Inside Scoop: Let’s end the confusion about omega 3 versus omega 6. Get the scoop on the health benefits and risks to be aware of.
This post was submitted by John Thomas, engineer turned fitness freak and blogger who now spends his time looking up real research on which foods are healthy and which ones aren’t.
Over the past few decades fats have been vilified to such an extent that people stopped using them (until recently). It was a generally accepted notion that loading up on fats is the shortest route to death. Fat was blamed for everything from heart attacks, clogging arteries, increased blood pressure, hair loss and so on. The clamour was growing.
Fat had to be replaced.
That void— the size of a blackhole— was filled with replacements like vegetable fats and newer oils that were purported to be the next best thing since sliced bread.
The research reveals that in the 20th century there was a 20-fold increase in the consumption of vegetable oils often recommended as a healthy alternative to control cholesterol levels. But is that true?
In the case of fats, not everything is as straightforward as it may seem.
As we learn more and more — the right kinds of fats once discarded and forgotten are finding their place on our palates again.
In this article I am going to share the truth behind fats, bust some myths and help you make the right choice with the type of fats to consume more and less of.
WE DON’T EAT 1 TYPE OF FAT BUT A BLEND OF FATTY ACIDS
One major misconception is that foods consist of only one type of fat — e.g. salmon and flax are rich in omega 3, sunflower oil is high in omega 6. But, the truth is we’re eating several different kinds of fat as part of every food.
Fats can be divided into two major types saturated and unsaturated.
Unsaturated fats are divided into polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats which are further made of fatty acids. And there are trans fats too. Trans fats are particularly bad for health and have been banned in several countries including the US and Canada. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are generally the fats that are known to be “good” for your health.
The 14-member expert committee comprising the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Board changed its guidelines to recommend polyunsaturated fats as a healthy part of the American diet. The report stated that these good fats could reduce the risk of heart disease.
There’s always more to the story, so let’s break it down.
The basics of polyunsaturated fats: what is what?
Within the class of polyunsaturated fats there are different types of fatty acids, the two most prevalent being omega 3 versus omega 6.
Omega 3 fatty acids
Based on the food source whether it’s plant or animal based, omega-3 fatty acids might consist of one of three components in dominance which are:
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
We get ALA from plant food sources like chia seeds, hemp seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts, almonds and vegetables oils such as canola and soybean. EPA and DHA are obtained from fatty fish like mackerel, salmon and sardines who in turn get it from feeding on algae. Algae is also a great source of these fatty acids for vegetarians and vegans.
Our body can convert ALA to EPA and DHA but the process is not very efficient with rates less than 15%.
So, while munching down on heaps of nuts and seeds is incredibly healthy for you, it may not be the best way if your goal is to get powerful DHA.
Omega-3 fatty acids increase the levels of good cholesterol level (HDL), lower triglyceride levels, blood pressure, lower inflammation and increase endothelial function.
Observational research on people from Japan and Greenland showed that they tend to have good heart health and that’s probably owing to their diet rich in fatty fish.
Omega 6 fatty acids
Omega 6 fatty acids (just like omega 3s) are a form of healthy fats that the body can’t manufacture on its own.
They’re primarily made of two components: linoleic acid and arachidonic acid. We get omega 6 from a number of plant-based sources like canola oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil as well as various nuts and seeds, such as walnuts, almonds and sesame seeds.
Arachidonic acid is primarily found in animal products like poultry, meat and eggs.
The problems of omega 3 versus omega 6
We absolutely need omega 6 fatty acids in our diet just like we need our omega 3s (they are after all both essential fatty acids), but there are 2 problems that we are faced with.
PROBLEM #1: OIL STABILITY
If we look at the chemical structure of saturated and polyunsaturated fats because of structural differences polyunsaturated fats tend to be less stable to heat, light and air.
And that’s where the problem arises. Most vegetable oils (canola, soy, corn, sunflower etc.) are produced using high heat and chemical extractions that not only oxidize the oil and produce trans fats in the process, but may contain traces of chemicals such as hexane.
And because they are so cheap to produce, canola, soybean and other vegetable oils make their way to many highly processed and packaged foods as well as most fried restaurant dishes.
To prevent oils from oxidizing further when they are used in products, the oil industry makes something even worse to try to make these fats more stable. They use the process of hydrogenation to turn a liquid oil into a hard spread producing trans fats in the process, which are linked to inflammation, increased LDL cholesterol, heart disease, and cancer.
When you’re using oils rich in omega 6s like canola or soybean oil you’re are getting a double whammy— an unstable oil that’s prone to oxidation or oil rich in trans fats.
Luckily trans fats are being banned in many countries, but we’ll always have to keep our eyes open to what they’re going to be replaced with. For now, you can empower yourself by downloading your Best Oils for Cooking handout below that gives you insight into what to look for and what to avoid when buying oils for cooking.
PROBLEM #2: OMEGA 3 TO OMEGA 6 RATIO
Most western diets skew omega 6s in favor of omega 3s. Reading through many research reports I found that the ideal ratio for omega 6s to omega 3s sits somewhere around 3:1. Meaning you need 3 omega 6s for every 1 omega 3.
Do you know what’s the current ratio in the North American diet? 25:1, although some sources claim it to be even higher. This skewed ratio is responsible for a lot of health problems we currently face.
So, what’s the problem with too much Linoleic Acid?
In a research study Dr. Susan Carlson from the University of Kansas and neurobiologist Dr. Stephan Guyanet conducted a comprehensive review of nearly 40 studies between 1960 and 2010 to determine the effect of increased polyunsaturated fat use over the years on our bodies. Analyzing the wealth of data from 40 years they discovered something shocking. The duo found that since 1960s linoleic acid in human fat tissue had increased by 136%, and that was mainly attributed to the increased consumption of vegetable oils.
Why is this bad?
In the body linoleic acid elongates and transforms to arachidonic acid that can cause and increase inflammation.
The report (linked earlier) shared findings that linoleic acid reduced cholesterol levels but also increased the risk of death. There was a 22% increase in the risk of death for each 30 mg/dL reduction in serum cholesterol. And after reviewing studies of 530,525 participants, it was found that there was no benefit of linoleic acid supplementation with regard to heart health.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
- Incorporate healthy sources of both omega 3 and 6 such as nuts and seeds, fatty fish and cold-pressed oils.
- Reduce the consumption of highly processed foods and ensure to check food labels.
- Avoid the use of vegetable oils for cooking.
- Use only cold-pressed virgin oils including olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil and ghee.
- Consume plenty of antioxidant and colorful fruits and vegetables.
- Consider taking an omega 3 supplement if you’re not getting enough in your diet. Below are some great vegan and omnivore based sources.
Omega 6 and Omega 3 fats are both necessary for normal functioning of the human body. They are essential fatty acids because the body is incapable of producing them on their own. But the industrial scale production and usage has a habit of making monsters out of angels.
A part of the problem could be solved if we try to achieve the proper balance and the right ratios of these fatty acids.
What are your thoughts on this topic? Share them below. And don’t forget to download the Best Oils for Cooking handout below that will tell you the right cooking temperature, what to look for and how to use 12+ of the most commonly available oils on the market.
John Thomas is an engineer turned fitness freak and blogger who now spends his entire time looking up real research on which foods are healthy and which ones aren’t. At his blog— HealthMeSport —he busts myth and promotes the truth about food. He is in the constant pursuit of truth and in the mission to save mankind from the trap of misinformation that’s rife in health circles.