Abridged version. Originally by Dr. Chad Walding, DPT
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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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.