Almost everywhere on the internet, we come across the words Omega-3 and Omega-6. Well, these are the two essential fatty acids.
Essential in the sense that the human body cannot synthesize these fatty acids so they need to be provided in the diet. Omega-3 and Omega-6 are the two closely related essential fatty acids.
Omega-3 mainly includes Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
Omega-6 includes Linoleic acid (LA) and Arachidonic acid.
Only one molecule of these fatty acids is truly essential because the human body can make ω-3 from a molecule of ω-3 but cannot make it from scratch because it lacks the biochemical pathways to synthesize these fatty acids.
Functions Of Essential Fatty Acids:
Essential fatty acids are different from other fats that’s why their functions and effects on the body greatly differ. These fatty acids are not only used for energy storage but they play a crucial role in blood coagulation and inflammation.
Both the fatty acids are essential but their effects are not quite similar. Omega 6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory which means that they induce inflammation while omega 3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory (stop or prevent inflammation).
Although inflammation is a natural process and it is crucial for the body if it occurs at normal levels, that is why omega 6 fatty acids are important.
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But, in excess inflammation is the primary factor that causes most chronic diseases, this is where the role of anti-inflammatory omega-3s becomes important.
Other important functions of Omega 3’s include:
- They help to lower elevated triglyceride levels in the blood.
- Reduce abnormal blood clotting.
- Reduce inflammation caused by auto-immune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis.
- Reduce depression & anxiety.
Deficiency Of Essential Fatty Acids:
Although nowadays, everyone’s diet is loaded with fat it is still deficient in essential fatty acids. Deficiency symptoms appear when an individual’s diet is excessively deficient in a nutrient. The common symptoms of deficiency of essential fatty acids include:
- Dry skin & brittle hair
- Heart problems
- Excessive fatigue
- Troubled sleep
- Depression and anxiety
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The Omega 3 To Omega 6 Ratio- Why Is It Important?
It is believed that human beings have evolved from a diet that had an omega 6 to omega 3 ratio approximately equal to 1.
Nowadays, our daily diets approximately have a ratio of 15/1 or 16/1. This imbalance in fatty acid consumption is the key factor in the increased prevalence of chronic diseases.
An increased ratio of Omega 6 promotes inflammation to an unhealthy level and there is not enough omega 3 in the diet to balance this effect.
This is why the omega 6 to omega 3 ratio is very important.
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One study that tested the effect of a decreased ratio of ω-6 to ω-3 suggests that a ratio of 4/1 is associated with 70% decreased mortality from cardiovascular disease, a 2.5/1 ratio reduced the proliferation of cancerous rectal cells, and a 2-3/1 ratio decreased inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis patients. [Ref]
How To Maintain a Normal Omega 3 To Omega 6 Ratio?
The balance between the consumption of essential fatty acids is lost due to major changes in the diet.
Another major reason for this change is the use of vegetable oils that are rich in ω-6, and also the use of grain products that contain ω-6 more than ω-3
Animal sources consisted of ω-3’s but that too has reduced due to animals feeding on grains. Grass-fed animals have the highest ratio of ω-3 fatty acids.
Some foods that should be included in the diet to balance the ratio of these fatty acids are:
Fish: Not for Vegans
Many varieties of fish including salmon, cod, mackerel, trout, tuna, and scallop have a high amount of ω-3 fatty acids in them. Increasing fish consumption is the best way to balance out the ratio.
The AHA also recommends fish consumption at least twice a week. [Ref]
Fish oil supplementation is also another way to get approximately 1g/day of ω-3 fatty acids.
Nuts: Essential fatty acids for vegans
Nuts especially walnuts have a high content of ω-3 fatty acids. A 4-ounce serving of walnuts provides approximately 6.8 grams of ω-3 fatty acids.
Flaxseeds: Non-fish omega-3 fatty acid-rich food
Flaxseeds are another rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, although they contain alpha-linolenic acid, which has to be converted into the active forms of omega-3 (EPA & DHA), flaxseeds are still known for their anti-oxidative, anti-inflammatory and lipid regulating properties.
Simple tips to enhance your omega-3 intake:
- Add fish to your daily diet, including canned fish such as sardines and light tuna.
- Add ground flaxseeds to your cereals, smoothies, and salads.
- Add walnuts to pancakes, cereals, shakes, puddings, and salads. Or have them in the early morning or as a snack.
- Add soybeans to your diet in the form of separate meals or as snacks.
- Use soybean oil and canola oil in salad dressings.
- Use non-hydrogenated soybean margarine as spreads or in baking.
- Eat omega-3 enriched eggs and other products that are fortified.
- Add ¼ cup of ground flaxseeds to your pizza dough, bread, cookies, or muffins.
Is supplementation necessary?
If there are enough amount of essential fatty acids in the diet, supplementation is not required.
Supplements might be required in some people with cardiovascular disease, or those who are at cardiometabolic risk. Some common supplements include:
- Cod liver oil
- Fish body oil
- Marine algae supplements (particularly contain EPA & DHA)