposite, a diet with a lot of Omega 3 and not much Omega 6 will reduce inflammation.
Another fun fact, the drug companies are very aware of this! Part of the formula for NSAIDs (aspirin, ibuprofen, etc.) works by reducing the formation of inflammatory compounds which are derived from Omega 6 fatty acids.
Good news - we can also accomplish this wonderful anti-inflammatory effect by adjusting our diet and supplementing properly!
I know up until this point, this article has been a bit of a downer, but there are ways to improve our situation and improve our health!
Remove Vegetable Oils/Corn Oil - One study found that simply by replacing vegetable oil with olive oil or canola oil to reach a lower ratio of O-6 to O-3 led to a 70% reduction in mortality rate (source)!
Cook More - Nearly all restaurants these days use the cheapest forms of oil - aka vegetable oil - and the more we consume foods eaten at restaurants, the more we are consuming this oil. Even if we choose ‘healthy food options’, when they are cooked in vegetable oil, we are still raising our Omega 6 consumption!
Reduce Processed Foods - Check your labels! Pretty much any food coming out of a box or a bag is going to be fried/cooked/baked in some type of corn or vegetable oil. Try to bring in more whole, unprocessed, single ingredient foods into your diet like fruits and vegetables!
Increase Fatty Fish Intake - As you saw from the Omega 3 food sources, they are all fatty fish sources, and as we spoke about, unfortunately the conversion of plant-based Omega 3 sources is pretty low when Omega 6 is still high. This means we want to get most of our Omega 3 from fish sources - and try to get wild-caught fish as often as possible! It is recommended to include a wild-caught fatty fish 1-2x/week.
Supplement - Unfortunately, even with changes to our diet, it is going to bereally hard to get enough Omega 3’s to balance out the ratio in a positive way. We’d have to eat A LOT of seafood, and then you can run the risk of the quality of the fish being low and dangerous mercury levels. So we recommend supplementing with Fish Oil or Cod Liver Oil daily! We recommend 1-2g total of EPA/DHA combined daily! OurOmega 3’s are sourced from wild-caught fish, and it is an easy, healthy way to get the dosage you need into your day.
There aren’t many supplements we push or urge people to use, but if there was, Omega 3’s would make our short list. We are fighting an uphill battle against the food industry and restaurants with what ingredients are put into the foods we consume. The best way to help improve our overall health and Omega 6 vs. Omega 3 ratio is to reduce our Omega 6 intake, but on top of that, supplementing can be a great way to reduce the overall inflammation within the body, especially if you are not a big fish-eater!