Omega 6 to Omega 3 Fatty Acid Ratio – Why Is It So Important?

Lately, many people seem to have become aware of the need to consume healthy omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids. Nutritionally speaking, omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids are very important, and it is a complex subject.

There is a lot of information on the internet about it – much of it confusing, and some of it seems contradictory. What is the difference between the two fatty acids? Why are these two fatty acids so important? Why should we be concerned about consuming too much of one fatty acid and not enough of the other? What are the possible long-term negative effects of an unhealthy omega 6 and omega 3 ratio in our dietary lifestyle? What can we do to achieve a healthy ratio?

Let’s start with the basic question of…

Cold water fish, source of Omega 3 Fatty Acids

What exactly are omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids?

Omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids are essential fatty acids. They are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) because they have many double bonds (‘poly’ means many atoms or groups of a particular kind of molecule). The term ‘essential’ means they are necessary for many of our body’s functions but our body is not able to produce them, so we have to get them from food. If we are not able to get enough, we become deficient and that can lead to illness.

Why are these two fatty acids so important for us?

They are important for so many of our body’s systems and organs, including blood clotting, reproductive health, inflammation, building healthy cells, maintaining brain and nerve function, bone health, and regulation of metabolism.

A note about inflammation: Inflammation is an important immune response that is crucial to our survival, but it can be harmful for us when it becomes an inappropriate response or when it becomes chronic or excessive. Excessive inflammation has been linked to many chronic illnesses such as heart disease, metabolic syndrome, arthritis, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.

How omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids are different from each other

Even though we tend to group them together and think of them as the same, omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids are not created equal. They each have a different effect on our body, and they come from very different sources. Interestingly there is one exception – nuts contain both omega 3 fatty acids and omega 6 fatty acids.

Omega 3 Fatty Acids:

  • Tend to be anti-inflammatory (opposite of omega 6s).
  • Have been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Have been linked to improvement in mental disorders including depression and bipolar disorder.
  • Are found primarily in fatty fish: tuna, mackerel and salmon (cold water fish), as well as in walnuts and flaxseed in limited amounts.

Omega 6 Fatty Acids:

  • Tend to be pro-inflammatory (opposite of omega 3s).
  • Tend to be reactive with oxygen, forming chain reactions of free radicals that can cause cellular damage and increase oxidative stress in the body and possible cause premature aging.
  • Excessive amounts tend to interfere with the health benefits of omega 3s.
  • Excessive amounts have been associated with higher incidence of depression and violence.
  • Are found in high amounts in canola oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, cottonseed oil, soybean oil, peanut oil and corn oil.

Our North American diet: an unhealthy ratio of omega 6 to omega 3

With our current North American, western diet we are currently consuming about a 10 to 1 ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids (10 omega 6 to 1 omega 3). Some sources I researched indicated that it could actually be as high as 20 omega 6 to 1 omega 3. This is not a healthy ratio at all.

Recent medical statistics indicate that the amount of omega 6 fatty acids in body fat has increased by more than 200% in the last 50 years, which is leading to changes not only in our body fat stores, but our cell membranes as well. Higher omega 6s in cell membranes has been associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. Omega 3s have been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular

There seem to be three main reasons for the unbalanced ratio of omega 6 to omega 3:

  1. Too little omega 3s: We are not consuming enough foods that are rich in omega 3s – primarily from fish sources.
  1. Far too much omega 6s: We are consuming an extremely large amount of processed seed and vegetable oils that are very high in omega 6s. Soybean oil seems to be one of the biggest sources of omega 6s in the USA.
  1. Too many refined foods: We are consuming huge amounts of refined foods, and a high percentage of those foods contain unhealthy seed and vegetable oils (soybean, corn, safflower, sunflower, and canola oils) that are very high in omega 6s.

What are the possible long-term effects of too many omega 6 fatty acids?

Consuming too many omega 6 fatty acids in relation to omega 3 fatty acids has been linked to an increase in all inflammatory diseases. This includes systemic inflammation, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, digestive issues, arthritis, asthma, autoimmune diseases and cancer. Another effect could be increased free radical damage to the cells and oxidative stress that cause premature aging.

What is considered a healthy omega 6 to omega 3 ratio?

There is some controversy here, but some medical experts seem to agree that a healthy ratio is anywhere from 1 to 4 omega 6 fatty acids to 1 omega 3 fatty acid.

How does one achieve a healthier ratio?

This is a long term process and should be part of a healthy dietary lifestyle. Changing the body’s balance of omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids is not an instant process – after all, accumulating a high amount of omega 6 fatty acids in the body does not happen in one day.

In terms of changing to a healthier ratio, it is important to note that the best plan of action would be to substantially reduce the omega 6 fatty acids while increasing the omega 3 fatty acids. It would not be healthy to leave the omega 6 fatty acid consumption at a high level and simply try to consume more omega 3 fatty acids to compensate.

Here is a simple, four step process that can be used to achieve a healthier ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids:

  1. Develop the habit of reading the labels on foods you are considering as a purchase. The ingredients list will tell you what the product contains, such as unhealthy vegetable oils. The nutrition facts table will give you some information about the overall nutritional value of the product.
  1. Avoid processed / refined foods and vegetable oils that are high in omega 6 fatty acids. That would include soybean oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, cottonseed oil, corn oil and peanut oil.
  1. Eat plenty of omega 3 rich foods, including salmon, mackerel, tuna, flaxseed and walnuts.
  1. If you feel it is necessary, take a high quality omega 3 supplement – a fish oil from a safe source such as krill.

By reducing omega 6 fatty acids and increasing omega 3 fatty acids in the diet, the risk for inflammatory illnesses, oxidative stress and premature aging will decrease, and overall health and vitality will increase.

Do you find it confusing to sort through all the nutritional information available online? Do you have some questions about how to have balanced daily nutrition to nourish and support you in your active lifestyle? I’d be happy to help you! Contact me and let’s talk!


Info Resources:

Authority Nutrition

Dr. Andrew Weil

World’s Healthiest Foods

Chris Kresser


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