Healthy fatsnot only provide us with energy but also play a role in cellular function, immune response, and overall health through omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid consumption. However, the ratio of omega 3’s to omega-6 in one’s diet is critical because each one acts in opposite ways as the other. Omega 3’s act as anti-inflammatory whereas omega 6’s act as proinflammatory. On average, people consume far more omega-6’s relative to omega 3’s than ever before which can lead to a variety of long-term health complications.
Healthy Fats: Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAS)
There are different types of fat called saturated, trans, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. Omega 3’s and omega 6’s are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) or healthy fats. They are essential to a person’s diet because the body does not produce them and we need them to survive. Since we can’t produce these healthy fats, we obtain them through foods like fish, vegetable oils, nuts, and more.
PUFAs are special in that they are used to make signaling molecules called eicosanoids. These signaling molecules send signals throughout the body and are involved in building muscle, maintaining blood pressure, recovering from illnesses, and much more. Evidence shows significant cardiovascular benefits from PUFA healthy fats consumption including lowering bad cholesterol, raising good cholesterol, and associated with decreased cardiovascular disease risk.
Even though omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are essential for survival and provide many health benefits, consuming a high proportion of omega 6’s in comparison to omega 3’s can actually cause excessive inflammation in the body. Omega 6’s and omega 3’s do not exist equilibrium and instead, they compete with one another. In other words, as more omega 6’s are consumed, inflammation increases and the ability to resolve the increased inflammation decreases. As a result, our body becomes more susceptible to short term and long-term problems.
Without the correct ratio of omega 6’s to omega 3’s, the body can develop long-term inflammation, leading to chronic diseases such as heart disease and obesity.
Omega 6’s are much more common in the western diet than ever before. This is a result of both modern-farming practices as well as the increase in vegetable oil consumption. The omega 6 to omega 3 ratio in America is about 15:1 when it should be closer to 4:12. See figure 1.
Immune responses are natural reactions to tissue damage that help the body recover. Inflammation is an example of an immune response that helps us fight diseases and recover from injury but too much inflammation can lead to long-term diseases like heart disease, obesity, and neurodegenerative diseases. Pollution, flus, and stress are some examples that contribute to overall inflammation and therefore, consuming omega-3’s provide us with the anti-inflammatory properties to fight against the inflammation from our external environment.
Two signaling molecules that come from Omega 3’s are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). EPA and DHA help reduce inflammation in tissues and reduces blood clotting that is important when people have heart attacks or someone with coronary heart disease. EPA and DHA have been shown to decrease triglycerides by as much as 25-30%6. Triglycerides are found in the blood that store energy and provide energy between meals.
Too many triglycerides cause thickening or hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) if you have too much. Atherosclerosis increases the chance of stroke, heart attack, and heart disease. Therefore, omega 3’s lower triglycerides and reduces the risk of cardiovascular complications by protecting the heart.
A study from the BioMed Research International revealed that a diet with a higher proportion of omega 3’s can delay the onset of neurodegenerative diseases like alzheimer’s during its early stages. This is a result of omega 3’s anti-inflammatory properties in the brain.
Sources of omega 3’s include fish oils and fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, anchovy, and trout. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish 3 times a week. Flaxseeds, chia seeds, and pumpkin seeds are also good sources of omega 3’s.
Omega 6’s play a role in muscle growth, a healthy immune system, and brain function, but when consumed in excess, omega 6’s are proinflammatory. Omega 6 also tend to be pro-thrombotic which means more likely to have a blood clot.
Omega 6’s tend to produce belly-fat tissue and more that is called white vs brown fat, which is energy-storing. In addition, chronic inflammation is a sign of obesity and type 2 diabetes. While Omega 6’s may not directly cause obesity, a high consumption of omega 6’s can increase the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Omega 6’s are more commonly consumed than omega 3’s and can be found in safflower, sesame, soy, corn, sunflower seed oils, nuts, and seeds. While they provide benefits, it’s the ratio of omega 6’s to omega 3’s that can cause a constant inflammation in the body and can lead to chronic diseases.
Today’s Diet and Modern Farming
While omega 6’s are abundant in vegetable oils, people are consuming more omega 6’s than ever before because of modern farming techniques in our food system (See figure 2). For example, instead of cattle that are grass fed, cattle are raised today with modern techniques called grain-feeding which uses sunflowers, corn oils, and soybeans, to grow faster and bigger. Even though you may not be directly consuming these omega-6 rich foods, you are consuming omega 6’s from an animal’s diet every time you eat chicken or beef.
Essential Fatty Acid Intake in the 20th Century
When it comes to fish, farm-raised fish contain more fat than wild which means they contain more omega 3’s. That being said, farm-raised fish have more saturated fats. In terms of omega 3’s, fish are a good source of PUFAs.
Polyunsaturated fats are healthy fats. They are beneficial to cellular and overall health; however, the ratio of omega 6’s to omega 3’s plays a critical role in inflammation and diseases. The first step to reducing inflammation through nutrition is understanding healthy fats and being aware of how frequently you are consuming omega 6’s in comparison to 3’s. This means understanding what foods contain each type of omega fatty acids and the ratio of omegas in a serving. Swapping fish for beef or chicken can be an easy way to better balance your omega intake. Lastly, organic food is better when it comes to beef or chicken. Grass-fed cattle are better than corn-fed cattle; free range chickens are better than those given the regular fair.