As a follow-up to our recent webinar on July 14th, 2022 titled “Fatty Acids: What is the Ideal Ratio of Omega 6 to 3 for Optimal Health?”, we wanted to take a minute to provide a brief summary and answer questions that were not answered during the live webinar. If you missed our live webinar, head on over to our Continuing Education Center and watch the recorded version which has been approved for 1 Continuing Professional Education (CPE) credit for Registered Dietitians by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR).
Let’s start this discussion with a basic overview of the molecular structures of fatty acids! Both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are considered polyunsaturated fats meaning they have more than one double bond (“poly”) linking 2 carbon molecules somewhere in their molecular structure. Specifically, omega-6 fatty acids have a double bond on the 6th carbon and omega-3 fatty acids have a double bond on the 3rd carbon to round out the naming game! Regarding other fats, monounsaturated fats have only one double bone (“mono”) between carbon molecules and saturated fats do not have any double bonds in their chemical structure which is what makes them different from polyunsaturated fats.
The omega-3 family is best known for marine sources- eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) found in fatty fish. A lesser-known omega-3, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), is a plant-based source and found in large quantities in flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts.
Omega-6 fatty acids include arachidonic acid (ARA) and linoleic acid (LA) which are found in many oils (sunflower, safflower, soybean, canola, corn), meat and eggs.
Both omega-3’s and omega-6’s play an important role in health. Concerns begin to arise with the large imbalance of omega-6’s to omega-3’s in the typical American diet. For example, calories from vegetable oil consumption have dramatically increased over the past 50 years leading to a rise of omega-6 consumption. Elevated ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids are associated with inflammation that can be associated with various chronic diseases. The US average ratio is 30:1 (omega-6 to omega-3), a ratio of 3:1 may prevent inflammation, and a 1:1 ratio may reduce inflammation. While it may be difficult with our modern diets, achieving ratios where omega-3s exceed omega-6’s (in combination with a variety of monounsaturated and saturated fats) may provide even more health benefits.
So how do we start moving away from so much omega-6 consumption and lowering the ratio back to a healthier level?
Here are 4 recommendations to get started on today!
Consume at least 1000 mg of omega-3 fatty acids daily. Try and eat 6-8 oz of seafood weekly. Keep in mind that when it comes to salmon the canning process does not destroy the omega-3s while canned tuna does have less omega-3 content compared to fresh. Why the difference? For salmon – raw salmon is put into the can and then cooked but for tuna – it is cooked before canning. When it comes to cooking, omega-3 fatty acids do break down at high heats including grilling and smoking. When cooking fish, try the poaching method (which is done around 212°F) for the best nutrient integrity.
Fish isn’t your thing? No problem! Add chia and/or flaxseeds to oatmeal, yogurt, smoothies & salads. For optimal absorption, eat them ground. While whole flax and chia seeds pack a nutritional punch, some may pass through your digestive tract undigested; therefore, making it difficult to get the full nutritional benefit.
Another easy way to boost your omega-3 consumption is snacking on English walnuts which have a sweet and mild taste. English walnuts have a higher omega-3 content at 2.5 grams in 14 halves compared to black walnuts which contain 1.5 grams in the same volume; however, I would not let this discourage you from eating black walnuts as 1.5 grams is still a significant amount of omega-3s. Try to avoid roasting or using high heats on walnuts which will destroy the omega-3s.
In an effort to decrease omega-6 consumption, make saturated and/or monounsaturated fats the foundation of your diet and leading sources of calories. Ideal monounsaturated fat choices include olives, almonds, avocados, & macadamia nuts. Saturated fat options would be butter and coconut oil. Coconut oil has certainly grown in popularity the past several years – touting a variety of health benefits due to its large amount of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) but as with all things- moderation is important. Aim for 2 tablespoons or less per day.
Wait, isn’t saturated fat bad? The PURE study is a large epidemiological study that looked at the relationship between macronutrients and cardiovascular disease and enrolled over 100,000 adults. This study found that a high carbohydrate intake was associated with higher risk of total mortality. Both the total fat intake and type of fat (including saturated) were not associated with cardiovascular disease, myocardial infarction, or cardiovascular disease mortality. In fact, saturated fat had an inverse association with stroke.
At the end of the day, it’s about balance! Should you eat only saturated fat? No of course not – it’s important to eat a balance of omega-3 polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats and saturated fats to lower your omega-6 to omega-3 ratio for optimal health.
Make smart choices with your cooking oils. Choose monounsaturated and saturated fat options for cooking as their smoke points are generally higher and less susceptible to oxidation. For high heat cooking (450°F +), avoid vegetable oil blends which are often a mix of high omega-6 fats and choose avocado oil or clarified butter (ghee) instead. For medium high heat cooking (400°F) such as baking and sautéing, choose olive oil. Medium heat cooking (350°F) such as light sautéing does best with extra virgin olive oil, butter or coconut oil.
Avocado oil – like avocado- is rich in monounsaturated fats with about 70% of the fat source being monounsaturated, 13% polyunsaturated and 12% saturated (very similar to olive oil). While it does not contain the fiber and as many of the micronutrients as eating a raw avocado, it certainly can be a great option for high heat cooking.
Flaxseed oil has the highest amount of the omega-3 ALA by weight and is a great way to get more omega-3 in your diet. Unfortunately, flaxseed oil has a very low smoke point at ~225°F and should not be used for most cooking. Don’t fret though- it’s a superb option for dressings and cold dips.
Limit the use of omega-6 dominant seed oils such as sunflower, safflower, soybean, canola, corn and vegetable oil blends. Another way to reduce your omega-6 consumption is (when possible) to focus on more grass-fed animals including beef and chicken. Meat from grass-fed animals has 2-4 times more omega-3 fatty acids than meat from grain fed animals.
Overall, the goal is not to label certain fats “bad” or “good” – the goal is to eat a balance of all the different types of natural fat sources – omega-3 polyunsaturated, omega-6 polyunsaturated, saturated and monounsaturated fats. Over the decades the typical American diet has been overrun by omega-6 fatty acids – and while these are polyunsaturated fats and as a large category of fats considered a good option – the issue is the imbalance of omega 6’s to omega 3’s. It’s not necessary or realistic to eliminate all omega-6 polyunsaturated fats from our diets. We can focus on correcting the imbalance by either reducing our omega-6 consumption OR increasing the omega-3 consumption – or a bit of both! Switching your cooking oil from a vegetable oil blend to avocado or olive oil will reduce your omega-6 consumption and eating 14 walnut halves a few times a week will boost your omega-3 intake – two great places to start!
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Taha AY. Linoleic acid–good or bad for the brain?. npj Sci Food 4, 1(2020). https://www.nature.com/articles/s41538-019-0061-9.
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