As our diets have changed and the focus became quick, cheap, shelf-stable foods scientists started noticing a trend. People were becoming sicker - but why? There are many compounding reasons but one thing that has presented itself in the research is the impact of two fatty acids - commonly called Omega-3s and Omega-6s. These essential fatty acids are not made in the body, so need to be in our food. However, when consumed they are the precursors to a whole metabolic process that is impacting the body. Without diving into the difficult to pronounce names and mechanisms used to convert these acids in the body, we know that omega-3 fatty acids are converted to anti-inflammatory acids, while omega-6s are turned into pro-inflammatory acids. (1)
Why Does This Matter?
Well, we’ve been talking a lot about inflammation in this series, and you now know that inflammation can be the root of many serious diseases including cardiovascular disease, obesity, and some cancers.(3) What is even more interesting with these two fatty acids is when omega-3s and omega-6s are imbalanced we also see an increase in nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, irritable bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and Alzheimer's disease. (2)
It is also worth noting that when omega-6sare over-consumed and omega-3s under-consumed there is an increased prevalence of depression and other mental health issues. Furthermore, we know that this imbalance can lead to more obesity and even changes in adipose tissue (fat) in the body, particularly around the brain-gut-adipose tissue axis. (1)
Sounds very dooms-day huh? While it is something to give pause to, the good news is that there are ways you can help change your ratio.
You Keep Mentioning “Ratio” - More Details Please
It is believed that the ideal omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is 4:1 - currently, the average American’s ratio is 16:1 or 20:1. Way out of whack! This has happened because of the increased processing of foods in our market. For example, adding highly processed oil is a really cheap, fast way to produce foods that are tasty (fats make foods more palatable) and shelf stable, but they also tend to be the highest in omega-6s. The research is conflicted on the right amounts of omega-6s you should be getting (and truth be told, it is not an easy thing to track for most). However, what there is agreement on is that it’s more about achieving the 4:1 ratio than hitting an exact numbers of grams (but there are recommendations out there). You can also talk to your doctor about measuring your ratio through a special lipid profile test, if you are concerned.
Even without the special medical tests, we can make the assumption that your omega-6 to omega-3 ratio needs some tweaking. Here are some ways you can keep your in check:
Get more omega-3s: To offset the high amount of omega-6s in the diet, focus on adding more omega-3s throughout the week. Eat higher fat seafood (salmon gets two thumbs up here) twice a week and choose plant oils when cooking (olive oil, coconut oil, and palm oil).
Eat more plants: A large amount of omega-6s come from processed foods and animal products. By increasing the amount of plants you eat you will not only decrease your intake of omega-6s but also boosts your overall nutrient intake.
When you choose meat, choose wisely: Most meats have very low omega-3 amounts, however, grass fed meats tend to be a little higher than conventionally raised. The lowest ranking meats? Anything processed.
Supplement (maybe): While we always believe food first, there are times when a supplement may be right for you. To boost your omega-3s consider taking a fish oil or cod liver oil supplement.
This can be a deep topic, but if you are up for some heavy reading you can find great information here with links to other studies and resources.