Finding the omega-3/omega-6 balance

April 19, 2016 Providence Health Team

By Haley Hughes, MS, RD, clinical dietitian, Providence Alaska Medical Center

I recently wrote about the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. Just about everyone agrees that these heart-protecting fats – especially the kind that come from fish – are essential to health, and that most of us should be eating more of them. But what about the other essential fatty acids–omega-6s?

Researchers have been arm wrestling over omega-6s for years. Yes, they are “essential,” which means that we do need them, we can’t make them ourselves and we must get them from food. Most Americans get plenty of omega-6s in their diets. The question is, are we getting too much?

Many experts believe that we are.

Omega-6 helps promote inflammation, which is an important part of your body’s natural healing response to injuries. Omega-3 helps keep inflammation in check so it doesn’t go overboard and cause harm. In the right balance, these two work cooperatively to regulate inflammation. But the modern American diet has knocked us way off balance. While our ancestors’ unprocessed diets provided a natural balance of omega-3s and omega-6s, today’s commercially prepared foods are loaded with corn oil and soybean oil, two of the most abundant sources of omega-6 in our diets. As a result, our omega-6s outnumber our omega-3s by as much as 16 to 1. In this ratio, they may be competing rather than cooperating. Studies have linked this imbalance to increases in heart disease, cancer and multiple diseases related to inflammation.

The American Heart Association says that both omega-3s and omega-6s are healthy polyunsaturated fats and the balance between the two doesn’t matter. That position is based on a major review of studies up to 2009. The AHA recommends getting 5 to 10 percent of your calories from omega-6 fats – an amount that most of us get through our normal diet without making any extra effort.

More recent studies, however, have challenged that position, asserting that the health benefits attributed to both omega-3s and omega-6s in earlier studies actually were due mainly to higher levels of omega-3, and that high levels of omega-6 may increase heart risks.

Two other interesting studies from 2012 suggest that limiting omega-6s may help us get more benefit out of our omega-3s. One found that keeping omega-6 intake low may help us convert some of the plant-based omega-3s that we eat into EPA, the super heart-healthy form of omega-3 found mainly in fish. The second study found that consuming more omega-6s may be responsible for lower concentrations of EPA and DHA (the other omega-3 superstar) in our tissues.

As the arm wrestling continues, there are four takeaways that can benefit your health, regardless of which way the debate leans next:

  • Taking all of the research into account, trading some omega-6s for more omega-3s couldn’t hurt -- and could very well help. One way is to opt for cooking and salad oils with less omega-6 and more omega-3. Sunflower, corn, soybean and cottonseed oils are high in omega-6s; choose flaxseed, canola and walnut oils instead – they’re lower in omega 6s and deliver some omega-3s as well. Olive oil is another good choice – although it delivers only a tiny amount of omega-3, it’s the lowest in omega-6 of all the unsaturated oils.
  • Cut back on commercial, prepackaged foods, which tend to be high in corn and soybean oils. Whole, natural foods and home-cooked meals generally deliver better nutrition anyway.
  • When eating out, limit fried foods – they’re often fried in oils that are high in omega-6 fats, not to mention heart-harming trans fats.
  • Favor pasture-raised meats and eggs over grain-fed meats – animals raised solely on grasses rather than grains tend to deliver more omega-3s and fewer omega-6s, plus less saturated fat and less fat overall.

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