The 411 on Omega 3-6-9 Fatty Acids
What Are Omega-3s, Omega-6s, and Omega-9s?
Most of us have heard it before: “Get your omega-3s!” Sometimes followed by: “Eat more fatty fish!” or “Eat more flax and chia seeds!” Maybe you’ve even heard about omega-3 supplements, like fish oil, cod liver oil, krill oil, and flax oil. Why’s there so much hype?
For some good reasons, actually. Omega-3s are pretty much the super-est of superfoods. This is why you’ll find items like salmon and flax seeds—both excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids—at the top of most superfood lists. Studies have linked omega-3 consumption with some pretty serious benefits, like a lowered risk of heart disease, decreased inflammation, cancer prevention, relief from depression, and even a delayed onset of memory problems and Alzheimer’s as we age. But, amazing as they are, omega-3s aren’t the whole story.
Omega-3s are just one category of fatty acids that do important work in our bodies. There are also omega-6s, as well as omega-9s—which are both common in vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds. But, even though they can be found in similar dietary sources, omega-6s and omega-9s aren’t the same, either! So what’s the difference?? Here’s what you need to know about omega-3s, -6s, and -9s—and in which foods you’ll find them.
What are Fatty Acids? Why are They “Omegas”?
Fatty acids are molecules, known as hydrocarbon chains (a chain of hydrogen and carbon atoms). Somewhere near the end (the “omega”) of the carbon chain, there’s a double bond between two carbon atoms. Some fatty acids have this double bond at the 3rd carbon atom from the end of their carbon chain. These are known as “omega-3” fatty acids, which actually stands for “omega minus 3,” because the double bond is at the omega position minus 3 atoms. So, omega-6s have their double bond at the 6th carbon atom from the end of their carbon chain, and omega-9s double bond at the 9th carbon atom from the end of their chain. Pretty cool, right?!
These fatty acid molecules bond together to form the fats in our foods—usually in groups of three, known as triglycerides. You may have heard about triglycerides in not-so-friendly terms, usually in relation to high levels of “blood triglycerides” (fat in the blood) and heart disease. While triglyceride levels can offer us some useful information about a person’s health, new research has revealed that eating dietary fats is not what raises triglycerides, cholesterol, or heart disease risk. (Inflammation is thought to play a major role, and triglycerides are also made in our bodies from the carbs that we eat!)
Fat is NOT Bad—It’s Essential!
When we eat fats in our foods, our bodies break them back down into fatty acids. Those fatty acids are actually hugely important in our bodies—for energy, for energy storage, and really for all systems of our bodies to function. They play a part in our skin health, respiratory system, circulatory system, organs, and especially in our brains. They help our bodies absorb vitamins and nutrients from food. They can help us regulate our blood pressure and inflammation. Most importantly, fatty acids are the building blocks of our cell membranes, and they are part of every cell in our bodies. This is why our dietary intake is worth considering. The kinds of fat that we eat directly affect us on a cellular level.
Most of us know about saturated and unsaturated fats, but we’re focusing on unsaturated fats today. Not because saturated fats are “bad” (that myth has actually been debunked), but because omega-3-6-9 fatty acids are all unsaturated fats. Each offers benefits to our bodies, but some are more important than others. Omega-3s and omega-6s are essential fats, which means the body can’t produce them on its own so we need to seek out dietary sources. Omega-9s are are non-essential fats because our bodies can produce them, but we can still benefit from dietary omega-9s like olive oil and avocados.
Though all 3 of these types of fatty acids are important, they work together in a delicate balance. All of these fats can be good, but they can also lead to health problems if we eat them in the wrong ratios. (More about this in my Balancing Omega-3s and Omega-6s blog, coming soon!) Not all fats are created equal—not even all omega-3s. Fat can be a powerful nutrient, with major benefits (or consequences) to our health, depending on how informed we are. As always, I’m excited to share information with you all, and I still encourage you to continue researching on your own so you can make informed choices about what’s best for you!
We’ve learned that omega-3s are one type of fatty acid. When people refer to omega-3s in a dietary sense like, “Get your omega-3s!” they’re talking about foods that contain omega-3s. Remember, the fats in foods get broken down by our bodies into fatty acids, which then go to work inside of us.
Omega-3s: The Basics
- Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs)—which means they have many (“poly”) double bonds (“unsaturated”)
- Essential fats—the body can’t synthesize them, so we must consume them from dietary sources
Most Common Types of Omega-3s
Long-Chain Fatty Acids
These fatty acids are found only in animal sources—specifically marine animals, which is why they’re often referred to as marine omega-3s:
- EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid)—used by the body to produce chemicals called eicosanoids, which help to reduce inflammation. Sufficient EPA in the brain is also thought to reduce symptoms of depression and lower the risk of suicide. EPA is also the precursor to DHA.
- DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)—makes up about 8% of our brains by weight, and over 90% of the omega-3s in the brain are DHA. As you can imagine, it’s important for brain development and healthy brain functioning. DHA is also a component in every cell in your body!
Short-Chain Fatty Acid
This fatty acid comes mainly from plant sources, though it’s found in some animal sources as well:
- ALA (alpha-linolenic acid)— mainly used by the body for energy. ALA is inactive in our bodies unless it’s converted into long-chain omega-3s like EPA and DHA. Though ALA can be converted into EPA or DHA, the body is very inefficient at doing so and it’s not a sufficient substitute for EPA or DHA consumption.
Potential Benefits of Omega-3s
Current understanding of the benefits of ALA are mixed—some research shows it can be good for heart health, some shows a correlation with prostate cancer, and some shows little to no beneficial effect.
But, studies focusing on diets that are rich in marine omega-3s (DHA and EPA) have revealed some profound benefits:
- Fight inflammation—which contributes to chronic diseases, like heart disease, diabetes, cancer; can improve symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis
- Improve heart health—increase good cholesterol, reduce triglycerides, lower blood pressure, decrease plaque in arteries
- Support brain health—crucial to infant brain development, can improve memory and attention, slows the decline in brain function as we age (specifically eating fatty fish), can improve memory in older people and help delay Alzheimer’s or prevent dementia
- Protect our eyes—guard against retina damage and macular degeneration
- Promote bone and muscle health—better bone mineral density, can ease symptoms of cystic fibrosis
- Foster mental health—reduce symptoms of depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder; reduce risk of psychotic disorders
- Help with weight loss—aid in weight management, reducing waist size, and decreasing liver fat
Omega-3s Recommended Intake
There are no official standards or requirements for daily omega-3 intake yet, but some guidelines are out there:
- The Food and Nutrition Board of the U.S. Institute of Medicine sets the adequate omega-3 intake at 1.6g for men and 1.1g for women per day.
- The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends eating at least 2 servings (3.5oz each) of fatty fish per week, like salmon, herring, sardines, and anchovies.
- Because of the risk of mercury content in fish, it’s ideal to obtain our marine omega-3s from small, wild-caught fish that are free of toxins.
- While nuts and seeds are the main source of ALA, you can also find smaller amounts of ALA in some vegetables.
Here are a few examples of foods with higher omega-3 content. Keep in mind, these animal-based sources provide primarily EPA and DHA while the plant-based sources only provide ALA. This means plant- and animal-based omega-3s function differently in our bodies and provide different benefits. (More about this in my Balancing Omega-3s and Omega-6s blog, coming soon!) And, these are just some of the omega-3 foods in the world—there are many more!
Animal-Based Omega-3 Sources:
- Salmon (wild-caught is best!)
- Omega-3 supplements (very poor absorption rate compared to eating real seafood)
- Small amounts in organs/fat of land animals
Plant-Based Omega-3 Sources:
- Chia seeds & chia oil
- Flaxseeds & flax oil
- Walnuts & walnut oil
- Hemp seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Canola oil
- Roasted soybeans
- Winter squash
- Brussels sprouts
*Beware of high mercury content in these fish!
Omega-6s are often confused or used interchangeably with omega-3s, but they’re not the same! There are a few key differences, and it’s important to be aware of them.
Omega-6s: The Basics
Like, omega-3s, omega-6s are:
- Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs)
- Essential fats
BUT, omega-6s are generally:
- Both anti-inflammatory and pro-inflammatory—some omega-6s are anti-inflammatory, but some are pro-inflammatory. This is intended to help our bodies repair after strenuous exercise, but this inflammation can be harmful in excess.
