If your answer is “I don’t know” or “no,” then read on to figure out why you must.
First of all, what exactly are omega-3s and omega-6s?
Generally, we just hear the nicknames “omega-3s” and “omega-6s,” but their true names are omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. Both are types of polyunsaturated fats, and both are essential to our health, meaning that our bodies don’t make them on their own. (Cholesterol, on the other hand, is an example of a nonessential nutrient; if you don’t consume it in your diet, your body will make it.) Even though these oils are both essential, many of us are not consuming the proper ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s.
More on omega-3s…
The two most important omega-3s are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) (thank goodness there are abbreviations for those, right?), which are found in fish, flaxseeds, fish oil, some forms of algae, and to a lesser degree in pasture-raised beef and eggs. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), another form of omega-3, is found in plant sources like nuts and seeds. Ever heard of the term “good fats”? Well, these are them!
More on omega-6s…
As previously mentioned, omega-6s are also essential to human health, but not in the high quantity found in today’s Standard American Diet. In his New York Times bestseller Genius Foods, Max Lugavere writes:
These are also essential to a healthy brain, but the American diet now includes far too many of them in the form of linoleic acid. These omega-6 fats went from appearing in our diet as oils delivered in trace quantities by whole foods to becoming major caloric contributors to the American diet in just a few short decades. They are the predominant type of fatty acid found in the grain and seed oils that we now consume in excess: safflower, sunflower, canola, corn, and soybean oils.
(Before I continue, I must plug Genius Foods even though no one has asked or paid me to do so! If you were to read only one diet or nutrition book the rest of your life, this is the one! Every claim Lugavere makes is research-based and broken into layman’s terms. In addition, he started a podcast titled The Genius Life that is available in iTunes and all other podcast-listening platforms.)
At the onset of the “low-fat” craze, grain and seed oils were added to the majority of packaged items on grocery store shelves. If you were to look in your pantry right now, I’ll bet 90% (or more!) of the dry items contain some type of grain or seed oil, as do salad dressings, frozen foods, energy bars, sauces, and more! They’re literally everywhere.
Now, you may be asking, “If our bodies need both omega-3s and omega-6s, what’s the big deal I eat a lot of omega-6s?” In one of his insightful blog posts, functional medicine doctor Chris Kresser explains:
Anthropological research suggests that our hunter-gatherer ancestors consumed omega-6 and omega-3 fats in a ratio of roughly 1:1. It also indicates that both ancient and modern hunter-gatherers were free of the modern inflammatory diseases, like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, that are the primary causes of death and morbidity today . . . Vegetable oil consumption rose dramatically between the beginning and end of the 20th century, and this had an entirely predictable effect on the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats in the American diet . . . Today, estimates of the ratio range from an average of 10:1 to 20:1, with a ratio as high as 25:1 in some individuals.
Finally, Kresser points out that our higher consumption of omega-6s may correlate to the uptick in modern maladies like cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome & inflammatory bowel disease, macular degeneration, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, cancer, psychiatric disorders, and autoimmune diseases.
Therefore, the ultimate goal is to return to an omega-3:6 ratio of 1:1.
How do I eat the proper ratio?
It’s always best to obtain nutrition from whole foods rather than supplements, but modern-day meat, fish, fruits, and vegetables are often nutrient-poor. Still, to boost your omega-3 consumption, prioritize the following foods:
- Wild fish (see this article to be sure you’re eating types that likely contain less mercury)
- Chia seeds
- Pasture-raised beef
- Pasture-raised eggs
Even if you eat all of the above on a regular basis, you still may not get enough omega-3s. Thus, supplementation is often helpful. The following supplements are high in omega-3s:
- Fish oil (be careful with this one. Not all fish oil is created equal; much of it expires quickly, and then there’s the ethical issue of overfishing… If you choose to supplement with fish oil, see this article to choose the best product.)
- Krill oil (According to Bulletproof founder Dave Asprey, “Krill oil is a superior source of EPA and DHA because the polyunsaturated fats are packaged as phospholipids, which can be used immediately by your body.”)
- Algae (From the Precision Nutrition blog: “Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are often cited as being the beneficial components of fish oil, yet they actually originate in algae (mainly DHA).”
Finally, since the goal is to improve your overall intake of omega-3s vs. omega-6s, limit your consumption of omega-6s! Here are some ways to do that:
- Read the ingredients list on every label of packaged snacks, energy bars, salad dressings, sauces, etc., that you buy and simply don’t buy items that contain safflower, sunflower, canola, corn, and soybean oils. See my previous post to learn of my favorite vegetable oil-free packaged snacks!
- Don’t cook with vegetable oils; use fruit oils–olive, coconut, and avocado–instead!
- When dining out, ask the waiter to hold the (likely) omega-6 rich dressings and sauces.
Really, returning to the preferred 1:1 ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s doesn’t need to be difficult! (And, if you ask me, it is quite delicious! Fish, walnuts, and pasture-raised beef and eggs are tasty!)
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In each blog post, I aim to bring you food for thought (pun intended. Note: my day job is teaching English), but don’t take my word for it! Click on and read all of the links above to become your own expert on this topic; knowledge is power. The more you know and understand the “why” behind each biohack, the easier it will be to stick to it and realize you can’t live without it!