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When statements like “The proper omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is crucial for optimal health,” “Take fish oil supplements to boost your omega-3s,” and “You’re getting too many omega-6 fatty acids from processed foods” are flying around, it’s tough to decipher which messages are important, which to ignore, and how/when to effectively incorporate changes into your diet.
I used to be in your same shoes, not able to make sense of the omega-6/3 mumbo jumbo.
Then, I learned that high doses of omega-3 fatty acids may be helpful in treating depression and anxiety. My curiosity piqued!
I decided it was time to do one of my favorite things: a deep dive!
Wasting no time, I dove right in to the world of these mysterious fatty acids and learned sooooo much.
In this post, I’ll share my findings (read: straightforward, no-nonsense facts about omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids).
By the end of the post, you’ll be an omega-6/3 expert, ready to implement simple lifestyle tweaks and scream your newfound knowledge from rooftops!
First of all, what exactly are omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids?
Generally, we just hear their nicknames—”omega-6s” and “omega-3s”—but their full names are omega-6 fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids.
Both are types of polyunsaturated fats, and both are essential to our health, meaning our bodies don’t make them on their own. (Cholesterol, on the other hand, is an example of a nonessential nutrient; if you don’t consume it in your diet, your body will produce it.)
Even though these oils are both essential, many of us are not consuming the proper ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s.
More on omega-6s…
As previously mentioned, omega-6 fatty acids are essential to human health, but the important omega-6 takeaway is this: By eating the Standard American Diet, most people are consuming waaaay too many omega-6s.
These [omega-6 fatty acids] are also essential to a healthy brain, but the American diet now includes far too many of them in the form of linoleic acid. These omega-6 fats went from appearing in our diet as oils delivered in trace quantities by whole foods to becoming major caloric contributors to the American diet in just a few short decades. They are the predominant type of fatty acid found in the grain and seed oils that we now consume in excess: safflower, sunflower, canola, corn, and soybean oils.
At the onset of the “low-fat” craze, grain and seed oils (like the aforementioned omega-6-rich safflower, sunflower, canola, corn, and soybean oils) were added to the majority of packaged items on grocery store shelves.
If you were to look in your pantry right now, I’d bet 90% (or more!) of your go-to staples contain some type of grain or seed oil, as do salad dressings, frozen foods, energy bars, sauces, etc.! These omega-6-rich oils are literally everywhere.
(To learn more about the negative health effects of high grain/seed oil consumption, read my post “Canola Oil vs Vegetable Oil: Which Is Healthiest?”)
Since most Americans rely on packaged, grab-n-go, seed-oil-laden convenience foods, it makes sense that their diet is dominated by omega-6 fatty acids.
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More on omega-3s…
The two most important omega-3s are docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, and eicosapentaenoic acid, aka EPA. (Thank God for abbreviations, right!?)
DHA and EPA are found in fish, fish oil, flaxseeds, some forms of algae, and to a lesser degree in pasture-raised beef and eggs.
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)—another form of omega-3—is found in plant sources like nuts and seeds.
Ever heard of the term “good fats”? Omega-3s fit into this category!
At this point, you may be asking, “If our bodies need both omega-6s and omega-3s, what’s the big deal if I eat a lot of omega-6s?”
I’m so happy you asked that question because 1) it means you’ve been reading carefully (well done!) and 2) it segues perfectly to my next point…
Both omega-6s and omega-3s are healthy when consumed in the proper ratio.
Anthropological research suggests that our hunter-gatherer ancestors consumed omega-6 and omega-3 fats in a ratio of roughly 1:1. It also indicates that both ancient and modern hunter-gatherers were free of the modern inflammatory diseases, like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, that are the primary causes of death and morbidity today . . . Vegetable oil consumption rose dramatically between the beginning and end of the 20th century, and this had an entirely predictable effect on the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats in the American diet . . . Today, estimates of the ratio range from an average of 10:1 to 20:1, with a ratio as high as 25:1 in some individuals.
