Omega 6 Omega 3 Ratio: Finding Balance
Omega 6 Omega 3 Ratio: 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, it’s very possible to have “too much of a good thing,” and it’s a reality for most of us. Do you know which is which? And, what in the world is an omega 6 omega 3 ratio?
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. We’re also told to load up on healthy fats from nuts like almonds and walnuts. Sometimes the term “healthy fats” makes 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!)
More to Omegas than Meets the Eye
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! 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 learn or hear about “healthy fats” can be misleading or incomplete information. Granted, it’s not always intentionally so—it’s complicated to understand how fatty acids work in our bodies! 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? And, 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 omega 3 ratio.
What are Omega 3s and What are 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. There are also omega 9s, which are monounsaturated fats [MUFAs], like those in olive oil or avocados. But, even though omega 9s have many health benefits, they’re non-essential because our bodies 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. Omega 6s have a pro inflammatory effect. Yes, 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, like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. And, these are 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. It helps to protect our bodies and aid in healing processes, like after strenuous physical activity or exercise.
But, the problems arise when that inflammation is chronic, as in continuous and excessive. This is where our omega 6 omega 3 ratio comes into play. Too many omega 6s and too few omega 3s can lead to damaging chronic inflammation.
The Optimum Omega 6 Omega 3 Ratio
So, both omega 3s and omega 6s are essential parts of a healthy diet. But, 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 omega 3 omega 6 ratio 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 it is, 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?
Currently, most people in developed Western nations eat WAY too many omega 6s and too few omega 3s. In the U.S., estimates for the average omega 6 omega 3 ratio are around 10:1, ranging up to 25:1 or even 50:1! No wonder chronic inflammation and diseases are so prevalent.
Especially considering that some anthropologists believe that our ancestors ate a diet that resulted in a 1:1 omega 6 omega 3 ratio. In their research, they’ve also found that, in our hunter-gatherer days, humans weren’t suffering from the inflammatory diseases we face today! So, what changed?
Human Civilization & The Rise of Inflammation
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. But, that 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.)
Most significantly, new food industries emerged, like the vegetable oil industry. And, those oils rich in omega 6s then paved the way for the gazillions of processed foods and snacks available to us today.
We consume SO many processed snacks, baked goods, and restaurant meals, all made with vegetable oils. We now eat fewer omega 3s, and more omega 6s than ever. Moral of the story: most people have an omega 6 omega 3 ratio that’s 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: you build a house using bricks, and you make those bricks with cement. But, if you make a cement mixture that isn’t quite right, those bricks won’t be as sturdy. And that means that house is on a shakier foundation.
In the same way, the fatty acids we consume in our foods have a direct effect on the concentration of fatty acids in our cells. And, those fatty acids then affect 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 cancelled out by consuming too many omega 6s. Put simply, inflammation in the body increases as the omega 6 omega 3 ratio increases.
By the same token, inflammation can decrease as we balance our omega 6 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, there are higher rates of smoking and high blood pressure. Yet, 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.
Finding Balance: Our Omega 6 Omega 3 Ratio
So, the first and most crucial step to finding omega 6 omega 3 ratio 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.
The blue bars in this chart represent the omega-6 content in various oils. Ideally, we want to choose oils with the SMALLEST blue bars, because those will best help us reduce our omega-6 intake and balance our omega 6 omega 3 ratio.
Plus, there are many other factors at play. For example, though the majority of fatty acids in canola oil are omega-9s, it still contains over 20% omega 6s which is significant! (And, most canola oil is highly processed and generally treated with a toxic chemical called hexane, unless you happen to buy one of the rare organic varieties.) It’s best if the majority of the oils we consume are made of only 10% of omega 6s or less, like olive oil or coconut oil.
Limiting Omega 6s, Increasing Omega 3s
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. And, 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. Because, 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- 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
- Neither anti- nor pro-inflammatory; is neutral in the body
- Mainly found in plant sources, but also certain animal products like dairy, specialty eggs, & some fish
EPA, DHA, and ALA all fall within the omega 3 category as essential fats. But, they do not function the same, nor provide the same benefits to our health. EPA is the precursor to DHA. And DHA 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!
ALA is Not the Same as EPA & DHA
Now, ALA is capable of converting into EPA and DHA, but our bodies aren’t very good at doing it. Some researchers estimate that the body converts 10% of ALA 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! But, 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 omega 3’s anti inflammatory power, we need to consume quality sources of EPA and DHA. The ALA from sources like chia or flax seeds can provide our body with some energy. But, only a small amount will convert into these long-chain fatty acids, so ALA isn’t enough on its own. 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, a large amount of omega 6s in the diet will hijack those enzymes, making it much harder for ALA to convert! 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 that Help with Inflammation: More Omega 3s, Fewer Omega 6s
It’s our responsibility to be aware of how many omega 6s we’re consuming. We have to to limit our intake as needed and 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.
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. So, to help get you started, check out the list of foods below with high ratios of omega 3s to omega 6s. That means these foods can help us increase our omega 3 intake while also decreasing omega 6 intake!
NOTE: Omega 6 Omega 3 Ratio vs. Omega 3 Omega 6 Ratio
Keep in mind, some resources will use an omega 6 omega 3 ratio (like we’ve been talking about throughout this post). Others (like the values in the charts listed below) offer the reverse ratio—an omega 3 omega 6 ratio.
So, as you come across these different ratios in your research, be sure to pay attention! In general, we’ll want a lower number (closer to 1) for a food’s omega 6 omega 3 ratio, but a higher number for a food’s omega 3 omega 6 ratio.
In the ratios listed below, higher numbers mean more omega 3s relative to omega 6s.
NOTE: Interpreting these Values
The omega 3 omega 6 ratio here is divided to provide a single number, noted in the far right-hand column.
If the ratio is 1, that means there are equal amounts of omega 3s and omega 6s (1:1). The higher that number is, the more omega 3s that food has relative to omega 6s! For example, the value for wild-caught salmon is 12, which would be an omega 3 : omega 6 ratio of 12:1.
Per 3-oz serving: 1.7g total omega 3s ÷ 0.14g total omega 6s = ~12.
But, foods are listed in rank order, those with the highest total omega 3 content at the top. A higher ratio does NOT mean that food has more omega 3s overall!
Though the ratio for canned tuna is higher than wild-caught salmon, canned tuna only has 0.24g total omega 3s per 3 ounces. The same serving of salmon has 1.7g total omega 3s per 3 ounces.
All values provided here were calculated using the Nutrition Data from self.com.
Fish & Seafood:
Omega-3s, per 3 oz:
Ratio Omega-3s to -6s:
Omega-3s, per 100g:
Ratio Omega-3s to -6s: