There is long-standing controversy over fats in our diet, specifically omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Some say we should not limit our intake of each fatty acid, while others say too much omega 6 can lead to inflammation and the onset of diet-related illnesses like heart disease. We spoke to an industry expert to uncover the facts.
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Covid has prompted many of us to be more cognizant of our health. Yet statistics show that the average American has increased fat intake in the last decade. This extra fat can be stored in the body, causing weight gain, inflammation, and increased white fat stores, all precursors to health issues.
So, how much fat are we supposed to eat? Is too much omega-6 fats the issue? And if so, how can we alter our diet to obtain the correct ratio? Let’s find out.
The Fats of Today
Most Americans consume a “Western diet,” where we’re not eating nearly enough fruits and vegetables, but too much sodium, sugar, and fat – specifically omega-6 fats.
But this way of eating is relatively new to us. At each meal in the 1900s, most Americans ate a large portion of carbs with their meat and vegetables; processed, high-fat foods were not readily available. But today’s diet reflects the irresistible convenience of fast foods and processed foods, putting that ratio to an astounding 15:1. The recommended amount by health officials is 4:1 Omega 6 to Omega 3.
Many of the foods we eat every day have plenty of omega-6 fats. This includes healthy nuts, seeds, and seed oils. However, fast food, fried foods, and too much oil used in food manufacturing are the biggest culprit of unhealthy omega 6 overconsumption, leading to a reduced intake of omega 3s found primarily in fatty fish, like salmon, avocadoes, and olive oil.
The disparity between omega 6 and omega 3 consumption over the last few decades could be why there has been a deluge of diseases with inflammation markers, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, autoimmune diseases, and cancer. As we like to say, everything is in moderation, too much of any one thing can cause a problem, and omega 6s are no exception.
For instance, eating fast food, fried food, processed food, and skipping on healthy fish, fruits, and vegetables obviously will give you diseases you would rather avoid. Excess amounts of omega 6s, over 17 grams for men and 12 for women, especially as we age, can cause low-grade inflammation and a lower fat burn rate.
Yet various health organizations, including Mount Sinai and Harvard Health, still say this is not the case, and we should not be worried about our omega 6-to-omega 3 ratio as long as we’re eating the right foods in the right amounts. Harvard Health defends Omega 6s when responsibly consumed. Citing studies from the American Heart Association show they are safe and beneficial for the heart and circulation when appropriately consumed.
What do other experts have to say about this? Are we damaging our health with our Western diet?
We spoke with Dr. Lilly D’Angelo, President of Global Food and Beverage Technology Associates, LLC, to uncover the truth about omega-6 fatty acids and their potential adverse health effects. Dr. D’Angelo is an expert in the field. During her career working in the food and beverage industry, she studied omega-6 and 3 fats and their effects on the body.
“One commonality of these groups of fatty acids is that, they cannot be produced in our bodies by ourselves– we have to take them from our food. We have to rely on external sources”
– Dr. Lilly D’Angelo
Expert Take on Omega 3 & Omega 6 Relationship
There are pros and cons to both Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. Omega 3s contain eicosatetraenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), along with alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). EPA and DHA both have beneficial anti-inflammatory components and provide various benefits. Omega 6, on the other hand, contains linolenic acid (LA), and this converts to arachidonic acid and gamma-linoleic acid, which is what’s primarily found in seed oils.
These fatty acids can aid in the repair and growth of skeletal muscle tissue. Both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are essential in our diets because our bodies can’t make these components themselves. We need to get them from food!
The differences between these two can also be seen on a molecular level. Dr. D’Angelo explains that omega-3 fatty acids have a double bond at the #3 carbon counting from the end of the “tail” of a long chain fatty acid, whereas Omega-6 fatty acids have a double bond at the #6 carbon counting from the end of the “tail” of a long chain fatty acid. In the hydrogenated oil, a type of processed oil, the double bonds are removed by adding hydrogens and therefore prolong the shelf life of these oils, hence removed antioxidant benefits of these oils.
It’s like this – the more double bonds a fatty acid has, the more benefits it contains since these double bonds work like an antioxidant in the body, protecting our cells from damaging free radicals.