Additionally, Kresser points out that the modern consumption of more omega-6s may correlate to the uptick in contemporary maladies like cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome/inflammatory bowel disease, macular degeneration, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, cancer, psychiatric disorders, and autoimmune diseases.
You read that right: Eating too many omega-6s and not enough omega-3s can lead to all sorts of health issues.
Conversely, consuming a higher amount of omega-3s may improve brain function! (To learn more, read my post “Eating Enough Of This? Your Brain Health Depends On It…”)
Therefore, the ultimate goal is to return to eating an omega-6:3 ratio of 1:1.
You’ve convinced me! I want to eat the proper omega-6:3 ratio! How can I do that?
To boost your omega-3 consumption, prioritize the following foods:
- Wild fish (consult this guide to be sure you’re eating types that likely contain less mercury)
- Chia seeds
- 100% grass-fed beef (if you can’t find it in your local grocery story, online grocery services/subscriptions like Thrive Market, Butcher Box, and Crowd Cow sell high-quality meat at affordable prices)
- Pasture-raised eggs
It’s always best to obtain nutrition from whole foods rather than supplements, but modern-day meat, fish, fruits, and vegetables are sometimes less nutritious than their ancient counterparts since 1) the soil is not as rich as it used to be, 2) crops are doused in pesticides like glyphosate, and 3) most cattle are raised in Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).
Therefore, even if you eat all of the above on a regular basis, you still may not consume enough omega-3s.
Supplementation may also be helpful.
The following supplements are high in omega-3s:
- Fish oil. Be careful with this one. Not all fish oil is created equal; much of it expires quickly, and then there’s the ethical issue of overfishing. If you choose to supplement with fish oil, read this article to choose the best product.
Here’s a top-rated fish oil supplement:
- Krill oil. According to Bulletproof founder Dave Asprey, “Krill oil is a superior source of EPA and DHA because the polyunsaturated fats are packaged as phospholipids, which can be used immediately by your body.”
This is a popular krill oil supplement:
- Astaxanthin. Dr. William Sears, M.D., just loves this stuff! He explains, “Neurochemists call astaxanthin a neuroprotectant because of its ability to protect sensitive fatty brain tissue from oxidation. Astaxanthin is a powerful antioxidant, which simply means it prevents rust. Aging is like rusting.” Further, research suggests that there may be “synergistic antioxidant effects” when astaxanthin is taken in conjunction with omega-3 fatty acids, meaning astaxanthin may have the power to boost the effectiveness of any of the above omega-3 supplements!
This is the most well-respected, top-rated astaxanthin supplement:
P.S. – Astaxanthin may also help prevent sun damage from the inside! Click here to learn more.
Finally, since the goal is to improve your overall intake of omega-3s to omega-6s, it’s also important to limit your consumption of omega-6s!
Here are some ways to do that:
- Read the ingredients list on every label of packaged snacks, energy bars, salad dressings, sauces, etc., and simply don’t buy items that contain vegetable/seed oils (safflower, sunflower, canola, corn, soybean, etc.).
- Don’t cook with vegetable oils; use healthy fruit oils—olive, coconut, and avocado—instead!
- When dining out, ask the server to hold the (likely) omega-6-rich dressings and sauces. Also, steer clear of fried foods, which are almost always cooked in vegetable oils. (Learn more tips for healthy eating out here.)
Really, consuming as close to a 1:1 ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s as possible doesn’t need to be difficult!
And, if you ask me, it’s quite delicious! Wild fish, oysters, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and pasture-raised beef/eggs are all super tasty!
As promised, you’re now ready to spout your omega-6/3 knowledge to anyone who will listen! *Word of warning: This probably isn’t the best office water cooler talk…
Bottom line: Aim for an omega-6:3 ratio of 1:1 in your diet by reducing your intake of omega-6-laden foods and upping your consumption of omega-3s!
Any comments or questions? Share your thoughts below!
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- “Eating Enough Of This? Your Brain Health Depends On It…”
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