Quick, what are the two essential omega fatty acids? They are both polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). Most people have heard of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, but most of us don’t really know their function, how much we should be consuming, or if there is an optimal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. If you’re unsure, read on.
To start off, they are called essential fatty acids because our body needs them to survive. But, we can’t make them so we have to get them from food or supplements. The majority of Americans eating the standard American diet get an abundance of omega-6 fatty acids and few omega-3 fatty acids. In fact, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in the SAD diet is typically around 16/1, while many experts recommend a ratio of about 4 or 5/1. Other researchers don’t believe the ratio is important, but agree that most of us should add more omega-3’s to our diet. There are several different omega-3’s, but the ones considered most important are ALA, DHA, and EPA.
So why do some experts believe the ratio matters? If we have too many more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3’s in our system, we may see increased inflammation in the body. This increased inflammation increases the likelihood for chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. If we increase omega-3’s and decrease omega-6 consumption, the inflammation decreases. Some scientists believe the same health benefits of optimizing the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio come just from increasing omega-3’s without reducing omega-6’s. Others believe that the important thing is getting high quality omega-6 fatty acids. Newer research is showing health benefits of omega-6’s that may be decreased with lower levels.
As much research is still going on, I think worrying about the ratio is probably not worth it, but trying to get more omega-3’s is worthwhile. One of the main reason Americans get so much more omega-6 is that we eat a lot of processed foods that contain them. Sunflower, safflower, corn, and soybean oils all are good sources of omega-6 fatty acid, and they are also used in many of the cookies, crackers, and chips that Americans regularly consume. However, sunflower seeds, pistachios, tofu, and pecans are all good sources of omega-6 fats and are also healthy foods.Therefore, eating more whole, unprocessed foods will lower the ratio naturally and allow for the benefits of both types of fats. Our Superfood Nut Butter recipe is chock full of healthy omega-3 and omega-6’s!
Higher omega-3 levels are linked to a number of health benefits including a reduction of cognitive decline, and greater cardiovascular health. They may help with mental health conditions such as depression and recovery from traumatic brain injuries. Another benefit of sufficient omega-3 levels is believed to be better eye health. The retina has the highest concentration of DHA in the body. And for those planning a family, know that sperm has a high concentration of DHA. Once pregnant, the mother increases her baby’s chances for optimal brain, eyes, and nervous system by consuming an additional 200 mg of DHA over the normal adult RDA.
One of the best sources of omega-3’s is fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel and tuna. That is why the US dietary guidelines state that eating 8 ounces of fatty seafood per week is advisable. However, not everyone likes fish, there is concern about the mercury in fish, and fish is not an option for vegetarians/vegans. Other good sources include flax and chia seeds (ground is better), flax oil (but don’t cook with it because it has a very low smoke point), algal oil, walnuts, brussel sprouts, and avocados.
Some of the research on the benefits of omega-3’s only show health advantages when the omega-3’s are obtained from food sources, rather than supplementation. It is generally always better to try to get adequate levels of nutrients from foods and only supplement if you can’t get enough through diet. If you do want a supplement, make sure you are getting a good quality one. If you are looking for a vegan supplement, you can find them made from algal oil which is derived from algae which is also the source that fatty fish eat to obtain their omega-3’s.
Testing for Omega -3’s
You can do an at-home blood test to determine your omega 3 index: the combined percentage of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA in red blood cell membranes. OmegaQuant was one of the first companies to offer testing and sends a detailed report to help you understand your results. Omegabloodscore is another company providing a similar test. If you eat a lot of foods high in omega-3’s, testing is probably not necessary, but if you don’t, it can be informative to see where you stand and if you are deficient.
Fats are complicated. Are saturated fats bad? (that’s another post!) What percent of my diet should come from fat? (also controversial to some degree) What are the healthiest fats? Research continues on a lot of these questions surrounding fats, but science has shown that both omega-3’s and omega-6’s are necessary and good for you when sourced from whole foods. So, go eat some salmon, tofu, nuts, or avocados and skip the chips and crackers!