We hear about omega fatty acids all the time. Omega-3, omega-6, yeah, whatever that means…they’re a good thing, right? Well, yes and no. Our bodies need both of these building blocks and they can only be derived from food, however, the key is how much of which for a healthy balance.
The balance is significant because some omega-6 tends to cause inflammation while omega-3 reduces it. Chronic inflammation in the body leads to all kinds of adverse reactions besides simply pain: heart disease, stroke, arthritis, diabetes, cancer, and more.
Scientists and nutritionists vary on the optimal ratio of omegas—the range is 1:1 to 4:1 of omega-6 to omega-3. In the North American diet, the typical ratio is 16:1. That’s bad, by any standard. What this means is that inflammation can run rampant and do its nasty deeds.
Omegas are critical for brain, skin, and hair growth and development.
The dominance of omega-6 fatty acids occurs as the result of increased intake of processed and fatty foods—along with an excess of animal fats—and the decrease of foods containing omega-3s to counteract them.
The answer to balance, of course, is not simply to eat more fats that contain omega-3; be mindful of what you’re eating to reduce the omega-6 and make sure you’re getting enough omega-3 and you’ll meet in the middle.
How to Adjust?
Cut down (better yet, out!) on processed foods that contain lots of added fats like processed oils (soy, corn, sunflower, and cottonseed), grain-fed meats (cattle naturally eat grass, not corn; the change in diet has huge implications to the development of the animals); and fast food. Better sources are olive oil, black currants, hemp oil, avocados, leafy vegetables, raw nuts, and seeds.
If we don’t have enough omega-3 or too much omega-6, the development of all healthy components of the spectrum of essential fatty acids doesn’t happen, putting us at risk for illness and disease. There are plenty of healthy sources of omega-3: flax, eggs, fatty fish oil, algae, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, grass-fed meats, wild fish, and walnuts to name a few. (All fish oils are not created equal, however, and you need to know what to look for. Potency, additional nutrients [fish liver oil contains more than whole fish oil], standards of purity [“pharmaceutical grade”], freshness, and sustainability are all factors to consider.)
Omega fatty acids are at once complex and simple.
There are several types of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and all are used in the body; some are used directly to support immunity, blood, and organ health, and some are converted by the body to be used in an alternate form.
You don’t have to know what they all are to know that too much processed fat causes problems with the liver and problems with the liver affects everything else. Sixty percent of the brain is fat and not enough omega-3 (DHA) or too much of omega-6 fatty acids can have an impact on memory, cognition, and the development of degenerative disease.
The only way to know the levels of these fatty acids in our bodies is through a blood test. You can probably take a wild guess, however, based on the foods you eat to ascertain whether you’re getting too much omega-6 and/or not enough omega-3. As in many things in life, balance is the key.