Omega-3 and 6 are two types of polyunsaturated fats. They are called essential fatty acids because our bodies don’t have the enzymes to produce them, meaning we must get them from food.
Discovered in 1929, researchers were fascinated by these fats because they play such a pivotal role in the regulation of chemical signaling between cells, particularly in the brain, production of hormones and regulation of inflammation.
They’ve also been the source of much controversy.
For most of the twentieth century scientists have been researching the cause of heart disease in countries that eat a Western diet. In the last fifty years, that research has expanded to include diabetes and obesity. For the last twenty years, experts have been arguing that the surplus of omega-6 in the Western diet is driving these epidemics as well as neurological disorders, asthma and some cancers.
To complicate matters, it’s not clear if we need to eat more or less omega-6, or if the problem is that we’re not getting enough omega-3 in the right ratio to omega-6.
The Contentious Link Between Fat and Heart Disease
Much of the current debate surrounding the issue of fat stems back to a study carried out by Ancel Keys and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota in 1965, which linked saturated and polyunsaturated fats to increased levels of cholesterol. It was this study that led the charge against fat as the leading cause of heart disease and convinced governments to recommend a low-fat diet.
However, researchers have questioned the applicability of the study’s findings as Keys did not distinguish between types of polyunsaturated fats, and therefore did not consider the roles of omega-3 and 6 or their ratio to each other.
A study published in 2013, called the Bellagio Report, concluded that the imbalance of omega-3 to 6 was the major problem in the Western diet: “High omega-6/omega-3 ratios typify Western diets, and increasingly, diets throughout the world, and they are associated with increased risk for cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes and cancer of the breast and prostrate.”
It’s estimated that the average American consumes 20 times more omega-6 fatty acids that omega-3, a ratio of 20:1, as compared to the average Japanese who eats a balanced ratio of 4:1 due to a higher consumption of fish.
But William Harris, an expert in heart disease at the University of South Dakota, has shown that higher levels of omega-6 are associated with reduced risk of heart disease. “The American Heart Association (AHA) encourages people to eat omega-6 fatty acids and specifically not to buy into this idea that we’re eating too much,” he said. Another expert, Walter Willett, called the assertion that high omega-6 intake led to disease an “urban myth.”
The debate doesn’t stop there. Floyd Chilton, a biochemist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Centre claims that the clinical trials carried out by the AHA were not well designed and as a result, the organization has made some “troubling decisions.” Other experts echo this sentiment. The only obvious conclusions of the debate so far are that experts cannot agree or studies are flawed.
Which is not an uncommon occurrence. It’s important to know that the majority of clinical trials have the potential to be flawed in some way because there are so many variables to take into account when studying something as complex as diet. This study on eggs warns the failure to account for other factors invalidates its results but concludes one egg a day can reduce the risk of stroke, just don’t eat fat!
What does Polyunsaturated Mean?
Fats are made up of chains of carbon atoms surrounded by hydrogen atoms with a carboxylic acid group at one end, all held together by chemical bonds, which can be saturated or unsaturated.
Saturated fatty acids contain only single bonds, which is why there are solid at room temperature, like butter, lard, suet and tallow.
There are different types of bonds and unsaturated fats can contain single double bonds or double double bonds. A single double bond in a chain makes a monounsaturated fatty acid such as olive oil, cashews, hazelnuts, and nut butters.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), like vegetable oils such as canola, safflower, sunflower, peanut, corn and soybean are made up of two or more carbon-carbon double bonds, which is what turns them into oils. Other sources of polyunsaturated fat include salmon, almonds, chia seeds, butter, fried egg, pork and avocado.
What are Omega-3s?
There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoioc acid (DHA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). EPA and DHA are primarily found in fish. ALA is found in plant sources such as nuts and seeds.
EPA is used to reduce inflammation, blood pressure and cholesterol while DHA is a category of grey matter found in the brain, cell membrane, the testis and sperm, which is why it plays a key role in the long-term health of the brain and in the prevention of prostrate cancer.
The importance of EPA and DHA is why we’ve seen an explosion in fish oil supplements. A study carried out on the Inuit populations almost fifty years ago attributed their lower risk of cardiovascular disease to their fish-based diets. However, more recent studies have cast doubt on that thesis, claiming fish oil provides no benefits for lowering the risk of heart disease.
Though research has shown that ALA has no significant effect on cholesterol levels, it does contribute to healthy heart function and reduce clots. It’s an anti-inflammatory that’s been shown to have positive effects on arthritis, Multiple Sclerosis, lupus, diabetes, depression and skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. One study found that eating a diet rich in ALA reduced the risk of high blood pressure by 30%.
