By Dr. Chad Walding, DPT
October 30th, 2019
Your body needs both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. They’re essential – and they have to come from the foods you eat. Each has an important role to play. But, your body can only take a limited amount of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids at one time, and it’s really important to get the ratio right. When you do, you’re setting your body up to reap all of the benefits that omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids have to offer such as hormone balance, heart health, and a healthy weight.
Getting too much of one and not enough of the other causes problems. Studies show that 90 percent of Americans have an omega-3 deficiency. Meanwhile, we’re consuming over 20 times the healthy amount of omega-6 in our typical American diets.1
The science isn’t exactly clear which is worse, getting too much omega-6 or not enough omega-3. But what is clear is that you'll get the most health benefits when you prioritize getting omega-3 over omega-6. Let’s take a look at why this is, what a balanced ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 looks like, and what you can do to make sure you’re getting the right ratio.
What Is a Balanced Omega-6 to Omega-3 Ratio?
In just a bit we’ll go over everything you need to know about omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids and the important role they play in your body. But to start, let’s talk about the ideal ratio between omega-6 and omega-3.
A common suggested ratio today is 4:1 omega-6 to omega-3. This is because studies show that maintaining this ratio reduces your mortality risk by 70 percent.2 That’s a big deal.
Research also shows that the best ratio for you might really depend on the condition of your health. For example, if you suffer from rheumatoid arthritis or certain types of cancer, an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio around 2-3:1 might be more beneficial.2
Then, there are studies by anti-aging experts in favor of a more even omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 1:1 for optimal health. Like the 1:1 ratio of our ancestors.3
What’s so Important About the Omega-6 and Omega-3 Ratio?
When we look at the diets of our ancestors we see that our bodies do best when we have an optimal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. Our ancestor’s diets had a ratio of about 1:1, omega-6 to omega-3. Contrast that with our modern Western diet at a ratio closer to 20:1 and you start to understand why health issues are on the rise.4
Our American diet is severely lacking in omega-3 fatty acids with an overabundance of omega-6 fatty acids. This huge imbalance is causing all sorts of chronic health problems from obesity to autoimmune diseases to cancer. And, it’s this shift that makes it so important to bring the omega-6 and omega-3 ratio back into balance.
Omega-6 and omega-3 essentially compete for space in your body. It’s very easy to load up on too many omega-6s and not enough omega-3s, thanks to America’s shift to eating more things like highly processed vegetable oils, diets high in grains, and grain-fed beef. Because of this, you need to be aware of how much omega-6 and omega-3 you’re ingesting from the food you eat.
Understanding Omega-6 vs. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Not all fats are the same and it’s important to understand the difference between them and how they affect your body. For one thing, fats range from stable to unstable. It’s this stability that strengthens fat and reduces its ability to become oxidized, leading to the formation of free radicals and inflammation.
There are three categories of fat and they vary in structure and stability. Here’s a list from most stable to least stable:
- Saturated fat
- Monounsaturated fat
- Polyunsaturated fat
The two fats we’re discussing today, omega-6 and omega-3, are polyunsaturated fats – the least stable. Keep in mind that unsaturated fats aren’t necessarily bad for your health even though they’re unstable. It just means you need to be careful about where these unstable fats come from and how you handle them.
For instance, it’s hard to find food that doesn’t have vegetable oil in the ingredient list. Vegetable oils like safflower, sunflower, and corn are very high in omega-6 fat with little to no omega-3s to balance it out.5 Vegetable oils are also generally processed with chemicals and can turn into trans fats, which are horrible for your body.
Even though trans fats have thankfully been banned from our foods, these oils can easily turn into trans fats when heated if you’re not careful with them.
The Structure of Fatty Acids
Another thing to understand about fat is its structure. This is because the stability of fat really comes down to how it's structured. To really understand this idea, here’s a mini (and easy) science lesson for you.
Fatty acids are chains of carbon atoms with hydrogen atoms attached to the chain. Think of the carbon atom chain as a school bus with lots of seats. The more seats filled (by hydrogen atoms), the more stable the fat.
The chain of carbon atoms in saturated fat has the most hydrogen atoms attached to it – the most seats filled. Polyunsaturated fat has the least amount of hydrogen atoms attached to its carbon chain – the most empty seats. And, instead of hydrogen atoms, polyunsaturated fats have double bonds.
Polyunsaturated fats have at least two double bonds. While omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are both polyunsaturated fats, the location of their double bonds are in different places. For omega-3s the first double bond is found on the third carbon atom, and on the sixth carbon atom in omega-6s – hence the number in their names.
This is important to know. Because of the location and frequency of the double bonds in omega-3s, their structure is stronger and more stable, offering many more health benefits than omega-6s.6
Omega-6 – the Good and the Bad
Even though it appears the benefits of omega-6s are outweighed by omega-3s, this fatty acid is still essential to our health since our bodies can’t make omega-6 on its own. From stimulating skin and hair growth to promoting a healthy reproductive system, omega-6 does have good to offer.
Here’s a few more critical functions omega-6 plays a part in:7
- Brain health
- Bone health
- Hormone production
- Metabolism regulation
Omega-6 consumption is also typically not a problem when we consume it in whole-food forms like nuts and seeds, as opposed to processed vegetable oils. The nutrients within these whole foods help reduce oxidation from happening to the omega-6 fatty acids.
Omega-6 sounds pretty vital, doesn’t it? That’s because it is. But here’s the problem. Almost 10 percent of the calories in our Western diet is made up of omega-6 fats.8 This means the tissues in our bodies have as much omega-6 in them as they can possibly hold and then some.