Most Common Types of Omega-6s
- Linoleic acid (LA)—one of the most common omega-6s we find in our food sources, especially vegetable oils like corn oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, and canola oil); LA takes on many other forms:
- Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)—a slightly altered form of linoleic acid, found in grass-fed meat and dairy products, known as a supplement for bodybuilding that may help reduce body fat mass
- Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA)—found in certain vegetable oils (like primrose and hemp seed oil), and is produced in the body from LA; much of GLA converts into DGLA, which is another source of anti-inflammatory eicosanoids (like EPA)
- Arachidonic acid (ARA or AA)—linoleic acid must be converted into other longer-chain omega-6s like ARA to become active in the body; ARA is important for the immune system; prevalent in the brain, liver, and especially skeletal muscle; used to produce both pro- and anti-inflammatory eicosanoids
Potential Benefits of Omega-6s
Omega-6s are essential fatty acids for a reason. Our bodies can’t make them, but we do need them. Omega-6s play a role in many bodily functions, and some may help to treat symptoms of chronic disease:
- Promote skin and hair growth
- Help maintain bone health
- Aids in repairing and growing our skeletal muscle—helps us recover after exercise, specifically ARA
- Can help increase lean body mass—some studies have linked ARA with building strength and it’s often used as a bodybuilding supplement; CLA is also used in bodybuilding supplements, but recent research suggests these are pro-inflammatory
- Regulate metabolism
- Potentially cancer preventative—some studies link CLA to cancer prevention and slowing the growth of tumors; GLA may aid in breast cancer treatment
- Some anti-inflammatory effects—both ARA and GLA have some anti-inflammatory properties, and GLA supplements may reduce symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis
But, omega-6s in general tend to have a pro-inflammatory effect, which can contribute to chronic inflammation in our bodies. Chronic inflammation is linked to serious, chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. This doesn’t mean omega-6s are bad by any means—our bodies do need them. The problem is that most people (especially in industrial societies) consume far too many omega-6s in our diets.
Omega-6s Recommended Intake
Like omega-3s, there aren’t yet official standards or requirements for daily omega-6 intake.
- The Food and Nutrition Board of the U.S. Institute of Medicine sets the adequate daily intake of omega-6s at 17g for men and 12g for women (for adults 19-50 years old).
We should still be wary of this guideline. Research on fatty acids is still new and conclusions are uncertain. But, one thing is becoming more clear: the ratio of our omega-6 to our omega-3 intake is crucial to our health. For optimum health, it’s recommended that we aim for an omega-6 : omega-3 ratio somewhere between 2:1 or 4:1. That means eating only around 2 to 4 times as many omega-6s as omega-3s. But, most people in Western nations consume far more omega-6s than omega-3s, with ratios averaging around 15:1 and as high as 50:1! Even the adequate omega-6 and omega-3 intakes proposed by the Food and Nutrition Board result in an over 10:1 ratio.
We’re eating fewer omega-3s and eating more omega-6s than ever—particularly because we’re consuming more vegetable oils than ever in processed foods, baked goods, restaurant meals, and even in our own cooking. This ratio imbalance is now thought to be a major factor in chronic inflammation and chronic diseases. It’s important to pay attention to our intake of omega-6s and omega-3s and modify as needed! For most of us, we need to limit our omega-6 intake and increase our omega-3 intake. (Again, I’ll be explaining this in detail in my Balancing Omega-3s and Omega-6s blog, coming soon!)
There are some common sources of omega-6 foods—mainly vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds. Some of these omega-6 sources, like vegetable oils, have a well-studied inflammatory effect on our bodies. As discussed above, some omega-6s aren’t inflammatory, but omega-6s have an inflammatory effect in general when consumed in excess. Remember, we do need some omega-6s, but many of us may need to consider lowering our current omega-6 intake and increasing intake of marine omega-3s.
Vegetable Oils High in Omega-6s:
- Grapeseed oil
- Safflower oil
- Soybean oil*
- Corn oil*
- Cottonseed oil
- Sunflower oil
- Sesame oil
- Walnut oil
- Peanut oil
- Canola oil*
Nuts & Seeds High in Omega-6s:
- Sunflower seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sesame seeds
- Pine nuts
- Brazil nuts
- Peanuts & peanut butter
- Almonds & almond butter
- Cashews & cashew butter
Other Omega-6 Sources:
- Chicken, turkey, duck, pork—esp. fats & skin
- Egg yolk
- Cheese, milk, butter
- Fried foods (typically fried in vegetable oils)*
- Processed foods*
- Baked goods*
- Restaurant & fast food meals (often cooked in vegetable oils)*
- Salad dressings*
*These items are major sources of omega-6s in many of our diets, many of which are also associated with negative health consequences. Limiting our intake of these foods can help us to balance our omega-6 : omega-3 ratio.
Even if you don’t cook with vegetable oils at home, they’re present in SO many processed foods, baked goods, salad dressings, and they’re commonly used for cooking in restaurants. These are common foods that some of us may eat every day, which throws our omega-6 : omega-3 ratio out of balance. Start paying attention to your omega-6 and omega-3 intake—you may need to make some changes to your typical diet.
