Balancing the Omega-6 Omega-3 Ratio
Omega-3s & Omega-6s: How Much Do We Need, How Much is Too Much?
Good ‘ol omega-3s and omega-6s—we could all use more of them in our diets! Right? Well…it’s not quite so simple. For one of these fatty acids, this is solid advice—eat more! But, for the other, having “too much of a good thing” is very possible, and it’s a reality for most of us. But do you know which is which?
Yes, we do need to eat both omega-3s and omega-6s, but there’s some major misunderstanding surrounding these kinds of fatty acids. We’re often encouraged to eat more fatty fish or take a fish oil supplement, while we’re also told to load up on healthy fats from nuts like almonds and walnuts. Sometimes the term “healthy fats” can make omega-3s and omega-6s seem like they’re the same thing, but they’re not. (To better understand the differences between “healthy fats,” I highly recommend checking out the omega-3-6-9 blog to learn the basics before proceeding with this blog post!)
And then, even within the same category of fats, there are differences. You’ve probably heard about how SUPER flaxseeds and chia seeds are because of their omega-3 content. Just 2 teaspoons of dried chia seeds contain as many omega-3s as a 3-ounce filet of salmon! But, the omega-3s in chia, flax, and other plant-based foods are entirely different than those we find in animal sources—particularly in marine animals. All omega-3s are NOT the same, and we can’t get the same benefits from eating flax or chia seeds that we can get from eating fatty fish and seafood.
Much of what we’ve learned or what we hear about “healthy fats” can be misleading or incomplete information. It’s not always intentionally so—understanding fatty acids and how they work in our bodies is complicated! As new research emerges, we start to understand more. But, it’s up to us to educate ourselves and stay informed. So, how many omega-3s and omega-6s should we be eating? How can we maximize the benefits of these fats in our diets? Too many of us know little-to-nothing about this, yet it’s one of the most important topics concerning our health: balancing our omega-6 to omega-3 ratio.
What are Omega-3s and Omega-6s?
Fatty acids provide fuel for our bodies, and they play a role in just about every single function in the body! There’s a lot to learn when it comes to the different types of fatty acids—they’re complex and intimately intertwined with our overall health. Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids serve important purposes, and they have some similarities:
- Both omega-3s and omega-6s are essential fatty acids. This means the body can’t synthesize these fats on its own, and we need them for crucial bodily functions. So, we have to consume dietary sources of omega-3s and omega-6s. While omega-9s (monounsaturated fats [MUFAs], like those in olive oil or avocados) have many health benefits, they’re not essential because our body can produce them.
- Omega-3s and omega-6s are also both polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). These fats have many (“poly”) double bonds (“unsaturated”).
- PUFAs generally don’t do well with high-temperature cooking. The double bonds in PUFAs tend to be more reactive to heat, producing free radicals when the fatty acid reaches its smoke point and starts to oxidize. For this reason, oils that are especially rich in omega-6s or omega-3s aren’t ideal for high temperatures, like when frying or roasting.
The Difference Between Omega-3s and Omega-6s
BUT, even though omega-3s and omega-6s are both essential, they ultimately do different kinds of work in our bodies. In simple terms, omega-3s (particularly the marine omega-3s, EPA and DHA) have an anti-inflammatory effect, while omega-6s can have a pro-inflammatory effect. Omega-6s are biologically active in our bodies, as are the marine omega-3s. But, omega-6s are active in such a way that promotes inflammation, unlike EPA and DHA which fight inflammation.
Now, inflammation has been a hot topic in the health world recently. Research has revealed that chronic inflammation plays a major role in chronic diseases—heart disease, diabetes, cancer—which are some of the leading causes of death in the U.S. But, not all inflammation is bad, and we certainly can’t cut omega-6s out of our diet completely. We all need some inflammation because it helps to protect our bodies and aid in healing processes, like after strenuous physical activity or exercise. The problems arise when that inflammation is chronic, as in continuous and excessive. This is where our ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s comes into play: too many omega-6s and too few omega-3s can lead to damaging chronic inflammation.
