Understanding The Ratio Of Omega-3 To Omega-6

It’s time for our third part of our series on fat. Omega-3 and omega-6 are in the news quite often but what exactly are those fatty acids and which one is better? Are omega-6 fatty acids even good for you at all? Let’s start with what they are…

Let’s recall from Fat Part One – The Basics that fats are triglycerides formed of fatty acids. Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are no different. The only way they are different is where the first double bonds start (chemistry talk here). But all that you need to know is that difference is where the double bonds are is the difference in how your body interacts with them. The body is incapable of producing omega-3 and omega-6 so the only way to get the fatty acids is through food. Each are also necessary for certain bodily functions (2).

Omega-3 Fatty Acids:

Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, while at the same time, raising HDL cholesterol (1,2,3). Linoleic acid is the major player of omega-3. Omega-3 fatty acids are especially important to the body because they help manage pain and inflammation (especially associated with rheumatoid arthritis) by suppressing the immune system response and in some cases it has also shown beneficial in certain behavioral disorders and mild cases of depression (2,3,21). Studies have also shown that consuming a moderate amount of omega-3 fatty acids (about 2-4g/day) can reduce blood triglyceride levels in those people where their triglyceride levels are high. As you might’ve read in Fat Part Two – The Fat Inside You, you could see how that would be beneficial to your health. Other benefits of omega-3 include prevention of colon, breast, and prostate cancer, and possible preservation of cognitive function associated with age – the omega-3 acids help to keep brain cell membranes more fluid than other dietary saturated fats when tend to harden membranes.

EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid):
EPA is an omega-3 fatty acid that is found in large amounts in fish oils. It’s a precursor to several eicosanoids (just stick with me here…)(2). One such eiocosanoid is called prostacyclin. Prostacylin helps to inhibit the body’s clotting response (2). This can be especially important for a patient who is at risk for a stroke, heart attack, or even a person with diabetes whose blood is more viscus like honey. In other words, it helps to keep our blood thinner. It also helps to keep our body’s inflammatory response down (4).

DHA (docosahexaenoic acid):
DHA is the other significant omega-3 and it’s also found in fish oils and is prevalent in the retina and brain. DHA is highly important for brain development as well as brain function (2). In fact, research shows that premature babies who are fed formulas low in DHA show alterations in visual development compared with premature babies who are not.

Do you have a newborn?
Babies who are in their first six months of life with inadequate DHA levels showed decreased brain growth compared with those who had higher levels (6).

Okay, but what exactly does DHA do? According to the Journal of Chemistry and Physics of Lipids, much of how DHA functions is a mystery – however its importance of how it helps build cell membranes doesn’t go unnoticed and is very important in maintaining the structure and function of your cells (7).

For a complete list of benefits from Omega-3 fatty acids compared to what there’s sufficient research for vs. what there’s not enough evidence for, the National Institute of Health put together a great list available to the public (5). That list is here.

Omega-6 Fatty Acids:
So what’s up with Omega-six? Omega-6 just like it’s partner in crime, omega-3 can have both positive or negative effects (if there’s too much present in the diet). Omega-6 is found in animals in small amounts but it’s found in higher concentrations in plants – most often from seeds or nuts. Omega-6 can assist with wound healing and immune function but it can also lead to excess blood coagulation, platelet aggregation (causing your blood to clump together), and increased inflammation. However! Omega-6 helps to build something called arachidonic acid. That fancy thing is responsible for all that we just mentioned and in addition to that it’s found in the brain and is essential for brain function, growth, and development (8).

So where the heck is the problem? The problem is that basically, the current Western diet sucks. It’s well documented in the past that before current agriculture trends and according to anthropologists, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 was about 1:1 (9). Just how bad is the ratio now? Well, the Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health find that the current ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 has skyrocketed to somewhere around 20-15:1 (10).

What’s that mean? Well it means that all the negative effects that omega-6 has to offer are increased such as the inflammation and clotting. If you’re one of the ones out there with an autoimmune disease or if you have heart disease or diabetes it could be a bad thing and increase your risks for complications from those diseases. With the increased inflammation it could also be taxing your immune system.

