Your first reaction to a discussion about these fatty acids might be “boring”, or “TMI, I don’t need all these details”. What you need to understand, though, is that the Western diet consists of too many Omega-6s in relationship to Omega-3s and the imbalance can be damaging to your health.
Omega-6 and Omega-3 are both polyunsaturated fats that your body needs to survive but can’t produce, so you have to get them from your food. They are known as essential fatty acids (EFA’s). While they are both important to your health, Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory while Omega-6s are inflammatory, and in balance your body can turn inflammation on and off as needed. It needs to be able to react with short-term inflammation to injuries, illnesses or infections, but chronic inflammation can lead to ailments such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Whereas our pre-industrial ancestors consumed diets with relatively balanced Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratios, our diets today have about 16 – 20 times more Omega-6 than Omega-3, and chronic inflammation is prevalent. (See our previous article: Inflammation and How to Tame It).
One of the biggest factors leading to our increased consumption of Omega-6s is that we take in a large amount of processed seed and vegetable oils. Since the beginning of the 20th century, our consumption of soybean oil has gone from zero to 24 lbs./person/year. It is cheap and used a lot in processed foods, and is now the biggest source of Omega-6 fat in the US. Studies of Omega-6 fat stored int he body shows an increase of more than 200% over the last 50 years.
We need to improve our Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio by making a concerted effort to consume more Omega-3 rich foods while reducing the Omega-6s. You can go a long way towards this by reducing or eliminating processed foods that contain them and instead cooking meals from scratch with low Omega-6 fats like olive oil.
In addition to reducing inflammation, Omega-3 fatty acids are good for your heart. They help reduce triglycerides, lower blood pressure, increase HDL “good” cholesterol and prevent plaque buildup in your arteries. Foods that are rich in Omega-3 fats include:
- Fatty, wild-caught fish like salmon and mackerel
- Flaxseeds and Chia seeds
Although whole food sources of Omega-3 fatty acids are ideal, an alternate option is to take a quality Omega-3 supplement.