The Optimum Omega-6 to Omega-3 Ratio
Though both omega-3s and omega-6s are essential parts of a healthy diet, consuming too many omega-6s can negate the health benefits that either of these fatty acids offer. Combined with omega-3s, omega-6s offer us many health benefits! The key is to find the sweet spot—the right ratio—of omega-6s to omega-3s in our diet. Ideally, we want to aim for an omega 6 : omega-3 ratio of about 2:1. Some recommendations range up to a 4:1 ratio, but, in general, the lower the better. This means eating only around 2 to 4 times as many omega-6s as omega-3s.
Sounds like it should be easy, right? Wrong. Currently, most people in developed, Western nations eat WAY too many omega-6s and too few omega-3s. It’s estimated that the average omega-6 : omega-3 ratio in the U.S. is around 10:1, ranging up to 25:1 or even 50:1! No wonder chronic inflammation and diseases are so prevalent. It’s believed that our ancestors ate a diet that resulted in a 1:1 ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s. Anthropologists who have discovered this in their research have also found that, in our hunter-gatherer days, humans weren’t suffering from the inflammatory diseases we face today! So what changed?
Humankind settled down, we domesticated livestock, and we industrialized. As livestock became more prevalent, we transitioned from grass to cereal grains as a cheaper form of feed, which then changed the fatty acids in the meat that we consume. (Grain-fed = more omega-6s in your meat. Seriously, you are what you eat.) New food industries emerged, like the vegetable oil industry, and those omega-6-rich oils made way for the gazillions of processed foods and snacks available to us today. We now eat fewer omega-3s, and all of those processed snacks, baked goods, and restaurant meals made with vegetable oils mean we’re consuming more omega-6s than ever. Moral of the story: most of our omega-6 to omega-3 ratios are out of whack, and it’s having serious consequences on our health.
Omega-6 Overload & Chronic Inflammation
If you’ve read my omega-3-6-9 blog, you know that fatty acids are part of every cell in the body. Think of it like this: a house is built of bricks, and those bricks are made of cement. If that cement mixture isn’t made quite right, then those bricks won’t be as sturdy and that house on a shakier foundation. In the same way, the fatty acids that we consume in our foods have a direct effect on the concentration of fatty acids in our cells—which then affects the health and strength of those cells. Again, I have to repeat this: you are what you eat!
Omega-6s generally promote inflammation, which we need them to do to some extent. Omega-3s tend to fight inflammation. But, one always affects the other. Even if we eat some omega-3s, their anti-inflammatory benefits can be negated by consuming too many omega-6s. Put simply, inflammation in the body increases as ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s increases. By the same token, inflammation can decrease as we balance our omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. And, that decrease in inflammation is no small feat—it means we also decrease our risk for chronic diseases.
In the U.S., around 9-10% of our calories on average come from omega-6s, and the result is a 75% concentration of omega-6s in our body tissue. That means our “bricks” or cells are made of mostly omega-6s, and our house/body is an extremely inflammatory environment. The USA has the highest intake of omega-6s, which is directly correlated with the highest risk of death from heart disease. Every year, 40% of deaths in America are caused by heart disease. In Japan, even though there are higher rates of smoking and high blood pressure, the risk of coronary heart disease is 87% lower than in the U.S.! How can that be? Researchers found Japanese subjects had about 60% of their body tissue made from omega-3 fats.
So, the first and most crucial step to finding omega-6 : omega-3 balance is to decrease our intake of omega-6s. To do that, we need to be aware of some of the major sources of omega-6s that lurk in our diets today:
- Vegetable oils, like soybean oil (which currently provides most Americans with around 20% of their total calories!), corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, cottonseed oil, peanut oil, and canola oil—even if you don’t personally cook with these oils at home, they are hiding in SO many common foods today!
- Processed foods and snacks which are made using these oils.
