The discussion about omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids isn’t necessarily a new thing. These two fatty acids have been explored for many years. More specifically, their impacts on the body, both positive and negative, have been studied. Furthermore, their connection to each other has been investigated thoroughly. First, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are both considered “essential” because the body cannot produce them but needs them to function. Why do we need them? What is the difference between the two? What do they do for the body? These questions, and more will be answered throughout this article as we discuss omega-3 vs. omega-6 fatty acids.
What’s the Difference?
Both omega-3 and omega-6 are polyunsaturated fatty acids. Remember that they have to come from nutrition and diet as the body cannot manufacture them on its own. How do they differ from other fatty acids? They have many double bonds in their structure compared to saturated fats that don’t have any. Many fatty acids are stored in the body, but both of these are biologically active and play important roles in the processes that help the body function. Now that you know what fatty acids are, you might be wondering what the difference is between these two specific fatty-acids. Let’s take a look at each of them in a little more detail:
1. Omega-3– is a fatty acid that is so beneficial for the health of the entire body but most specifically the brain. It is crucial for brain function and brain development. You should know that there are actually three omega 3 fatty acids: DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). The body can convert some ALA into DHA and EPA but not very efficiently which is why it’s recommended to incorporate all of them into your diet. Each of these has its own impact on the body but DHA and EPA get a lot of attention due to their many health benefits. You will find DHA and EPA in the cell membranes in your body, that’s just how crucial they are! Omega-3 fatty acids lower the risk of heart disease, lessen risk of metabolic syndrome, fight inflammation, beneficial for those with auto-immune diseases, and so much more. They have functions in the heart, lungs, immune and endocrine systems. More specifically, EPA is good for skin health and is shown to help fight depression. DHA has its own benefits and is good for skin health in addition to eye health and improving sleep. Omega-3 fatty acids also provide the body with energy!
2. Omega-6 – is a fatty acid that the body uses for energy. This is obviously a very essential function in the body! Omega-6 fatty acids can provide health benefits including reducing chronic disease symptoms. Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) is an omega-6 fatty acid that is found in some oils and has shown to reduce symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Omega-6 is also known to help with brain function, aid in bone health, promote growth of skin and hair, and help with metabolism. The unfortunate part of consuming omega-6 is that in high quantities, especially when omega-3 is low, it can be a hindrance to your health. High blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke are a few conditions that can occur with too much omega-6 in your diet.
Because of the risks with too much omega-6 and too little omega-3, we feel it is important to investigate this in detail. Let’s take a look at the importance of the ratio between these two fatty acids next.
Optimal Omega-3 vs Omega-6 Ratio
What’s the optimal ratio to aim for daily? Why is it important? How can an adequate ratio help the body function at its best? We’ll start answering those questions here. Let’s start off by saying that most people today have much higher levels of omega-6 than omega-3. Take note, this means that it is very rare for the majority of people to have a balanced or healthy omega 3 to omega 6 ratio. Many people, especially those on a typical United States diet, are not exposed to a diet that has a healthy ratio between the two. Research shows that we face upwards of a 15:1 ratio of omega-6: omega-3. Our goal should be closer 4:1 and in some cases studies show 2.5:1 is even better. Wow, that is a huge discrepancy between what we are consuming and what the body needs!
It should be clear by now that we are consuming a lot of omega-6 and not enough omega-3. Omega-6 is known to be an inflammatory fatty acid. On the flip side, omega 3 is anti-inflammatory. In quick summary, too much omega-6 is not good and not enough omega-3 is just the same… not good! Let’s stop here and say that inflammation in the body is beneficial as it acts as protection from injuries and infections. With that being said, chronic inflammation should be avoided at all costs and too much omega-6 and too little omega-3 can certainly contribute to this. Finding and creating a balance in consumption of these two fatty acids can aid in reducing inflammation in the body. A little reminder here, inflammation, especially that of the chronic kind can contribute to several health issues. This is just one reason that taking a supplement of omega-3 can be beneficial, to make sure you are getting enough while being conscious of lowering the omega-6 intake.
As you can see from the research up to this point, it is obvious that we get plenty, often too much, omega-6 in our diets. So that’s not really an issue, what we need to focus on, what the real issue at hand is, consists of actually lowering the amount of omega-6 and increase the omega-3. Knowing all of this you might be asking yourself how you can change your diet to maximize your fatty acid consumption. What can you do to find an optimal omega-3 vs omega-6 ratio? First, you can minimize foods with vegetable oils, including those that are cooked with them. Second, consume more omega-3 rich foods. We have included food lists below for both omega-6 and omega-3 so you can take control of decreasing and increasing accordingly. The third thing that you can do is to add an omega-3 supplement. Let’s look at this last topic in more detail next.