WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are known as essential polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA’s) as they contain many double bonds (poly=many) and they must be obtained from the diet (essential = our bodies don’t have the enzymes to produce them). They are different to most other fats in that they aren't simply used for energy or storage, they are actually biologically active and have important roles in processes like blood clotting and inflammation.
Alpha-linoleic acid (ALA, omega-3) and linoleic acid (LA, omega-6) are the two main essential fatty acids absorbed from what we eat. ALA produces EPA and DHA— anti-inflammatory omega-3s. LA produces pro-inflammatory omega-6 ’s arachidonic acid (AA) as well as gamma-linoleic acid (GLA). The diagram below clearly shows the pathways.
These PUFA's have an affect on inflammation via two sides of a metabolic pathway - see Figure 1 below. One important point to note is that the ALA to EPA/DHA conversion internally is very poor in most individuals so its important to obtain EPA/DHA from other dietary sources as listed below in red.
PUFAs: a type of unsaturated fat that is liquid at room temperature and susceptible to oxidation from heat or light.
ALA: The parent omega 3 fat. Once ingested, your body converts small amounts of ALA to the longer-chain fats, EPA and DHA (but this step is limited).
LA: The parent omega 6 fat.
AA: A derivative of omega 6, AA creates cell signalling messengers that play a role in inflammation
EPA & DHA: long-chain omega 3 fatty acids derived from ALA in small amounts or mostly from certain types of fish/algae. These fats have an anti-inflammatory role in the body.
Inflammation is actually essential for survival as it helps protect our bodies from infection and injury, but it can also cause severe damage and contribute to disease when it becomes chronic or excessive. We know that human beings evolved on a diet with a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 PUFA’s of 1 ∼ 1 whereas our standard Western diets have a ratio closer to 15/1–20/1 causing a deficiency in omega-3s and excessive amounts of omega6 PUFA’s. Excessive amounts of omega-6 and a very high omega-6/omega-3 ratio promote inflammation, leading to cardiovascular disease, cancer and autoimmune conditions as well as being linked to mood disorders like depression, bipolar and even allergies such as asthma. Conversely increased levels of omega-3 PUFA (with a low omega-6/omega-3 ratio) are thought to reduce inflammation and chronic disease.
So how have we evolved to this situation? Well the foods that were commonly available to pre-agricultural humans (lean meat, fish, green leafy vegetables, fruits, nuts, berries and honey) were the foods that shaped our genetic nutritional requirements. With the arrival of the Agricultural Revolution cereal grains became common as staple foods in the human diet but unfortunately these are very different from the foods we were genetically adapted to eat. Prior to the Agricultural Revolution, humans ate an enormous variety of wild plants, whereas today this has largely been replaced by three main cereal grains: wheat, maize, and rice. And yet, for 99.9% of mankind’s presence on this planet, humans were non-cereal eating hunter-gatherers. Consuming such large amounts of grains has some serious nutritional implications on human health since they are high in carbohydrates and omega-6 fatty acids, but low in omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants, especially compared to green leafy vegetables. Recent studies show that low-fat/high-carbohydrate diets increase insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia, conditions that increase the risk for coronary heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and obesity.
The modern vegetable oil industry developed in the last 100 years as well as modern agriculture with the emphasis on grain feeds for domestic livestock (grains are rich in omega-6 PUFA’s) have both also contributed to these increases in omega 6 in the diet.
The hydrogenation of oils, (first introduced to solidify margarine) also forms harmful trans fatty acids and in soybean oil for instance it reduces the alpha linolenic acid (ALA) content of the oil while leaving a high concentration of more inflammatory linoleic acid (LA). Trans-fatty acids (found in most processed foods) also interfere with the production of omega 3s and removal of omega-6’s causing even more inflammation.
