Omega 3 vs omega 6 Are omega-3 and omega-6 the same? Which is better omega-3 or omega-6?Why is omega-3 healthier than omega-6?
Here is a simplified view of these nutritional elements because it is not easy for the layman to navigate. Let’s take a look at some nutrition basics.
- Omega 3 vs Omega 6 fatty acids
- Essential fatty acid supplementation in practice
- Fragile omega 3
- The Worst of the Worst: “Trans” Fatty Acids
- Why is omega-3 healthier than omega-6?
- Is omega-3 or 6 better for you?
- What foods have the best omega-3 to omega-6 ratio?
Omega 3 vs Omega 6 fatty acids
Fatty acids in our body
These are constituents of lipids (fats and fatty substances in our diet) which participate in particular in the manufacture of the membranes of our cells.
To simplify, we distinguish:
– “saturated” fatty acids : especially in solid fats at room temperature, many animal fats but also certain vegetable fats, industrial fats and fats heated to high temperature, etc.). They are not necessarily all bad for your health, except in excess of course.
– “unsaturated” fatty acids : in cold-pressed vegetable oils, fish fats, dried fruits, certain fatty vegetables, etc.). These are omega 3 and 6 (polyunsaturates) and omega 9 (monounsaturates very present in olive oil). Provided in optimal quantities, they are good for the health, even essential.
There is no food containing a single type of fat but the proportions of saturated, unsaturated, omega 3, 6, 9 fatty acids vary from one to another. In Western countries, our diet is too rich in “saturated” fatty acids but often also in omega 6. This is often missing omega 3 on our plates.
“Essential” fatty acids
Indispensable in our daily food intake, they are part of the “unsaturated” fatty acids. In fact, our body knows how to manufacture a good number of unsaturated fatty acids except two types: Omega 3 and the omega 6. Thus, if you need a supply of “unsaturated” fatty acids, you might as well take these, the body will always be able to manufacture the others.
They participate in many important processes such as the constitution and integrity of cell membranes, the functioning of the cardiovascular system, the brain and the hormonal system. The integrity of the skin and the regulation of inflammatory processes also depend on it.
When our cell membranes are made with saturated fatty acids (by lack or by oxidation of unsaturated fatty acids) they become rigid and no longer allow good exchanges between the cell and its environment (nutrition of the cell, eliminations and productions of the cell such as hormones and other blood factors).
Often our modern diet contains too much saturated fat compared to unsaturated fat. In addition, since the 80s when people were encouraged to eat less fat in general, there are many imbalances in favor of omega 6 (see below).
Restoring the balance between different fatty acids promotes better health and increases longevity.
You should also know that the assimilation of fatty acids by the body can only be done in the presence of nutrients such as certain minerals, trace elements, vitamins… This is why a good diet must be varied to provide all these micronutrients.
Omega 6 fatty acids
They are involved in the balance of the nervous and cardiovascular systems, the regulation of immunity, healing and allergic and inflammatory reactions.
They are found mainly in vegetable oils of grapeseed, sunflower, evening primrose, walnut, wheat germ, soybean, sesame, rapeseed, hazelnut, corn, etc… but also in eggs and animal flesh.
They are therefore quite present in our modern diet (even too present) but note that the excess of “saturated” or “trans” fatty acids, pollution, alcohol, age and other factors, can prevent their good use, in particular their transformation into “acid gamma linolenic » (GLA found in borage and evening primrose oil, for example). This gamma linolenic acid is particularly useful in the prevention of skin aging, hydration of the skin, the fight against inflammation…
Our daily omega 6 needs are defined at 4.5g according to the EEC and at 12g in North America. The authorities therefore disagree on these doses. Anyway, we will say that the most important thing is to respect a good ratio with omega 3: no more than 5 parts of omega 6 for 1 part of omega 3.
Omega 3 fatty acids
They intervene at the level of cell membranes by promoting exchanges between the cell and its environment. In the same way they promote the integrity of our mucous membranes. They are very present in our brain and our nerves. They also act in the metabolism of our hormones and moderate inflammatory processes. Omega 3s also have an anti-free radical action.
The health problems resulting from a deficiency in omega 3 are above all cardiovascular diseases, but omega 3 would also have a preventive action against diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s, for example. Finally they would, according to some studies, fight against stress, anxiety, even depression.
Why are we talking so much about omega 3 today?
Because we discovered that Western food is particularly deficient in omega 3 but less in omega 6 nowadays. Omega 3s, which are more fragile, are less resistant to refining, cooking, oxidation, intensive agriculture, conservation, etc.
Many studies have shown a link between these omega 3 deficiencies and degenerative diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, osteoarthritis and also memory problems, neurodegenerative, etc….