Many say that linoleic acid, which we know comes from Omega-6 fatty acids and has few double bonds, can cause inflammation in our arteries, blood clots, and blood vessel constriction. Research shows that EPA and DHA from Omega 3s are both anti-inflammatory, with DHA being even more beneficial than EPA. These acids cause the opposite reaction of LA improving cognitive function, lowering blood pressure, and improving eye health. This is why we need to eat MORE omega 3s than 6s.
In Defense of Omega 6…
They’re not all bad, and Dr. D’Angelo says we should not cut out all omega-6 fats from our diet. We need them, just not as much as we’re currently consuming. Omega-6 fats help us maintain bone health and metabolism and contribute to a healthy diet. But the amount and type of foods we eat determine a healthy omega 6 intake.
If we eat a healthy diet, with five or more servings of fruits and vegetables, at least 50 grams of lean protein, and 28 grams of nuts and seeds each day, then we’ll get plenty of omega 6s. Limiting the consumption of fast-food, fried foods, and too much oil will help keep us on the right track regarding the current Western diet ratio.
Initially, the recommended ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 was 10:1, but studies show that this ratio was even too much omega-6, and Dr. D’Angelo agrees. The new guidance recommends an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of at least 5:1, if not even 4:1, or 2.5:1. These ratios have been shown to have numerous health benefits, including prevention of cardiovascular disease.
So what about seed oils? Dr. D’Angelo points out that eating seed oils is perfectly fine, and they should be used instead of olive oil in some cases, like making stir-fry or deep-fried foods, because olive oil has a lower smoke point, that makes the food less tasty. Seed oils can fry your foods for a shorter period, saving nutrients. However, as with anything, moderation is key. She states:
“Too much of anything isn’t a good thing.
Fruit is healthy, and we need it and should eat it daily, but too much fruit could have too much sugar for some. The same goes for omega 6. We need it for a healthy diet, but the negative effects can happen when we overdo it. When we fry, we cook with too much vegetable oil. Though it’s a good source of omega 6, it’s just too much.”
Let’s talk Omega 3s…
As stated above, omega-3s contain both DHA and EPA. DHA is what’s found in fatty fish like salmon. It’s also in omega-3 supplements, like fish oil vitamins. We should focus on our DHA intake because it has the best protective benefits against cardiovascular disease.
When it comes to eating omega 3s and specifically DHA, the more we can consume, the better. The American Heart Association recommends eating seafood twice a week for this reason. But other foods include DHA, as well.
If you look at the labels on some of your foods, DHA may be added. Dr. D’Angelo talked about when she worked for Coca-Cola, and they added DHA into the Minute Maid Orange Juice. It was a huge seller and helped consumers get their DHA.
Adding DHA is especially common in dairy products. Dr. D’Angelo says almost every brand has some DHA: yogurts, milks, and even kids’ drinks like chocolate milk. Some snacks can have omega 3s added, but may also use high amounts of oil, so it’s essential to read the entire label before consuming.
DHA is also added to infant formula. This is because mothers naturally have DHA in their milk, and Dr. D’Angelo says pregnant women and new mothers should take DHA supplements to increase the amount of DHA they give to their babies.
A few takeaways
Focusing on our 5:1 ratio of omega 6 to omega 3s is crucial to maintaining good health. So too, is increasing our consumption of omega 3s any way we can. Here are some ways you can do that:
- Eat more fish – Fatty fish, like salmon and tuna, are the best source of DHA. Eating fatty fish twice a week is a great starting point. The list also includes trout, sardines, swordfish, mackerel, and mussels.
- Take a fish oil supplement – Although we recommend getting our nutrients from whole foods, Dr. D’Angelo says she even takes a DHA supplement from fish oil or another source to ensure she gets as much DHA as possible. These supplements can be found in the vitamin section at any grocery store. But always talk to your doctor before starting any new supplements.
- Consider the Mediterranean diet – We’ve discussed the Mediterranean diet before on D2D because it’s full of whole foods, fish, olive oil, and more that we need to lead a healthy lifestyle. D’Angelo says that those who follow a Mediterranean diet are the exception and have the correct ratio because the diet is full of whole foods with many omega 3s.
- Include foods with both Omega 3 and Omega 6 properties – Although most foods have one or the other, some foods have a good ratio of both, like flax seeds, spinach, and mangoes.
The Bottom Line
Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for a balanced diet. However, a good ratio of 5:1 is critical for our long-term health. Know which foods provide each of these fatty acids, and know how you can add more Omega 3s. When in doubt, eat more fish!