No doubt you will have heard of omega 3 fatty acid. This is like the ‘star pupil’ in the class of fatty acids and the all-important fish oil that just about every health expert seems to be raving about. Unlike coconut oil or quinoa though, fish oil is nothing new and has been advocated for decades at this point.
But what you might not have heard so much about is omega 6 fatty acid. Is this just the same thing with a different name? Not at all. In fact, omega 6 fatty acid is something most of us actually have too much of. And the key to getting great health might just lie in getting the balance right.
So let’s take a closer look at what they both do and why they’re so different…
For a long time, fat was demonized by the media as being responsible for weight gain, heart problems and all manner of other ills.
In reality though, this was never true. Actually, fat is a necessary part of our diet and is particularly useful for improving the absorption of other nutrients, as well as helping to improve brain function and testosterone production! Fats also help us to manage our blood sugar levels and in that sense, they are much better than carbs.
But omega 3 is a particularly good type of fat called a ‘polyunsaturated fat’. These are the ‘least stable’ types of fat, which makes them open to oxidation. This is fine as long as you make sure that you don’t let your fats spoil (see more).
And your body actually needs omega 3 and 6 in order to function normally and survive. We can only get them from food and supplements (the body doesn’t produce either), which makes it especially important that we consider what sources we have in our diet.
The reason that omega 3 is so special, is that the body uses it in every single cell. Specifically, omega 3 is used to create the cell walls and this allows you to improve your ‘cell membrane permeability’. This means that things can pass through the cell walls more easily – things like oxygen, like nutrients and like electrical impulses. Ultimately, this speeds up the communication between brain cells giving us a boost in brain function!
Another important thing about omega 3, is that it is used to create a number of hormones that regular blood. This is why omega 3 seems to be able to improve heart function and thereby reduce the likelihood of heart disease, stroke, arthritis and more!
Omega 3 can come from a variety of sources, with oily fish being a particularly good place to get your fix. It also comes in a variety of forms, including EPA, DHA and ALA. While all three are good for you, it’s DHA that’s the most important and the most potent within the body.
The body is able to use DHA in order to boost nervous system functioning and to provide anti-inflammatory benefits. Consumption correlates with improved mood, better insulin sensitivity and even enhanced muscle growth! ALA gets converted into DHA in the body though, so you don’t need to worry about that too much.
But omega 6 meanwhile is a little more complicated – like a difficult middle child!
Omega 6 fats are also important for brain function, muscle growth and hormone production. However, when consumed in high quantities, they can actually cause inflammation.
The bigger reason that we worry about omega 6, is that it competes for space with omega 3. Because these are two of the same type of fat, the body can only hold so much of both. That means that when your omega 6 levels go up, your omega 3 has to come down. This is why that ratio is so important – because if you get it wrong, you’re capping the potential benefit you get from omega 3.
So what’s the ideal amount of omega 6? That would be the bear minimum – just the amount you need for healthy function. And these should then be balanced with plenty of omega 3s.
And the thing to recognize here is that omega 6 is already plentiful in the diet. It comes from linoleic acid, which is found in corn oil, soybean oil, sunflow oil, nuts, seeds and poultry. Because these oils are cheap to produce, they’re found in a ton of processed foods. And because that’s the case, most of us have far too much omega 6 and not enough of the omega 3 that is harder to come by.
Soybean oil is the surprise culprit here! It is so overused that it is thought to make up 20% of the calories in the average American diet!
This all comes down to evolution and sociology. Millions of years ago when humans were evolving, we had much greater access to omega 3 than we did omega 6. Our diets have changed suddenly though and evolution has not had time to catch up. That old story again!
So what can you do to make this right and fix your levels?
The first thing to do is to make sure you’re not supplementing with omega 6. While you can find it in supplement form, most people really don’t need it.
Another thing to do is to start supplementing with omega 3. You can’t have too much of this stuff and really you will find that the benefits are so wide reaching and impressive that there’s really no reason not to give it a go.
And while you’re at it, try eating a little more fish. Fish is good for you in all kinds of ways – it’s also an excellent lean source of protein – and there’s just no downside to getting a little more in your diet.