Updated: Jan 31, 2021
Have you ever heard or read about the fatty acids omega-3 & omega-6 and wondered: what are they? Or Are they good for me? In this post, I’d like to introduce you to these sources of fat and the important role they play in a balanced diet. Omega-3 and -6 are categorized as polyunsaturated fats -- the "healthy" fats. Two types in particular are essential for human health: alpha-linoleic acid, an omega-3 and linoleic acid, an omega-6. They are considered “essential” to human health because our bodies cannot make them on their own. That means we either need to consume foods that contain them, or take dietary supplements. Taking some time to understand what they are and why they're important can help us make better health-related decisions.
What are they?
Omega-3s and omega-6s are categorized as polyunsaturated fats because their structures contain more than one double bond. This feature is what makes them liquid at room temperature. Poly = many. Unsaturated = liquid at room temperature. Compare to saturated fats like shortening or butter which are more solid at room temperature. Cool, huh? If you like to nerd out on this stuff like I do, I highly recommend looking it up in more detail. Otherwise, that should help you understand what they are.
Three types of omega-3s are the main focus of most scientific research that we'll focus on:
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
There are two major types of omega-6s:
Poly means multiple or many.
Unsaturated means they are liquids at room temperature. Think oils in liquid form at room temperature versus butter or shortening which are solid.
The "3" and "6" describe the position of the first double bond from one end of the structure. This influences the shape of a fat molecule which affects its function in the body.
Omega-3s: DHA, EPA, ALA
Omega-6s: Linoleic acid, Arachidonic acid
Why are they important? What functions do they have in the body?
The omega-3s play an important role in forming cell membranes, which serve as a lining for the trillions of cells in our body. DHA plays a particularly important role in the retina (of the eye) and brain. To quote one of my NYU professors: "Omega-3 fatty acids are perhaps the most important source of brain fat." *
Omega-3 and -6s provide energy for the body (calories or fuel) and they also form eicosanoids. These are signaling molecules that direct certain actions in our cardiovascular (heart and blood vessels), pulmonary (lungs), immune (your body's protection system) and endocrine systems (hormone regulation system).
Eicosanoids that are created from omega-6 fats tend to induce more inflammation in the body. However, omega-3s, specifically DHA and EPA, have the capability to compete with omega-6s for who gets to make a particular eicosanoid. EPA and DHA then tip the balance toward reducing the inflammatory response. We therefore have the ability to help our bodies determine the strength of its anti-inflammatory responses based on the foods we eat. This is why you may have heard that omega-3s can be anti-inflammatory.
What Foods Contain Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fats?
ALA (omega 3) is found in plant sources: nut oils like flax, chia, hemp, walnut and canola. DHA and EPA can be found in fatty fish like salmon, tuna and halibut. The body can covert the plant sources of ALA into DHA and EPA in the liver but the conversion rate is estimated to be around 15%. Not nearly enough to meet recommendations.
The good news for vegetarians and vegans? You don't have to take a fish oil supplement. Yeast and algae-derived supplements containing DHA and EPA are available.
Fun fact? DHA and EPA are made by microalgae (micro = teeny tiny; algae = slimy, yet nutritious water plants). Nemo and his friends consume phytoplankton that consumed microalgae, the real source of omega-3, and then store it in their tissue. You could cut out the middle man, go straight to the source and probably cut out some toxic mercury in the process. Nom nom nom!
Omega-6s are not hard to come by. They are plentiful, almost too plentiful, in the American diet. They are found in many commonly consumed foods including shortening, meat and dairy, as well as in oils used in processed foods such as sunflower, safflower, soybean, sesame and corn.
Corn is the big one. It's in soda (used as corn syrup for a sweetener), potato chips, hamburgers, French fries, sauces, salad dressings, baked goods, breakfast cereals, and virtually all poultry, and most fish. The majority of corn in the United States is fed to the hundreds of millions of animals raised for consumption. Cows, chickens, pigs and farm raised fish are fed a diet mainly from corn. Corn is a cheap form of energy used to bulk up these animals in a short amount of time (that's a whole other subject). Corn is everywhere. This tips the balance of our omega-6 to omega-3 ratio in favor of the one most likely to contribute to inflammation --> omega-6.
Food sources of ALA, DHA and EPA
The suggested healthy balance of omega-6 to omega-3 is in the range of 2:1 to 4:1. Some health advocates suggest even lower ratios. However, the typical American diet contains 14 to 25 times more omega-6s than omega-3s. Although omega-6 is considered a healthy polyunsaturated fat, studies suggest that higher dietary omega-6 to omega-3 ratios promote inflammation and appear to be associated with chronic disease risk. The beauty in all of this is that with a few changes you can increase your omega-3s and lower your omega-6s.
Adequate Intakes for Omega 3s
Increase your omega-3 intake and reduce your omega-6 intake.
Follow a diet that emphasizes whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, fish or your algae supplement, and olive oil. The Mediterranean diet is a great example. Studies show that people who follow a Mediterranean-style diet are less likely to develop heart disease. Choosing more whole food options and trying to reduce the amount of processed foods you eat will contribute to a more optimized diet.
It's important to remember that omega-6 fats are essential. The recommendation is not to eliminate them altogether. It would however, be beneficial to cut down on some of the processed foods that contain corn-derived ingredients like soda, potato chips, French fries, and baked goods.
Bottom Line: Reduce your intake of foods containing saturated fat -- meat, butter, cream sauces, fried foods and trans fats (hydrogenated fats) – which are found in many processed foods and can contribute to inflammation. Focus on consuming a diet rich in whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables, and healthy oils. If you are currently being treated with any medications, consult your health care provider before using omega-3 or omega-6 fatty acid supplements.
Tips to include more omega-3 fats in your diet:
*Add 1/4 C of walnut pieces to your morning oatmeal
*Mix in 2-3 tablespoons of hemp seeds to your yogurt
*Add 3 tablespoons of flaxseed meal into your smoothies
*Use 2 teaspoons to 1 tablespoon of plant-based oils for sautéing or use these oils as a base for homemade salad dressings.