- Baked goods made with vegetable oils, like cookies, cakes, pastries, and muffins—and even some candies!
- Salad dressings, because (you guessed it) most use some kind of vegetable oil as a base.
- Restaurant and fast-food meals, which are often cooked or fried in various vegetable oils.
While cutting down on or eliminating processed foods, sweets and eating out can lead to a healthier lifestyle overall, they’re not the only source of omega-6s. Remember, omega-6s are an essential fat for a reason! We do need them, just not in excessive amounts. Vegetable oils aren’t the only culprit. We need to be aware that there are omega-6s in plenty of healthy, wholesome foods, too:
- Nuts and seeds, especially walnuts, sesame seeds, pine nuts, pecans, pumpkin seeds, peanuts, and almonds.
- Meats, like pork, turkey, chicken, beef short rib, and lamb.
- Dairy products, like butter, cheese, milk, and eggs, especially from grain-fed animals rather than grass-fed.
- Produce like soybeans/edamame, sweet peppers, avocados, and tomatoes.
- Fish that’s canned in oil (instead of canned in water or fresh fish) can actually provide more omega-6s than omega-3s, so be aware!
Plenty of these foods can still be great sources of fuel. By no means am I implying that we shouldn’t eat these foods! Again, we absolutely shouldn’t cut out omega-6s entirely, but we could all benefit from monitoring and limiting our intake. Even if you eat no vegetable oils or processed foods (which, kudos to you if that’s the case!), it’s still possible to have an imbalance of omega-6s to omega-3s.
At the same time, we can benefit from increasing our intake of omega-3s. We can find omega-3s in marine sources, like salmon and other oily fish, as well as in plant-based sources, like certain nuts, seeds, and veggies. But, remember, while “omega-3s” is often used as a general term to imply a food is healthy, not all omega-3s are created equal! It’s important to know this as we try to better balance our omega-6 : omega-3 ratio.
The Difference Between Plant and Animal Omega-3s
To understand the different kinds of omega-3s and their benefits more fully, I highly recommend looking at the omega-3-6-9 blog! As a quick recap here, there are 3 main types of omega-3s—EPA, DHA, and ALA—but, they have different properties because of their different structures. Both EPA and DHA are long-chain fatty acids, while ALA is a short-chain fatty acid:
Long-Chain: EPA & DHA
- Long-chain means EPA and DHA break down slowly in the body
- EPA can stay in the body around 80 hours, DHA up to 60 days
- Structural elements in our cells that are active in the body and brain, maintaining crucial functions
- Produce anti-inflammatory eicosanoids, which help to reduce inflammation
- Only found in animal sources, most prominently in marine animals (hence, “marine omega-3s)
- Short-chain means ALA is rapidly absorbed by the body
- ALA is generally gone within 10 hours of consuming it
- Generally used or stored as energy, remains inactive in the body unless it’s able to convert to EPA or DHA
- Has neither an anti- nor pro-inflammatory effect, is neutral in the body
- Mainly found in plant sources, but also in certain animal products like dairy, specialty eggs, and some fish
Although EPA, DHA, and ALA all fall within the omega-3 category as essential fats, they do not function the same, nor provide the same benefits to our health. EPA is the precursor to DHA, which is in every cell in our body and makes up 8% of our brain by weight. DHA is so crucial to the brain, which is why our body can hold onto it for months! Now, ALA is capable of converting into EPA and DHA, but our bodies aren’t very good at doing it. Some researchers estimate that 10% of ALA is converted into EPA, but recent studies suggest less than 1% is converted in people who eat a typical Western diet. With DHA, the conversion rate is even lower.
