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Omega 3’s and Omega 6’s are both polyunsaturated fats, and are unable to be made inside your body; therefore they must come from your diet. Since your body can’t produce these fatty acids they are often referred to as ‘essential fats’. Polyunsaturated is a description of their chemical structure, ‘poly’ means many, and ‘unsaturated’ means that there is at least one double bond in the structure. So polyunsaturated fats contain many double bonds. Omega 9’s are slightly different, since they are monounsaturated fatty acids. Since ‘mono’ means ‘one’, this type of fat has only one double bond in its chemical structure. Omega 9’s aren’t strictly ‘essential fats’, since your body can produce them endogenously; but some evidence suggests that consuming them in your diet may still offer you health benefits.
Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are typically considered to be ‘good fats’, while saturated and trans fats are considered ‘bad fats’. Polyunsaturated fats are generally seen to be the healthiest type of fatty acid, with omega 3’s taking the top spot for the most desirable type of fat.
Omega 3 & 6 are different to most other fats since they are not simply used for energy or storage, they have biological functions inside your body and are involved in crucial processes. Omega 3 fats play an important role as a structural component of your cell membranes. They also have many other observed health functions and benefits.
So while all 3 types of omega fatty acids have their own individual health benefits, the most important thing to consider when evaluating their health effects is actually the ratio of 3:6 in your diet. Omega 6 & 9 are abundant in our standard modern diets. Although omega 6 fatty acids are essential, most of us actually consume far too many in our diets; at least in a ratio comparison to the amount of omega 3’s we are consuming! Vegetable oils and heavily processed/refined foods contain huge amounts of omega 6, but are often severely lacking in omega 3. Consuming these foods in large amounts throws out the 3:6 ratio. Omega 9 can be produced by the body as needed, and is also readily available in our diets, so is not something you need to worry about or try to include more of in your diet. It all comes back to the ‘oh so important’ Omega 3’s.
Omega 3 fatty acids are a lot harder to find in our standard modern diets. The best sources of omega 3’s are oily fish, algae oils, walnuts, flaxseeds, chia and hemp seeds. These foods usually don’t make up a large part of our daily diet, so it can require a little extra thought and effort to increase your intake. Adding more of these foods or an omega 3 supplement (fish/algae oil) into your diet is definitely a great way to boost your intake, but something equally beneficial that we should be aware of is aiming to reduce our intake of omega 6. For optimum health benefits the ideal ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 is anything less than 4:1 (e.g. 4g or less of omega 6 to every 1g of omega 3). The current ratio in the average western diet ranges anywhere from 10:1, all the way up to 50:1!!! So shifting your focus from simply increasing omega 3 intake, and starting to focus on also reducing your consumption of omega 6 rich foods will actually prove much more beneficial to your long-term health outcomes.
So if you’re aiming to improve your health through increasing your omega 3 intake, I would definitely recommend adding more of those omega 3 rich foods into your diet. However, I would say it is equally important to also be aware of your omega 6 consumption. Increasing omega 3 without also proportionately decreasing your omega 6 consumption will likely not provide you with the optimal health outcomes you are hoping for. You want to try to get your omega ratio down to 4:1 or even lower if possible. To achieve this you should focus on mainly incorporating polyunsaturated fats high in omega 3 as your source of fat in most meals. For my personal diet, I make sure I am adding chia seeds and ground flaxseeds into my smoothies and oats, and try to add walnuts to my snacks at least a few days a week. Having one or two servings of oily fish (sardines, salmon, mackerel etc.) each week is also a great way to boost your omega 3 intake. I try to avoid oils such as soybean, safflower and corn, as well as other heavily processed vegetable oils. Reduce your consumption of deep-fried foods, packaged foods containing vegetable oils, and if you regularly consume nuts/seeds, try to stick mainly to those with a good omega 3:6 ratio.
I want to point out that being aware of this ideal ratio of omega 3:6 is only one small aspect of overall health. In reality, no one is going to count the exact amounts and calculate their omega ratio, but just use this information as a tool to help guide your ideal food choices. Also, just because this type of measured intake is said to be ‘most beneficial’, doesn’t mean that foods containing omega 6’s are unhealthy. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats have many different health benefits; so don’t let this information discourage you from consuming them. If you are eating a well-balanced diet consisting mainly of whole foods you shouldn’t be worrying too much about all these minor factors. Nutrition is a never-ending world of information and is always growing and changing with new evidence and research. While this sort of information is super interesting, don’t let it become an obsession. Enjoy your food and try to incorporate your nutrition knowledge where you can.