Health expert, Chris Kresser, recommends that people who don’t eat fish take a high vitamin cod liver oil supplement but says that 1 teaspoon a day is sufficient for either a fish or non-fish eater. Anyone consuming more than that, 3 grams a day or more, should balance it out with antioxidants such as olive oil, blueberries, nuts, dark leafy greens and dark chocolate.
Anne’s Healthy Kitchen lists sources of omega-3. Top of the list is flax oil and flax seeds, though taking large quantities of flax is not recommended as it can lead to diarrhea, blockages in the digestive tract, allergic reactions and hormone imbalances in women. Other sources include walnuts, tuna, salmon, butter, cabbage and spinach.
What are Omega-6s?
Omega-6 supports a number of key body functions: stimulates skin and hair growth, maintains bone health, regulates metabolism and balances the reproductive system, making it a fundamental part of a healthy diet. It also plays a crucial role in brain development and growth.
Sources of omega-6 include safflower, sunflower, corn, cottonseed, sesame, soybean and walnut oil. Each of these oils is high in omega-6 and contains little or no omega-3. There are several types of omega-6, but the omega-6 found in oils is called linoleic acid (LA) and is converted to gamma-linoleic (GLA) acid in the body.
It’s important to balance the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 because clinical research has linked imbalances in fatty acids to cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and diabetes, as well as skin and mood disorders. The ideal ratio of omega-6 to 3 is in the range of 4:1 to 2:1.
In a healthy body, GLA is synthetized from LA but because of modern diet and lifestyle factors many bodies don’t have the ability to make that conversion. Blocks include artificial trans fats, smoking, sugar, alcohol, aging and illnesses such as diabetes. Which is why it’s recommended that people take a GLA supplement naturally found in seed oils such as hemp, borage, evening primrose and black currant seed.
Taking GLA in this form has a host of benefits that include boosting serotonin levels in the brain, lowering blood pressure, preventing arthritis, managing PMS symptoms and aiding weight loss. Other sources of omega-6 include mayonnaise, pork sausages, fast food and pastries. These are the bad omega-6 sources that doctors encourage you to avoid. It doesn’t mean all omega-6 is bad, it means think about the source.
Balancing Fat Consumption
The idea that fat is bad is misleading because it overlooks the crucial role fat plays in the development and maintenance of a healthy body. Fats slow down the absorption of food meaning we can go longer without feeling hungry. They are carriers for soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, and are vital for the absorption of minerals. Their role in the regulation of hormones and brain development makes them vital for optimal growth.
Bottom line: a diet without fat is not a healthy diet. Did you know that up until 1900, a fat animal was regarded as a prize source of food? Think of the Fatted Calf story from the bible. People ate the fat with little interest in the muscle meat as it was thought to be too tough to eat. It’s only in the last century we’ve switched from eating the fat to lean muscle meat.
What’s important is a healthy balance of fat consumption, and using fat as a source of fuel rather than a source of comfort food. You don’t need a doctor to tell you that eating fast food every day or gorging on pizza and doughnuts every night before bed is not going to benefit your long-term health. Mixing your sources of fat and eating at the right time of day is far more beneficial that cutting out fat completely.
Why Hemp is the Best Source of Omega-3 and 6
Hemp seeds contain 30% fat and are the ONLY seeds to provide omega-6 to omega-3 in an ideal 3:1 ratio. This balanced ratio, unique to hemp, is one of the reasons hemp’s believed to have positive effects on a range of conditions from arthritis, Multiple Sclerosis, and diabetes to depression and eczema.
To understand how rare hemp’s omega profile is, check out the omega-6 to 3 ratio of other nuts and seeds: 1oz of almonds 1987:1; cashews 125:1; hazelnuts 90:1; pistachios 52:1; sesame seeds 57:1 and pumpkin seeds 114:1. 1oz of flax seeds have a ratio of 1:4 but the preferred ratio is 3:1.
Three tablespoons of hemps seeds provides 7.5 grams of omega-6 (LA) and omega-3 (ALA) as well as 0.6 grams of GLA. Hemp is the only edible seed that contains GLA.
While ALA has vital anti-inflammatory properties and reduces the risk of high blood pressure, GLA (found in breast milk) triggers fat burning instead of fat storage by boosting the metabolism. More recent studies show eating foods rich in PUFAs can influence hormones and alter appetite.
A study of a group of 18 to 35 year olds by the University of Georgia found that diets rich in avocado, quinoa, chickpeas, salmon, chia seeds, olive oil and walnuts, led to improved problem-solving skills, better memory and even weight loss. Researchers say PUFAs could provide a much-needed solution to obesity.
Over to YOU!
If you’d like to know the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of your body, a blood test will provide you with the answer. If the ratio is higher than 10, your body is in a state of inflammation and to re-balance it will require some dietary changes. A simple start is adding Hemp Seed Oil to your meals.