Omega-9s are far less talked about than omega-3s or omega-6s. Many people don’t even know that omega-9s exist! (For awhile, I sure didn’t…) Though they play a different role from the fatty acids we’ve discussed so far, omega-9s have been associated with some major health benefits—provided that our omega-6 : omega-3 ratio is in balance, of course!
Omega-9s: The Basics
Unlike omega-3s and omega-6s, omega-9s are:
- Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs)—which means they only have one (“mono”) double bond (“unsaturated)
- Non-essential fats—they can be produced by the body, so we don’t technically need to consume them in our diet
Omega-9s, a.k.a. MUFAs, are produced by the body when we already have enough omega-3s and omega-6s. Because our bodies can make omega-9s, they’re deemed non-essential. But, they still play an important role in our health. In fact, omega-9s are the most abundant fats in most cells in our bodies! Monounsaturated fats are often talked about as one of the healthiest kinds of fats. They perform important functions, like carrying vitamins and minerals to our cells, and no there are no known negative side effects associated with consuming MUFAs.
Most Common Type of Omega-9s
There’s one omega-9 that is most known and most commonly found in our food:
- Oleic acid—occurs naturally in some vegetable and animal oils, especially olive oil and macadamia oil; oleic acid specifically is the second-most abundant fatty acid in the human body
Potential Benefits of Omega-9s
If you’ve ever heard about the Mediterranean Diet and its many health benefits, then you know some of the ways omega-9s can improve our health. The Mediterranean diet is characteristically high in MUFAs like olive oil! MUFAs have loads of health benefits that have been the subject of much research:
- Heart healthy—on a low-fat diet, it’s been found that increasing monounsaturated fats in the diet to replace saturated fats can lower triglycerides and balance cholesterol levels
- Anti-inflammatory—MUFAs can reduce inflammation in our bodies, which ward of chronic diseases and ease symptoms of other conditions like arthritis
- May improve insulin sensitivity—a study in Ireland found that diets rich in oleic acid helped lower fasting glucose and insulin levels, while also improving blood flow
- Can help with weight loss—especially in those at-risk for obesity, more MUFAs and fewer saturated fats can help lower body fat and decrease waist circumference
- Can improve immune function
- Mood elevator—in studies, MUFAs have helped reduce anger levels and been associated with a reduced risk of depression
- Strengthens bones—helps our body to absorb nutrients like calcium more efficiently, so it can actually be used by our bones
- Potentially cancer–fighting—MUFAs have been linked to lower risk of some cancers in various studies
Omega-9s Recommended Intake
There are no existing intake requirements or recommendations for omega-9s, because our bodies can produce them. (If, for some reason, our bodies didn’t get enough omega-3s or omega-6s, then we’d need to get omega-9s from our diet because our bodies wouldn’t be able to produce them.) But, clearly, MUFAs offer our bodies some serious benefits, deserving of a place in our healthy lifestyles!
Though omega-9s are non-essential fats, they still offer our bodies healthful nutrients and benefits. Plus, many of them are delicious! You’ll notice that many of the foods on these omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9 lists overlap. Just like we need different fats in our bodies to function, foods also have an overlap in terms of their fatty acid composition. Many foods contain all 3 of these fatty acids!
Vegetable & Seed Oils:
- Olive oil
- Cashew nut oil
- Almond oil
- Avocado oil
- Peanut oil
- Canola oil
- Safflower oil
- Sunflower oil
Nuts & Seeds:
- Macadamia nuts
- Peanuts & peanut butter
- Almonds & almond butter
- Sesame seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Flax seeds
- Red meat
Other Plant-Based Sources:
Finding Omega-3-6-9 Balance
Optimizing your omega-6 : omega-3 ratio can be tricky business—it’s a process. It will take some researching and learning to understand which fatty acids make up the bulk of different foods. For example, canola oil does contain lots of omega-9s, but it still has a good amount of omega-6s as well, which can contribute to inflammation. If you’re trying to cut down on omega-6s, you might want to replace canola oil with olive oil or avocado oil, which are far lower in omega-6s.
And, remember, most of us generally need to increase our intake of omega-3s (especially marine omega-3s) if possible, in order to bring our bodies into a healthy balance. Ultimately, knowledge is power! Continue to seek out information and educate yourself. Read nutrition labels and ingredients lists. Listen to your body and pay attention to how you feel. YOU have to decide what’s right for you and your body!
I’ll have another blog going into more detail about Balancing Omega-3s and Omega-6s coming soon—stick around!