When you think about all the different types of omega fatty acids, does it feel a little like you didn’t study for a pop-quiz in math (Omega 3… no, omega 6… wait, the answer is omega 9, or maybe 12)
What is the craze over those magical numbers? Why do people say you should consume more omega-3 fatty acid, and less omega-6? And, what about omega-9? Since when did we decide omega 9 is important, too? Are they friend or foe?
Specifically, the average American diet is high in omega 6 fatty acids and low in omega 3, as it consists of 20 times more omega 6 than omega 3. This is a primary cause of inflammation in the body that leads to various chronic ailments. To counterbalance this discrepancy, you need to include more foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids and reduce those that are high in omega 6.
While omega 3 fatty acids are praised more for their health benefits, all three omega fatty acids are essential to normal metabolic functions in the body. The fatty acids omega-6 and omega-9 receive less of the spotlight, because they are more readily available in the common diet.
Essentially, the difference between the omega fatty acids comes down to a molecular level, as fatty acids are composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen molecules. The way these molecules are combined predicts if the fatty acid is a monounsaturated, unsaturated, or saturated fat. Each of these fatty acids — omega 3, omega 6, and omega 9 — are unsaturated fats.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids offer exceptional health benefits when they are implemented into the diet. Individuals that are low in omega 3 often experience several degenerative diseases that are caused by inflammation. Omega 3 fatty acids suppress inflammation that leads to chronic ailments by counterbalancing the omega-6 fatty acids pro-inflammatory properties.
Omega-3 is an “essential” fatty acid, because the body cannot naturally produce omega-3. This means these fatty acids can only be obtained through the foods you eat. Unfortunately, the modern diet contains low amounts of fatty acid omega-3. This essential nutrient needs to be obtained through green leafy vegetables, nuts, and fish. Fish oil is often supplemented to ensure absorption and beneficial amounts are being consumed.
The omega 3 fatty acids contain three beneficial components; alpha linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is a primary fatty acid that is found in plant-based omega-3 sources, mainly flaxseed oil. EPA and DHA are highly unsaturated fatty acids found in fish oil. These essential fatty acids are found in various body tissues. DHA is found in the brain and retina of the eye, as well as aids the formation of neural transmitters for healthy cognitive function. Both EPA and DHA are converted into prostaglanidins,
What are the Benefits of Omega 3 Fatty Acids?:
- Cognitive Function – Omega 3 fatty acids aid fetal brain development and sustain mental health, as DHA/EPA may reduce Alzheimer’s and Dementia. Omega-3 also supports mood to alleviate depression.
- Cardiovascular Health – EPA and DHA aid normal cholesterol and blood pressure levels. Omega 3 also reduces platelet stickiness that leads to blood clots and stroke.
- Reduce Inflammation – Omega 3 fatty acids reduce chronic inflammation by counterbalancing the pro-inflammatory properties found in omega 6 fatty acids.
- Eye Health – DHA is highly concentrated in the retina of the eye. When DHA levels are low, the retina is susceptible to free radical damage and inflammation. Research shows that individuals with higher DHA levels have lower risks of age-related macular degeneration.
- Asthma – Perilla seed oil, which contains alpha linolenic acid (ALA), has been shown to reduce inflammation in the lungs associated with asthma.
What Foods Contain Omega-3 Fatty Acids?:
- Green leafy vegetables
- Nuts & Seeds – walnuts, pumpkin seeds
- Fish (wild salmon, mackerel, herring, oysters, anchovies, sardines, etc.)
- Citrus fruits, melons, cherries
- Ground flaxseeds, chia seeds
- Marine microalgae, like Foundation (most algae do not contain both DHA and EPA)
Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Also known as linoleic acid, the omega 6 fatty acids are easy to find in everyday foods. Omega 6 is beneficial for supporting skin, cholesterol and blood health, but too much can lead to inflammation and offset the proper omega-3/omega-6 fatty acid ratio. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in grains, eggs, poultry, meat, and vegetable cooking oils (sunflower, soybean, canola, and corn oil), borage oil, evening primrose oil, etc.
The overabundance of omega 6 fatty acid in our diet causes an unbalanced ratio of omega-3 to omega-6, which leads to a large amount of inflammation. The inflammatory response is a necessary process in our body, but when inflammation becomes excessive, chronic illnesses develop. This is why the rate of heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s are ever-increasing.
What Foods Contain Omega-6 fatty Acids?:
- Snack foods, cookies, crackers, chips, sweets
- Polyunsaturated oils – corn, soybean, safflower, sunflower, canola, and cottonseed
- Borage oil
- Evening primrose oil
- Leafy Green Vegetables
- Seeds & Nuts
Omega-9 Fatty Acids
Omega-9s are the most common fatty acids found in the modern diet. They contain oleic, mead, and erucic acid. Unlike omega-3 and omega 6, omega 9 fatty acids are not considered essential fatty acids, because they can be created in the body from unsaturated fats. If the body is low in omega-3 and omega-6, omega-9 fatty acid will become an essential fatty acid. If this continues, your body will eventually breakdown by using omega-9 fatty acids more readily.
Omega-9 fatty acid is found in animal fats and vegetable oils, especially olive oil. Olive oil contains palmitic acid, a saturated fat, and does not contain any of the omega 3 or omega 6 fatty acids. Olive oil’s health properties are related to its high polyphenol content, which has strong antioxidant, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory benefits.
What Foods Contain Omega-9 Fatty Acids?:
- Animal Fats
- Olive oil
- Sesame Oil
- Nuts – Pecans, pistachios, cashew, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts
Balanced Ratio of Omegas
A healthy balance of omega 3, omega 6, and omega 9 fatty acid is essential to your health. You do need all three to support many metabolic functions. The World Health Organization recommends an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio should range between 5:1 and 10:1. However, an optimal ratio would be a more equal amount of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acid (between 1:1 and 4:1).
In comparison, most Americans consume a 10:1 or 20:1 ratio of omega 6 fatty acid to omega 3, which is leading to chronic inflammation and diseases.
Medline Plus. Omega-3 fatty acids, fish oil, alpha-linolenic acid. Retrieved on February 25, 2010 from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/patient-fishoil.html
University of Maryland Medical Center. Alpha-linolenic acid. Retrieved on February 25, 2010 from http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/alpha-linolenic-000284.htm