It’s no wonder that the rise in chronic illnesses has risen along with the dramatic shift from whole-foods to processed foods. All of the omega-6 we’re consuming goes far beyond the healthy amount and throws our bodies into a very inflammatory state.
We now know that inflammation is the culprit behind many chronic health issues, including today’s number one cause of death in America – heart disease.9 But, it doesn’t stop with heart disease. When omega-6 is consumed in excess amounts, you’re at an increased risk of other serious conditions such as:10,11,12
- Type 2 diabetes
- Autoimmune disorders
- Systemic inflammation
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Rheumatoid arthritis
So, you can see how on the one hand you need omega-6 for your body to be able to perform several critical functions. But on the other hand, an overabundance of omega-6 can lead to all of the above health issues.
This is why it’s truly a balancing act. And, why making sure you’re getting enough omega-3 is incredibly important. When you give your body omega-3, there’s less space for omega-6 to cause inflammation.
What Makes Omega-3s so Great?
Omega-3 fatty acids are so critical to your health because they have an effect on every cell in your body. There are actually three types of omega-3 fatty acids and each contributes to the critical function omega-3 plays in your body. Omega-3s are broken down into three fatty acids:13
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA): these are short-chain fatty acids found mostly in plant sources like chia seeds, hemp seeds, and pumpkin seeds. Even though some plant sources are high in omega-3s, ALA is the type of fatty acid in plant sources. And, ALA isn’t very bioavailable to your body. Your body first needs to convert ALA into DHA to reap the benefits of omega-3. The problem is your body can only convert a tiny amount of ALA into DHA.
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): Both EPA and DHA are long-chain fatty acids and mostly found in fish. These are the fatty acids that are bioavailable to your body and the kind of omega-3 you want to make sure you’re getting. EPA and DHA are known for their many health benefits including reducing inflammation and helping your nervous system to function as it’s designed.
On top of the fact that omega-3s are anti-inflammatory and a lot less prone to oxidation than omega-6s, there’s a long list of health benefits of omega-3s. Here’s a list of just some of the incredible roles omega-3s play in your health:
- Heart health14
- Brain health15
- Better sleep16
- Bone and joint health17
- Promotes healthy pregnancy and nursing18
- Gut health19
- Immune system function20
- Thyroid health21
- Healthy inflammatory response22
- Nervous system function23
- Reduces risk of some cancers24
Can You Get Too Much Omega-3?
Whether you can get too much omega-3 isn’t often talked about because most of us don’t have this problem. But, I still think it’s a question worth asking.
You’ll find a lot of information about how too much omega-6 is bad for your health. But these sources often overlook the fact that you can (although not nearly as easily) consume more omega-3 than your body needs.
Although the list of problems that stem from too much omega-3 isn’t nearly as long as the list for too much omega-6, studies show there are a few:25
- Digestive problems – upset stomach, bloating, diarrhea
- Abnormal bleeding – bleeding gums or nose bleeds
- Lower immune system function – increased bacterial and viral infections
Studies that point out these negative effects also note that these drawbacks are only seen when you take a very high dose of omega-3. Often because you’re eating a few servings of oily fish each week, as well as eating several servings of omega-3-enriched foods and taking omega-3 supplements every day.
How to Increase Omega-3 and Decrease Omega-6
One of the best ways to make sure you’re getting enough omega-3 in your diet is by eating foods naturally containing omega-3. The best option is oily fish. The most important types of omega-3 – DHA and EPA – are only found in marine sources such as:
We discussed before that you can also get omega-3s through plant sources such as:
- Hemp seeds
- Flax seeds
- Chia seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
Just remember the omega-3s you’re getting from plant sources is in the form of ALA and not very bioavailable to your body. So you want to get your omega-3s from other sources as well to ensure you’re getting enough DHA and EPA.
To do this, focus on getting your omega-3s in the most bioavailable form – marine sources. Also keep in mind that in order to get the amount of omega-3s your body needs each day, you’ll need to eat about four ounces of fish, three times a week.
You might not have any problems eating that amount of fish each week. But, if that sounds like more fish than you can eat (or maybe you don’t like fish), I have a solution for you. Have you heard of krill oil? I think supplementing with omega-3 is a great idea for most people and krill oil is one of the best ways to do this.
You can check out my article all about krill oil here to find out why krill oil is such an excellent supplement for omega-3s. Also, check out this article to learn why I recommend krill oil over other popular omega-3 supplements like fish oil.
As you work on increasing your omega-3s, focus on decreasing your omega-6s. You only need around seven grams of omega-6 each day to get the health benefits. To help you get an idea of how easy it is to over-consume omega-6, take a look at this list of common foods.
Amount of omega-6 in a 100-gram serving:26
- Sunflower oil: 65.7 g
- Cottonseed oil: 51.5 g
- Soybean oil: 51 g
- Sesame oil: 41.3 g
- Canola oil: 20.3 g
- Walnuts: 38.1 g
- Skin on chicken: 2.9 grams
- Skin on turkey: 1.7
- Eggs: 1.3 grams
Are You Getting the Omega-6 and Omega-3 Balance Right?
At this point, you might be wondering: can’t I just give my body more omega-3 to balance out all the omega-6 I’m eating? Well, you could, technically. But studies are showing more and more that this approach is not really ideal.
Here’s why. Since the science isn’t exactly clear which is worse, getting too much omega-6 or not enough omega-3, this approach could still set you up for the negative health effects of over-consuming omega-6.
Ideally, you should only eat the amount of omega-6 your body needs to perform critical functions, and focus on consuming omega-3. So, the bottom line is to increase your omega-3 while decreasing your omega-6.
Have you worked on balancing your omega-6 and omega-3 ratio by increasing your omega-3s and decreasing your omega-6s? If not, give it a try and see how you feel.