The relationship between omega 3 and omega 6
It is very important because an imbalance in favor of omega 6 promotes inflammation and obesity* (among others). In our modern Western diet, it is often 1 to 30, when it should be 1 to 5 (see why omega 3 and 6 should not be confused).
Omega 3s are mainly found in walnut, flaxseed, rapeseed and wheat germ oil… Wild fatty fish are an excellent source and they also contain little omega 6. They should also be present in good quantity in cattle meat, poultry and eggs but on condition that these animals eat grass (and not cereal cakes rich in omega 6), which unfortunately becomes quite rare.
Our daily requirement for omega 3 fatty acids is around 2 grams.
Essential fatty acid supplementation in practice
If you have a perfect diet with excellent quality products, there is no need for supplements, of course. Alas, due to modern food methods, industrial agriculture, pollution, this is rarely the case.
In practice, if we are still careful to use vegetable oils rich in unsaturated fatty acids, an intake of omega 3 alone would be sufficient to help restore a better omega 3/omega 6 ratio.
It appears natural to relate the consumption of omega 3 from gamma linolenic acid (GLA), a fatty acid from the omega family, with certain skin problems (dehydration, inflammation, aging) or hormonal difficulties in women. 6 who has trouble making themselves as they age or in certain conditions.
Many products mix vegetable and fish oils in the appropriate quantities for an omega 3 and 6 combination. Apart from the circumstances mentioned above, we recognize that consuming omega 3 on its own is often sufficient.
As we have seen, since the 80s, populations have changed certain dietary habits have changed to increase them in unsaturated fatty acids. In reality, it is mainly omega 6 that has increased and very little omega 3.
Fragile omega 3
These omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids are very easily degraded by heat (including cooking) andoxidation (by the oxygen in the air for example). They are therefore difficult to keep. On the other hand, omega 6 and 9 are more resistant to heat.
In addition, if our body knows too much production of free radicals (oxidation) omega 3 will tend to oxidize and oxidized fatty acids are dangerous for our arteries (among others).
Vitamin E is an antioxidant that is often associated with omega 3 supplements. The intake of vitamins A, C, B6, Zinc, and antioxidants (from the age of 40), can help limit their oxidation. Other essential micronutrients and enzymes are necessary for the assimilation of omega 3 by the body.
Increasing unsaturated fatty acids in our diet is often helpful and even necessary. This mainly concerns omega 3. It is still necessary to ensure that they do not degrade or oxidize in our body and/or during food storage because otherwise they will turn into harmful and useless fats.
The Worst of the Worst: “Trans” Fatty Acids
They are manufactured by the food industry by the so-called “hydrogenation” method of unsaturated fatty acids from vegetable oils. This makes it possible to preserve fats much more easily and for much longer: texture agents, preservatives to prevent rancidity, margarines, fats from ready-made foods, in particular chocolate bars and snacks, etc. These are therefore the famous hydrogenated fats.
Some ruminant dairy products may include “trans” fatty acids as a result of bacterial change during the rumination process.
Finally, they are produced by frying oils that are high in unsaturated fatty acids. If you’re going to cook with fats, choose ones that are low in unsaturated fatty acids but high in saturated fatty acids that won’t break down into “trans” fatty acids: coconut oil, butter (preferably unpasteurized), duck or hog fat… Smoking fat should be avoided at all costs.
You may believe that trans fatty acids derived from unsaturated fatty acids are helpful. That is not the case. On the contrary, studies have shown that they increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, as well as other diseases such as breast cancer.
The regulations on the labeling and the mention of trans fatty acids are unequal according to the country but, fortunately, more and more present.
Why is omega-3 healthier than omega-6?
Is there a difference between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids? Yes and no, as these two fatty acids are classified as “essential” fatty acids. As a result, omega 3 and omega 6 are both needed for our bodies and may be found in our meals on a daily basis. Their functions are many, yet our bodies are unable to produce them (see our fact sheet on essential fatty acids).
However, the link between the quantity of omega 3 in our blood and the amount of omega 6 we ingest is a concern in industrialized countries. Indeed, this one frequently deviates from the conventional of 1 (omega 3) for 5 (omega 6).
It is very common to find ratios of 1 to 20 or even 1 to 30, in favor of omega 6. This too high ratio is bad for our health. In particular, it promotes chronic inflammation and allergy reactions, among others.
It is therefore necessary to make the difference. Generally, it will be necessary to greatly increase our intake of omega 3. Why this observation?
A priori, for major reasons:
Omega 6s are more abundant in our foods than omega 3s
Breeding methods mean that today most food animals no longer eat a lot of grass but cereal-based cakes (where you can still find omega 6 but little omega 3). Thus, meat, poultry, eggs produced industrially should contain omega 3 but alas, this is no longer the case. On the other hand, the flesh of animals raised on the farm (or wild) that eat grass or shoots, contains omega 3, just like the yolks of eggs from free-range hens.
