Post by Emily White
Essential fatty acids (as the name suggests) are vital for optimal health. The two essential fatty acids, linolenic and linoleic acid are unable to be synthesized in the body and therefore must be obtained from the diet. These fats are termed Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids based on their structure. Both Omega-6s and Omega-3s need to be consumed as together they have an important role in modulating inflammation (1).
However the ratio in which they are consumed is important. This is because Omega-6s and Omega-3s do not have the same functions. Omega-6 fatty acids are considered pro inflammatory whereas Omega-3 fatty acids are thought to have an anti inflammatory effect. Of course it is well known that inflammation is an essential process in the body as it protects us from infection and injury, however too much can also be a bad thing (2).
The modern day dietary pattern has brought about changes in fatty acid consumption. Sources of Omega- 3 fatty acids include flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts and oily fish whereas sources of Omega-6 essential fatty acids include nuts, wheat, poultry and most vegetable oils. There is a much higher consumption in the later and a hugely decreased consumption of Omega-3s. In the Paleolithic era the ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids was approximately 1:1-2 whereas nowadays it is more realistically 1:20 (1). Studies have shown that excessive consumption of Omega-6 fatty acids and a high Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio can promote the development of many diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and many inflammatory conditions (3). It is therefore essential that we increase our consumption of Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in order to lower this ratio considerably.
The large consumption of processed foods has significantly increased Omega-6 consumption due to these foods having the tendency to be loaded with vegetable and seed oils. The consumption of soybean oil in particular has increased dramatically as this oil is cheap to produce so is added to many foods (4).
Therefore the best way to reduce Omega-6 consumption is to avoid cheap vegetable and seed oils. These are especially found in processed foods so cutting these out will benefit you greatly. Using coconut oil or butter instead is a really great option too as they contain very little Omega-6 (3).
There are many ways in which we can increase the level of Omega-3s in the diet. Animal products are a great source however organic, grass fed meat has higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids than grain fed animals. Therefore choosing grass fed meat sources when possible is ideal. Green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale and Brussels sprouts are also a good source of Omega-3s so it is important to incorporate them into your diet daily. Most important is the incorporation of oily fish such as salmon into your diet on a regular basis. If this is not an option, it may be beneficial to consume a high quality fish oil supplement. Nowadays the ideal ratio for Omega 3 to Omega 6 is 1:7 at the very most but many experts believe that a 1:1 ratio is best (4).
Either way limiting your consumption of processed foods and upping your intake of natural, whole and unprocessed foods will ensure that your ratio between the two fats remains within a healthy range so you can perform at your best.
1. Apte, S., Cavazos, D., Whelan, K., DeGraffenried, L. (2013). A low dietary Ratio of Omega- 6 to Omega-3 Fatty Acids may delay progression of prostate cancer. Nutrition and cancer, 65 (4), 21-27.
2. Gomez, C., Bermejo, L., Loria, V. (2011). Importance of a balanced omega 6/omega 3 ratio for the maintenance of health. Nutritional recommendations, 26 (2), 323-329.
3. Simopoulos, A. (2002). The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Biomed Pharmacother, 56(8), 365-379.
4. Strandvik, B. (2011). The omega-6/omega-3 ratio is of importance! Prostaglandins, leukotrienes and essential fatty acids, 85(6), 405-406. doi: 10.1016/j.plefa.2011.09.001.