The reality is, our bodies do need some ALA, but it remains inactive when it’s not converted to EPA or DHA. So, ALA from sources like chia and flax seeds cannot sufficiently replace EPA and DHA from salmon or other marine sources in our diet. Put simply, you would need to eat an enormous—arguably impossible—amount of plant-based omega-3s to synthesize enough EPA and DHA in your body. This is important to know if you’re a vegetarian or living a plant-based lifestyle. It’s crucial that you do your research about how to maintain a healthy diet and supplement for the EPA and DHA that you’ll be lacking. And, there are plenty of resources out there of others doing it! Even if you’re not on a plant-based diet, consider your omega-3 intake—are you getting enough marine omegas?
Everything is Interconnected
To truly benefit from the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3s, we need to be consuming quality sources of EPA and DHA. While the ALA from sources like chia or flax seeds can provide our body with some energy, only a small amount will convert into these long-chain fatty acids so ALA isn’t enough on its own. But, it’s also important to know that the current understanding of ALA’s low conversion rate in our bodies may be skewed. Why?
ALA needs certain enzymes in order to convert into EPA and DHA. Omega-3s (like ALA) and omega-6s are competing for the same enzymes in our bodies. So, if there is a large amount of omega-6s in the diet, they will hijack those enzymes and make it much harder for ALA to convert into those long-chain forms! One study measured a 40% decrease in the conversion of ALA to DHA when people consumed more linoleic acid, one of the most common omega-6s. Because many Western nations—especially the U.S.—have developed diets with far too many omega-6s:
- we’re extremely prone to inflammation, which means we’re more prone to chronic diseases.
- omega-3s don’t have as beneficial of an effect, even if we do consume a moderate amount.
- our bodies are even worse at converting ALA into those long-chain, anti-inflammatory omega-3s, EPA and DHA.
But, if we decrease omega-6 consumption, we allow omega-3s to use more of those enzymes and have a greater anti-inflammatory effect on us. And, our body could actually become better at converting ALA to DHA. If we both limit our omega-6s AND eat more omega-3s—especially EPA and DHA—we’ll put our bodies into a healthy balance. Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean eating pounds of salmon every day! If we continue consuming omega-6s in excess, then yes, we would need to eat a whole lot of salmon and other omega-3s. But, limiting omega-6s means we can consume a moderate amount of omega-3s (a few servings of salmon or fatty fish per week) and still find that balance.
Foods with a High Omega-3 to Omega-6 Ratio
It’s our responsibility to be aware of how many omega-6s we’re consuming, to limit our intake as needed, and to get enough omega-3s to find that ideal balance. As always, knowledge is power! Go out and do your own research. Educate yourself about different fatty acids, and in which foods you’ll find them. To help get you started, here’s a list of foods with a high omega-3 to omega-6 ratio—meaning they can help us increase our omega-3 intake while also decreasing omega-6 intake!
Keep in mind, this ratio is the reverse of the omega-6 : omega-3 ratio we’ve been discussing. Since most foods contain many types of fatty acids—including omega-3s and omega-6s—we’re looking for foods with more omega-3s than omega-6s. If you come across different ratios in your research, be sure to pay attention to whether you’re looking at an omega-3 : omega-6 ratio (like the values for the foods listed below), or an omega-6 : omega-3 ratio. We want a higher value for omega-3 : omega-6 ratios, but a lower value for omega-6 : omega-3 ratios!
*NOTE: The omega-3 : omega-6 ratio here is divided to provide a single number. For example, the value for wild-caught salmon is 12, which would be an omega-3 : omega-6 ratio of 12:1. This is because a 3-ounce serving of salmon has 1.7g omega-3s, divided by its 0.14g omega-6s, which equals a ratio of about 12. If the ratio is 1, that means there are equal amounts of omega-3s and omega-6s. The higher the number is, the more omega-3s that food has relative to omega-6s!
But, a higher number does NOT mean that food has more omega-3s objectively. Though the ratio for canned tuna is higher than wild-caught salmon, canned tuna only has 0.24g omega-3s per 3 ounces, while the same serving of salmon has 1.7g. So, the foods here are listed in each category with the highest objective omega-3 content at the top! All values provided here were calculated using the Nutrition Data from self.com.