One thing you probably didn’t know about is the fact that in our modern Western diet, there is a huge imbalance between the amount of omega-6 fatty acids you eat and omega-3 fatty acids. You have probably heard about these types of fatty acids and probably know that both types are good for you.
However that is not the whole truth. The ratio of these matters and if it’s not in balance, then a lot of bad things can happen. Don’t just take my word for it, but also take a look at the scientific evidence.
So what are fatty acids and what about these omegas? Fatty acids are the building blocks of fats. They are a long chain of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen atoms which is capped by a carboxyl group at one of its ends, and a methyl group at the other end.
Fatty acids are classified on the number of carbon atoms in the chain, and also how many double bonds are in the molecule. So an omega-3 fatty acid has a double bond (C=C) at the third carbon atom from where the carbon chain ends, while an omega-6 fatty acid has a double bond at the sixth position from the end, with the end being the methyl group which caps off the fatty acid chains.
The word omega actually signifies the methyl end, while the word alpha is used for the beginning of the chain, the carboxyl group. So that’s where the word omega comes from in the name.
For some reason, whenever I hear these random Greek letters, I think of the Puff Daddy (the artist later known as P-Diddy) song “Come with Me” from the Godzilla soundtrack, which brings me back to my high school basketball days.
Now back to our discussion of the omegas. The most important omega-3 fatty acids for humans are the alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and the docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Some important examples of omega-6 fatty acids are linoleic acid (LA), and arachidonic acid (sometimes abbreviated as AA or ARA).
Linolenic acid (ALA), which is an omega-3 fatty acid, and linoleic acid (LA), which is an omega-6 fatty acid, are both considered essential for the human body, meaning that the body cannot manufacture them itself and they need to be taken in from outside sources (food).
So what roles do these omegas play in the human body? They have a variety of roles and functions that have a large effect on how healthy the human body is. Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation in the body, keep the blood from clotting excessively, improve the insulin response and also regulate prostaglandin production.
Omega-6 fatty acids, on the other hand, promote an immune response of the body (for example through inflammation), promote the aggregation of platelets (which is good for blood clotting), are good for blood lipids, and also help in the regulation of metabolic functions.
Notice how the roles and effects of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are in many ways opposite to each other. For example, omega-3 reduce inflammation in the body, while omega-6 promote it. Inflammation is good for fighting diseases, however too much of it is harmful for the body.
That’s why the need for a balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in your body. These fatty acids have competitive interactions between each other and that’s why a balance between them is needed. Health is about balance.
However the balance in our bodies is out of whack, due to our diets. Sometimes the ratio between omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is 10:1 or even 20:1. This has very serious effects on our health and is a very large contributing factor to people in the developed world suffering from such diseases as heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
Both omega-3 and omega-6 are important for you body, however they need to be in balance. So how much omega-3 you need to eat is dependent on how much omega-6 you are eating. Because of all the processed foods that are in stores, it is hard to maintain a balance between the two omegas.
Aim for a 1:1 balance, but even a 4:1 omega-6 to omega-3 balance is good.
The ratio between omega-6 and omega-3 used to be much more in balance in prehistory. Even in some recent hunter-gatherer societies the ratio was favorable. For example, before the 20th century among the Greenland Inuit, this ratio was 1:2 (even 1:4 in some cases) in favor of omega-3 fatty acids (because of a diet rich in fish and seafood).
However, throughout the course of human history this ratio changed and this is probably one of the factors that contributed to humans getting sick more often in modern times. The most significant change was during the industrial revolution, when the ratio changed drastically due to the wide availability of vegetable oils produced.
Among developed societies, the ratio is most favorable in Japan, due to their diet, and you can see that that country suffers much less from diseases such as heart diseases.
So what can you do to bring down this ratio towards a better balance? Well you need to start eating foods higher in omega-3 and bring down the amount of food rich in omega-6. The best source of omega-3 are fish, different types of seafood and marine algaes.
We are especially deficient in EPA and DHA. These can be synthesized from ALA (found in foods from plants such as flax, pumpkin seeds and walnuts), however this process is inefficient and limited. This means you need to eat foods that already contain EPA and DHA (such as fish, seafood, marine algae).
The ALA to EPA and DHA conversion is also highly dependent on such things as iron, zinc and pyridoxine. So you need to have these things in your body as well. Iron can be found in different types of animal sources, but also bananas.
Grass-fed meat is also the way to go (as it is high in omega-3 from the different grasses that the animals ate), however most meat today is from animals fed on grain-based feeds and so lacks the omega-3 component. You can also supplement omega-3 by eating fish oil capsules.
The other part of bringing the ratio back into balance is by eating less foods that have large omega-6 components. This doesn’t mean cutting them out all together, as many foods that contain omega-6 fatty acids are very good for you and omega-6 fatty themselves are also needed by the body.
Look at the chart below and try to cut down on the vegetable oils which have a high omega-6 ratio as opposed to other fatty acids.
Remember also to cut down on processed foods, as they are also high in omega-6 fatty acids, and are generally considered less healthy.
Eating more foods with omega-3 fatty acids also has other benefits. For example, they have a positive effect on the eyes and vision. They can also help you in your quest to gain weight and get big. If your body knows how to partition nutrients well, then you can gain a lot of weight and size based on lean muscle, without adding too much fat.
Insulin plays a large role in this. When you have too many omega-6 fatty acids you can have a chronic inflamed state, which is bad for insulin sensitivity.
So you need to bring the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio more into balance in order to increase insulin sensitivity and to get your nutrients to be partitioned better, leading to lean muscle gains without too much extra fat being stored.
Now that I’ve explained to you the potential dangers of a high omega-6 to omega-3 imbalance and the benefits that omega-3 can have for your body, I hope that you examine your diet and try to bring the ratio to a reasonable level.
Your body needs both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, as they both play an important role. However the amount of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids that you take in needs to be in balance. That way, you can get the positive benefits of both and be much more healthy than ever before.