Let’s talk about essential fatty acids—specifically omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Most people are familiar with omega-3s. You know they’re important and that you should be eating fatty fish like salmon. But did you know that omega-3 insufficiency or inadequacy has been shown to be common in people of all ages in the United States?(1)
But what’s the deal with omega-6 fats? Do you need them too? What do they do?
Just like the well-known omega-3s, omega-6s are vitamin-like essential fatty acids. That is, your body needs them yet cannot produce them on its own. So, you must get them through your diet — food, supplementation, or a combination of the two.
But, with the way our diets have evolved in the past few decades, we aren’t lacking in omega-6s. In fact, we’re drastically overconsuming them.
This has major impacts on your health so what can be done about it?
While omega-6 fatty acids are indeed important, a deficiency or inadequacy is nearly impossible. If you consume a diet rich in minimally processed, nutrient-dense plant-based foods, particularly nuts and seeds. you’ll get more than enough of these essential fats.
But thanks to those dietary changes I mentioned over the last several decades, most people are drastically overconsuming omega-6 fatty acids. These are typically found in foods as linoleic acid, and this shift has been attributed to many health issues.
Currently, the average ratio for Americans is 25:1 (omega-6 to omega-3), that’s significantly more omega-6 than omega-3. When omega 6 levels are higher than omega 3, it’s a recipe for inflammation.
Researchers associate excessive intake of omega-6 fatty acids to an increase in virtually all inflammation-related conditions including:
Omega 6 fats are commonly found in many processed foods such as crackers, cookies, chips, cereals, fried foods and fast food.
There are multiple explanations for the heavy imbalance of omega fatty acids. Partly it is due to a decrease in the consumption of freshwater fish and the other is the increase in processed foods in our diets such as crackers, cookies, chips, cereals, fried foods and fast food. (7)
This has also been another marketing ploy that we have been taken in by. For years now, we have been told to substitute industrial vegetable oils rich in these polyunsaturated fatty acids for animal fats high in saturated fatty acids has been a cornerstone of worldwide dietary guidelines for the past half-century. (8) A good example is the recommendation to substitute margarine (laced with omega-6-rich vegetable oils) for butter.
However, in the Sydney Diet Heart Study, a group of researchers from the National Institutes of Health found that this advice is heavily misguided, and they concluded that “substituting dietary linoleic acid in place of saturated fats increased the rates of death from all causes, coronary heart disease, and cardiovascular disease.” (9)
Another particularly important finding of this study was that substituting omega-6 fats for saturated fats did decrease blood cholesterol levels. However, that decrease in cholesterol resulted in no evidence of cardiovascular benefit; in fact, it led to the opposite effect: an increase in cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease.
Omega-6 fatty acids are still important and you’ll get plenty if you consume a diet rich in minimally-processed, nutrient-dense whole foods. But it’s not just about reducing your intake of omega-6s. You also need to make a conscious effort to increase your consumption of omega-3s This will support healthy levels of inflammation, cellular health, and overall health.