We eat more vegetable fats than before
Since the 1990s, it has been widely claimed that our diet is deficient in unsaturated fatty acids, that we consume too many saturated fats (particularly animal fats), and that they are harmful to human health (which is not correct elsewhere). As a result, products based on vegetable fats, which are unquestionably higher in unsaturated fatty acids, have hit the market. These fats can also be employed in the kitchen. Although our diet of vegetable fats has grown, these fats are substantially higher in omega 6 than omega 3. Furthermore, omega 6 lipids are more heat and oxidation resistant than omega 3, which is more brittle (see here: how choose your cooking oil).
Our omega 3 needs would be underestimated
Many anti-aging doctors and micronutritionists advocate for larger omega-3 dosages than those suggested by medical organizations. Furthermore, these may differ from one country to the next. In recent years, the recommended daily dosage (AQR or AJR) in Europe has been increased (1.8 to 2.2 grams of ALA (vegetable omega 3) per day and 500 mg of EPA-DHA) (omega 3 of animal origin). It’s worth noting that our bodies use an enzyme to convert ALA into EPA and DHA. However, this transition is relatively restricted, particularly as we age.
Some authors affirm that the ancestral man absorbed much more omega 3 unsaturated fatty acids in the Paleolithic period (2 to 4 times more than the levels recommended today, AQR). This diet would be, even today, the most suitable for man whose body has not really evolved for 10,000 years.
In the end, we usually have too much omega 6 compared to our omega 3. Nowadays and in our industrialized countries, we must go in search of omega 3 when we go shopping. This often involves finding less refined and more natural products, which is not always easy.
This is why, today, taking omega 3 supplements, most often based on fish oils (EPA, DHA), is common. We must not forget that it is also possible to obtain good quantities of vegetable omega 3, for example in chia, hemp, flax, camelina, walnuts, perilla… and their oils.
Is omega-3 or 6 better for you?
Omega-3 and omega-6 are fatty acids that often come with a lot of health benefits. Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats which help with lowering blood pressure, reducing risk of heart disease and help with depression. Omega-6 fatty acids on the other hand help with cognitive development, immune function and anti-inflammatory.
You need both omega-3 and omeag-6 in your diet so it’s not about which one is better for you but about finding the right ratio. The ideal ratio between omega-3 and omega-6 is 3:1 but according to a study the average american diet has a ratio of 10:1. Which means people are consuming a lot more omega-6 than recommended. My basic rule for eating fish is 1-2 servings per week, which will help you with the omega-3 fatty acids. If you prefer to eat plants sources of good fat; seeds, nuts and avocado will also get you enough omega-3 fatty acids.
It’s difficult to say which of these is best for you without knowing your diet. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in cold water fish, nuts and seeds. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in most vegetable oils. Omega-3 fatty acids are known to reduce inflammation and can help prevent heart disease and stroke. Omega-6 fatty acids are necessary for brain development and good vision. If you are eating a well-rounded diet that includes salmon, mackerel, tuna, walnuts and flax seed, then you are probably getting both of these fatty acids. If you aren’t, I would recommend that you get more omega-3 fatty acids in your diet.
What foods have the best omega-3 to omega-6 ratio?
The Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio, otherwise known as the Omega-6/3 ratio, is a measurement of your Omega-3 to Omega-6 intake. It’s based on the ratio between two essential fatty acids (EFAs) that your body needs for numerous processes. Omega-3 are a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA), while Omega-6 are also a type of PUFA. In your diet, these EFAs are mostly found in fish, nuts, and seeds. These fatty acid molecules are necessary for brain function and numerous bodily processes.
However, most Western diets are high in Omega-6 fatty acids, while Omega-3 are lacking. This increased intake of Omega-6 is thought to be the primary cause of diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. For that reason, most experts recommend that you keep your Omega-6/3 ratio at a 1:1 or greater. To do this, you simply need to consume more Omega-3.
All cold-water fish, such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovy, sardines and trout, have high levels of omega-3s. These types of fish are usually high in mercury, so make sure you eat only small portions, and that you avoid fish high in mercury, like tuna and swordfish. Flaxseeds are another good source of omega-3s. The only plant-based omega-3s come from chia seeds and hemp seeds, so if you don’t eat fish, make sure to include these foods in your diet.
Crab, fish (tuna, cod, salmon), mussels, rapini, spinach, flax seeds, mangoes, lettuce, and kidney beans are foods with a high omega-3 to omega-6 ratio. Although no daily value for omega-3s has been established, the adequate intake (AI) per day has been set at 1600mg.