It you follow the popular media, it’s pretty easy to get confused about the little snippets of information you might hear swirling around here and there about what we should and shouldn’t be eating.
I do see a lot of confusion from readers and clients about the relationship between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Because popular media recommends eating more omega-3 fats and limiting omega-6 fatty acids, many people assume this means omega-3s are good and omega-6s are bad. This is not necessarily true. Both types of fatty acids are essential for good health- but as you’ll see below, it is the ratio between the two types that is of utmost importance for great health. Keep reading!
What Are Fatty Acids Anyway?
Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are the product of the breakdown of dietary fat. The cells use them for energetic and metabolic processes. Because your body does not synthesize its own omega-3 or omega-6 fatty acids, they are considered “essential fatty acids (EFAs.)” That is, you must get these fatty acids from the foods you eat in order to sustain good health.
Neither omega-3 fatty acids nor omega-6 fatty acids are “bad.” Your body needs both for optimal health; however, it requires a balance between the two in order to function properly. According to an article in Biomedicine and Pharmacotherapy, the body requires a balance between the two at a ratio of about 1:1. Unfortunately, the typical Western diet has a ratio that is closer to 15:1 to 16.7:1 (and sometimes as high as 30:1!), with the imbalance skewing towards extremely high levels of omega-6 fatty acids. This can lead to lots of detrimental health and beauty issues! To understand why, let’s check out the roles both types of EFAs play in the body.
Role of Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Omega-6 fatty acids play many roles in cell regulation, structure, and protection. These functions are critical. Some of the functions of omega-6 fatty acids in the body include:
Regulate metabolic function
Promote immune response, including inflammation
Promotes normal blood lipid profiles
Promote platelet aggregation (essential for blood clotting)
Foods containing omega-6 fatty acids are pretty ubiquitous, without trying to seek it out or consume it specifically. It is present in seeds, nuts, whole grains, cereals, avocados, etc. But the reason the average Western diet contains way too much omega-6 fatty acids is the massive consumption of vegetable oils such as sunflower, soybean, and corn oils- not only for cooking, but also through eating processed foods, of which a shockingly high percentage contain these oils. Go ahead and check the label of snack foods! It’s in chips, crackers, frozen foods, etc. etc.
By the way, if you eat vegan products such as Earth Balance or Vegenaise, which I strongly caution against doing, you are eating virtually pure and large amounts of these omega-6 polyunsaturated vegetable oils (!). Like I always say, just because you are a vegan or vegetarian does not automatically mean you are healthy! You have to make good choices and stick to whole foods. Such oil-based products are processed and as far from being a whole food as can be.
Role of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are far less common in the typical Western diet, which is why the ratio between the two EFAs gets out of whack. Omega-3 fatty acids:
Reduce and regulate inflammation
Keeps blood from excessive clotting
Reduce cytokines, which are involved in inflammatory processes
Improve insulin response
Promote healthy cell membranes
Regulate prostaglandin production
Food sources of omega-3 fatty acids include seeds like chia, flax, and pumpkin, as well as walnuts. It’s also contained in some fish, but there are a lot of contamination issues with fish. Fish basically bathe all day tons of toxins and waste that is dumped into the oceans and waterways daily, which may not be visible to the naked eye but under a microscope could appear quite frightening.
Health Effects of EFA Imbalance
The imbalance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in the typical Western diet shows up in our society’s declining health. Health issues related to an EFA imbalance arise primarily from inflammation. Some of these health problems include:
Inflammatory and chronic pain conditions
Hardening of the arteries
Poor blood lipid profiles
Depression and anxiety
The main reason the Western diet is so far out of balance is the amount of processed foods most people eat. Processed foods are extremely high in omega-6 fatty acids because they contain many of the oils and ingredients that are high in omega-6 fatty acids, but not omega-3 fatty acids.
While many health professionals recommend remedying this situation by supplementing omega-3 fatty acids (such as from fish oil, which can often be rancid), I feel there’s a far better way. When you switch to a whole foods diet that relies primarily on the healthy plant foods our bodies crave, including fruits, vegetables, healthy whole grains, as well as some raw nuts and seeds (especially chia, my fav), your diet naturally shifts to the best balance between EFAs to support good health. This type of a diet is very similar to what our ancestors were able to naturally forage, and it is the diet human beings evolved to eat.
Note: Omega-3 fatty acids are converted into longer-chain EPA and DHA fats which are considered “nonessential”, since they can be made from the omega-3 fats found in greens, seeds and nuts. However, people’s ability to convert the omega-3 fatty acids into DHA may vary. Taking an algae-based DHA supplement can be nutritional insurance. Algae is the primary source from which the fish obtain their DHA.
So what’s the bottom line? The best way to balance your EFAs is to minimize processed and fast foods and instead rely on fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and healthy whole grains like quinoa, millet and amaranth which are inexpensive to source. The Beauty Detox program is a very EFA-balanced diet that can help reduce inflammation and leave you feeling better and looking more glowing and healthy than you have in years!