What should you do?
Well that really depends on how much omega-6 you’re getting in your diet. If it’s as high as research suggests, tone it down! It also means that you should probably be getting more omega-3 in your diet to balance out the effects of omega-6. After all, that salmon you had for lunch does no good if you go home for dinner at eat a lot more in omega-6.

What’s the deal with high omega-6 in our diet? One word: modern agriculture. Yeah, I know it makes things kind of convenient and it makes things a whole lot cheaper, but it sure ain’t good for us. The deal is that vegetable oils high in omega-6 (with a bad ratio of omega-6 to omega-3) are too commonly used. Who’s to blame for that? Well, honestly, everyone pushing for fuel alternatives (but that’s a whole other issue). To explore ethanol fuel alternatives the United States government gives massive subsidies to farmers to produce corn. The end product: corn oil is one of the most commonly used vegetable oils in the United States. Go to the supermarket and look at the food labels of most processed foods or vegetable oil blends and the common theme: corn oil. The other problem? Americans/people in general in the West still eat too much processed food. With all the different oil based products out there such as mayonnaise, salad dressings, fried foods and packaged processed foods, Western diet is full of omega-6.

What’s up with vegetable oil?
Well depending on what’s being used (it can either be a mix of multiple vegetable oils or a single vegetable oil. The issue is that there’s a poor ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 oils in a lot of popular vegetable oils.

Here’s a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in some popular used vegetable oils (11):

OilRatio
Coconut OilOnly omega-6
Peanut OilOnly omega-6
Grapeseed Oil695:1
Corn Oil46:1
Palm Oil46:1
Cocoa Butter28:1
Sunflower Oil (70%oleic acid)18:1
Butter and Margarine Blend15:1
Olive Oil12:1
Butter8:1
Soy Oil7:1

With such high ratios of omega-6 it’s no wonder that current ratios are so high and nowhere close to the paleolithic ratio of 1:1 – and this is how the bad in omega-6 gets brought out. Should we stop having/cooking with high ratio omega-6 oils? Not necessarily. But in order to negate the effects of omega-6 we SHOULD be including omega-3 to balance out the ratio to put the benefits of omega-3 in our favor.

How much fish oil do i need, should i take fish oil, is omega 3 healthy, heart diseaseHow much omega-3 should you have?
Well that depends on how much omega-6 you’re getting compared to how much omega-3 you’re getting. It would be ideal to bring that ratio closer to 1:1. So that begs the question, how much cold water fish are you eating? If you’re not getting that much in your diet you might want to think about adding it to your list of things you eat on a weekly basis. If fish isn’t something that you can stomach, look for an omega-3 supplement with a 1:1 ratio of EHA to DPA. Pop one for each meal (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) to shoot for about 2000mg of omega-3 a day if you think you need it. The current recommendations for omega-3 are about 1200 milligrams for adults but as you’ve read, we definitely could use more to balance out the ratio (12).

See our list of healthy sources of omega 3.

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Sources:
1. Adams, Michael P., Koch, Robert W. Pharmacology. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc. 2010. 502. Print.
2. Boyer, Rodney. Concepts in Biochemistry. 3rd ed. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. 2006. 254-255. Print
3. Hampl, Jeffry S. Wardlaw, Gordon, M. Perspectives in Nutrition. 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies Inc., 2007. 194-199. Print.
4. Porth, Carol Mattson, RN, MSN, PhD. Matfin, Glenn, MB ChB, DGM, FFPM, FACE, FACP, FRCP. Pathiophysiology: Concepts of Altered Health States. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer Health | Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. 386. Print.
5 http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/993.html
6. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0300908410001823
6. http://nccam.nih.gov/health/omega3/introduction.htm
7. 7.Stillwell W and Wassall SR. “Docosahexaenoic acid: membrane properties of a unique fatty acid. Chem Phys Lipids 126:1-27 (2003) Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14580707
8. http://www.naturalstandard.com/databases/herbssupplements/all/omega6fattyacids.asp?
9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21666970
10. http://ebm.rsmjournals.com/content/233/6/674.full
11. All omega-6:omega-3 ratios calculated from www.nutritiondata.com
12. http://www.iom.edu/Activities/Nutrition/SummaryDRIs/~/media/Files/Activity%20Files/Nutrition/DRIs/5_Summary%20Table%20Tables%201-4.pdf