Most health and fitness professionals are wise to the notion that more Omega-3 fatty acids in the diet is a good thing for controlling inflammation and heart health. However, that’s not the entire picture. We tend to ingest more Omega-6 fatty acids than Omega-3’s. Balancing the Omega fatty acid ratio is imperative to getting a maximal health and longevity benefits from these nutritional compounds.
The “SAD” State of our Dietary Habits
In modern society, our Westernized Standard American Diet (SAD) reflects lower consumption of the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid DHA compared to our traditional, hunter-gatherer ancestors. The omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of the SAD diet varies, anywhere from 10:1 to 25:1, whereas the ratio of the long-ago foragers’ diet brings the balance closer to 1:1 to 2:1. This means we are now getting 10 to 25 times more Omega-6 than Omega-3’s when our intake should be about the same.
Our typical eating habits, as a society in general, lead us to stray significantly far away from the ideal ratio range. We might keep in mind, however — and remind clients when appropriate —that optimizing the Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio is possibly the single most important thing we can do to support our overall health.
Health Hazards of an Imbalanced Omega Fatty Acid Ratio
Excessive amounts of Omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids and/or a very high Omega-6:Omega-3 ratio can promote the evolution of many serious health issues, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory/autoimmune diseases, Alzheimer’s disease, and diabetes. An increased level of Omega-3 and/or a low Omega-6: Omega-3 ratio seems to reduce these deleterious health effects.
The Omega-3s derived from fish oil, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), excel at reducing problematic inflammation. A recent study published in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity found that Omega-3 fish oil supplements lowered inflammation in healthy (but still overweight) adults. Over the course of four months, participants in this protocol received either a daily dose of 1.25 to 2.5mg Omega-3 supplement, or a placebo pill filled with the types of fats typically associated with the Standard American Diet.
The low-dose group saw a 10% percent decrease in circulating levels of an inflammatory marker known as interleukin-6 (IL-6), while the high-dose group saw an even more dramatic improvement, of decrease of 12%. Those taking the placebo saw a 36 % increase. Levels of another inflammation marker, tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha), also decreased in the Omega-3 group as compared to the placebo sector.
Co-author Ron Glaser stated, “You need this good inflammation for an initial response, but if it stays up, and inflammation becomes chronic, then you’ve got a problem. Our research and studies done by others have shown that these two cytokines are clearly related to overall health—and when they’re elevated in the blood that is not good for overall health. So, the more ways we can find to lower them, the better.”
Omega-3’s, plentiful in fish, flax seeds, and walnuts, help to reduce inflammation in the body. They also help protect the heart from lapsing into erratic rhythms, inhibit the formation of blood clots, and reduce the body’s level of triglycerides, the most common of fat-carrying particles in the bloodstream. Omega-6’s, found in dairy products, eggs, beef, chicken, and pork, contribute to building up “good” cholesterol (HDL) while helping diminish “bad” cholesterol (LDL). While we can see the benefits of each, the balance remains important. Scientists suspect that a distorted ratio of polyunsaturated fatty acids ranks as one of the most damaging aspects of today’s Westernized meal plan.
Careful Nutritional Planning to Optimize Omega’s
Research indicates that the average American consumer ingests large amounts of processed seed-derived and vegetable oils, many of which pack a significant Omega-6 punch. These fats can potentially alter the health of the body’s cell membranes. In addition to sidestepping these oils for cooking or in recipes, experts stress the importance of also watching the consumption of processed foods that may contain sunflower, corn, soybean, cottonseed, and peanut oils.
Today’s cattle farmers typically opt for grain-based feed for their cows, which often contains both corn and soy. This not only knocks down the Omega-3 content of the resulting meat products; the quantity of Omega-6 in the meat becomes overly dominant. Grass-fed cattle meat definitely surpasses grain-fed in terms of quality and has begun to make a more prominent appearance on grocery shelves and on restaurant menus.
When purchasing eggs, paying attention to the type of feed used by chicken farmers can make a big health difference. Consumers might seek out those labelled as “Organic” or “Omega-3 enriched”, which indicate that the hens consumed feeds without soy or corn.
The Opposing Viewpoint
As if often the case in the scientific world, opinions and data outcomes vary on just about any topic, as we see in any the Omega discussion. It seems somehow counterintuitive, but six randomized trials all showed that replacing saturated fats with Omega-6 as opposed to Omega-3 fats actually lowered the risk of a cardiac event by a whopping 24%.
Yet another study, the results of which appeared in the American Journal of Clinical Medicine, revealed that simply replacing saturated fats in one’s diet with any polyunsaturated fats – Omega-6 or Omega-3 – could reduce the risk of heart disease. A referendum on the evils of saturated fat, or extolling the virtues of Omega-6?
According to the American Heart Association, the need to cut back on Omega-6 consumption does not seem dire. A science advisory board spent two years studying Omega-6 consumption as it related to cardiovascular health. Expert panelists included nine independent research scientists from all over the US, three of whom hailed from Harvard University. They concluded that purposeful avoidance of Omega-6 fatty acids to improve one’s omega fatty acid ratio might actually backfire.
An article published in the journal Circulation back in 2009 quoted Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard’s Brigham Women’s Hospital: “Omega-6 fats are not only safe but they are also beneficial for the heart and circulation,” says the coauthor. The American Heart Association findings revealed that rates of heart disease actually lessened as consumption of Omega-6 fatty acids increased. While we can ideally try to bring these fats into a better balance, the expert opinion now states that we should accomplish this not by drastically reducing consumption of healthy Omega-6 fats, but rather by incorporating additional sources of Omega-3 fatty acids.
What Do You Think?
In the past three decades, the change in the composition of an American’s fatty acid profile parallels the significant increase in obesity. Recent human studies once again demonstrate that the lack of balance between these two fatty acids seems to play an important role in what has become one of our nation’s leading health crises. While we may never re-establish the ideal omega fatty acid ratio of our forefathers, striving for a more ideal balance continues to prove immensely critical for our overall health. How would you guide your clients on this topic?