Balancing Omega-3s and Omega-6s in Your Diet
February 27, 2014
By Kelly Stuart
Balancing Omega-3s and Omega-6s in Your Diet
Many of us know how important it is to get omega-3 fatty acids in your diet, but do you know the importance of keeping your intake of omega-6s low, or what ratio of omega-3s to -6s you should be aiming for?

The well-documented benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in reducing the risk of a range of diseases and disorders has led to a steady increase in consumer demand for fish oil supplements. Specifically, it is the EPA and DHA fatty acids, found almost exclusively in seafood, that have been shown to have the most benefits.

While omega-3s have neutral or anti-inflammatory effects, high omega-6 intake is associated with an increase in all inflammatory diseases, which is to say, virtually all disease.

Omega-6 fats and omega-3 fats compete with each other for metabolism. In plain terms, the more omega-3 rich foods you eat, the less omega-6 will be available for our tissues to produce inflammation. Our bodies have the ability to convert omega-3 oils that are found in plants into the very valuable EPA and DHA fats that we are seeking in our fish oil supplements.

However, high consumption of omega-6 fats greatly hinders this process. Therefore, the need to balance out these ratios is highly important.

Aim for an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of no more
than 4:1

Anthropological evidence suggests our hunter-gatherer ancestors consumed omega-6s and omega-3s in a ratio of 1:1. Evidence also indicates that they were relatively unaffected by chronic inflammatory diseases, such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes, that are the primary causes of death today.

At the onset of the industrial revolution, with the advent of the modern vegetable oil industry, and the increased use of cereal grains as feed for domestic livestock, the balance of fats in our diets became increasingly skewed. Estimates of this omega-6 to omega-3 ratio now range between 10 and 25:1!

Fish oil supplements aren't sustainable

EPA and DHA fats found in fish oil supplements have been shown to reduce the risk of heart attack, hypertension, thrombosis, stroke and arrhythmias. They have additionally been shown to offer beneficial effects in depression, rheumatoid arthritis and eye health.

DHA is highly concentrated in the brain, where it helps brain cells communicate with each other. With so much at stake, is it any wonder that fish oil supplements almost seem requisite for our health maintenance? But what about sustainability and ecosystems? Is there another way?

The increasing global population has substantial implication for the future sustainability of wild harvested fish stocks to meet this demand. Krill oil is another popular supplement that is discussed in more detail here.

How to balance your omega-3s and -6s without using fish oil supplements?
  • Eat sustainable seafood!
Eat seafood twice a week at a minimum – scallops, shrimp, cod, squid, halibut, sardines, anchovies and oysters are all terrific sources of EPA and DHA. Enjoy creating flavour sensations, for instance, using anchovies in salad dressings, or adding oysters in with mashed potatoes!
  • Minimise consumption of processed foods
These often have unhealthy fats added to them as they are cheaper and prolong shelf life.
  • Read food labels carefully
If you see the words "hydrogenated" or "partly hydrogenated" put the item back on the shelf! These are harmful, inflammatory fats.
  • Transition to a Mediterranean style of eating
Fresh, whole foods, brightly coloured fresh fruits, vegetables, olive oil and nuts are all examples of a Mediterranean diet. This type of diet is filled with anti-inflammatory antioxidants.
  • Keep nuts and oils refrigerated
The oils are unstable and susceptible to rancidity.
  • Eat organic extra virgin olive oil cold
Use olive oil liberally and cold in salads, or drizzled over roast vegetables. Don't heat olive oil above 300°C as it will oxidise.
  • Use avocado, macadamia or coconut oil for cooking
All of these oils are good for cooking at higher temperatures.
  • Limit consumption of other vegetable oils
Try to avoid vegetable oils such as corn, safflower, sunflower, canola and soybean oils. These oils may be found in commercial dressings, spreads and mayonnaise.
  • Eat game meats
This type of meat is higher in omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Choose organic, grass fed meats, chicken and eggs
Animals raised in a natural setting and pasture fed on a variety of grasses, legumes and other plants will contain a lower (beneficial) omega-6 to omega-3 ratio.
  • Include flaxseed and chia seeds in your diet.
Unlike many other seeds which are high in omega-6s, these seeds are great sources of omega-3s and great for smoothies, sprinkled over cereal and added to salads. The oils become more bioavailable when ground, as they are very small and difficult to chew and grind sufficiently with our teeth.
  • Eat a wide variety of green vegetables
Green vegetables are also good sources of omega-3 oils.
  • Eat walnuts and cashews, but not peanuts
Just eat a small handful a day of these nuts. Nuts and seeds are a complete, whole food (as opposed to the extracted oil, which is susceptible to rancidity). Even nuts that have higher levels of Omega-6 fats are still ok, as they are filled with other health benefits, such as being a valuable source of protein, fibre, vitamin E and important minerals such as selenium and zinc.

Good news on the horizon:

There is a variety of EPA and DHA sources such as bacteria, fungi, plants and microalgae that are currently being explored for commercial production. Microalgae are the initial producers of EPA and DHA in the marine food chain, and can grow quickly under a variety of culture conditions. Although still a major challenge, a recent review article (Nichols et al, 2014), found that there is strong potential for achieving economically viable production of microalgal lipids.

Kelly Stuart has a BHSc in nutritional medicine and a particular interest in allergies and mental health. Kelly is the mother of two sons, aged 9 and 10, and it was her experience with her children, their eczema and other allergies that led her to pursue studies in nutritional medicine.
"While omega-3s have neutral or anti-inflammatory effects, high omega-6 intake is associated with an increase in all inflammatory diseases, which is to say, virtually all disease."