Modern agriculture with its emphasis on mass production has contributed further to the decrease in omega-3 fatty acids in livestock. Domestic beef now contains very small amounts of anti-inflammatory ALA because cattle are fed grains high in omega-6’s and low in omega-3’s whereas animals that forage wildly on ferns and mosses contain more omega-3’s in the form of ALA in their meat. So if you do eat meat, go for grass fed all the way. In addition to animal meats, farmed eggs and fish also contain less omega-3 fatty acids than those in the wild whereas foods from edible wild plants contain a much healthier balance of omega-6:3. Eg purslane, an edible wild plant has 8 x more ALA compared to spinach, lettuce and mustard greens. Similarly, milk and cheese from animals that graze on grass contain ALA, EPA and DHA, whereas milk and cheese from grain-fed animals do not.
So How Can We Optimize Our Omega-6 To Omega-3 Ratio?
Whilst most individuals don’t convert ALA to EPA/DHA efficiently in the body, it is still worthwhile to eat more ALA food sources (found in more plantbased foods such as flax, hemp, chia seeds). Eating more foods high in ALA allows increased ALA absorption into cell membranes and since ALA and the more inflammatory LA compete with each other for absorption, the conversion of LA gets limited when ALA is in surplus which helps in turn to increase omega-3 content in cells.
Below are some further #healthymays tips.
1. Cut Out Omega-6 “Vegetable” (Seed) Oils
Simple things such as reducing plant oils rich in LA (which gets converted to more inflammatory omega 6) and increasing oils rich in ALA (eg flax and hemp oil) are a very good idea. Eg a simple swap such as subbing margarine/corn or sunflower oils for extra virgin olive oil is definitely a good idea since olive oil is low in LA (omega6) whereas sunflower oil is high (10% vs 66%).
2. EAT MORE OILY FISH
Eating oily fish and other seafood is great for boosting omega3s whilst seafood is also highly nutrient dense and a fab protein source. Including some of these seafood options several times per week is an excellent way to increase omega-3 intake. Always try to go for wild organic fish remember as farmed fish have much lower levels. One note, species like tuna whilst very high in omega-3 fatty acids are also much higher in mercury so its not recommended to consume too much of these on a regular basis. The other fish listed in this table below have lesser amounts of mercury or heavy metal contamination concerns.
As well as that you can add an extra boost by taking a good clean high quality oily fish supplement. I love & always recommend Bare Biology to my clients, especially their Lionheart Maxi product which has nearly 1.5mg Omega3's per 2 capsules daily intake.
And if you are plantbased, no problems, there are plenty of algae based supplements you could try also to boost your omega3s, very important to do in the vegan diet which is naturally high in omega6 foods.
3. GO EASY ON THE NUTS!
Nuts & seeds are some of the healthiest foods around; they are rich in protein, healthy fats, and contain numerous essential micronutrients. However most of them can also be very high in omega-6 fats, so its important to stick with sensible portions eg a small handful and vary intake – note watch out for nut butters as these contain highly concentrated proportions. The following table shows the amount of omega-6/3 &ratios in different nut varieties.
4. Avoid Ultra-Processed Foods
Among ultra-processed food options, three ingredients dominate; flour, sugar and vegetable oils. If you are buying packaged snacks or meals, eating in a fast-food restaurant, or even purchasing sauces for home-cooking, they are all likely to contain vegetable oils. To cut down on vegetable oil intake, limit these processed foods as much as possible.
5. Choose Meat Lower in Omega-6
Bacon, pork belly and pieces of chicken with fatty skin (especially if fried in vegetable oils) are all very high sources of omega-6 fat. Beef/red meat has one of the lowest amount of omega-6 fats. As discussed earlier it is always best to go for grass fed for beef (and all meats) and go for organic if at all possible. With meat my suggestion is always quality over quantity. Eating the best quality red meat ocassionally rather than regularly is always what I recommend to clients. The table below (roughly) shows how various cuts of meat compare.
6. Eat more plants!
As discussed earlier, before the agricultural revolution humans were designed to eat way more veggie foods than in the current standard western diet. And in the table below you can see why – most of these plantbased foods have higher amounts of Omega-3’s in them! But do watch out for sweetcorn and chickpeas ;)
Where possible a diet that is predominantly plantbased with small quantities of good quality meat/fish is almost guaranteed for optimum health.
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