There are two categories of fats that we must get in our diet to survive, omega-3 and omega-6, therefore these two fats are called essential fats. It is not difficult to get enough omega-6, it is far more difficult to get enough omega-3 to balance the high levels of omega-6 that we get in a typical western diet. We need a balance between these two essential fats because one promotes inflammation, clotting and allergic response while the other one limits inflammation, clotting and allergic response. Both of these fats are used to make hormones in our cells and the ratio of these two fats in our cells determines our chances of getting a hormone that promotes inflammation, clotting or allergic response or one that limits those responses. Omega-6 promotes all of these, while omega-3 limits them.
Both of these fats are used to make our cell membranes as one “leg” of each phospholipid that then makes up the lipid bi-layer which forms our cell membrane. As part of the cell membrane they help control what goes into and out of our cells. They control vaso-constriction which affects our blood pressure and they control bronchio-constriction which can affect asthma and allergic response. These essential fats are also part of our nerve cells and brains and can affect the intensity of pain and nerve signals and even affect heart rhythm. DHA (an omega-3) is particularly important for brain health and proper brain development in children.
High levels of omega-6 can have negative effects on our mood and even depression. Omega-6 is also used to make a hormone that controls appetite, an endo-cannabinoid. Like marijuana, this hormone increases our appetite and makes it harder to lose weight. Higher levels of omega-3 as part of our brain can have positive effects on depression, ADHD, autism, Alzheimer’s and even bipolar disorder.
There are several different specific fats that can be grouped into the categories of omega-6 and omega-3. These are all long-chain poly-unsaturated fatty acids that contain 18 to 22 carbon atoms. The shorter fats (18 carbon fatty acids LA and ALA) can be used to make the longer and more important omega-6 fats (like AA) and omega-3 fats (like EPA and DHA), but our bodies ability to do that decreases with age.
We hear lots of advertising about the benefits of omega-3 and that various foods contain omega-3, but that is not the important thing we need to know. What we need to know is how much omega-3 is there, what is the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in the food and exactly which form they are in (LA, ALA, AA, EPA, DHA etc.). There are many health professionals that tell us to increase our intake of omega-3. What they don’t tell us is that it doesn’t do much good to increase our intake of omega-3 if we do not reduce our intake of omega-6. These two essential fats compete to make-up our cell membranes and it is the ratio of these two fats in our cell membranes that determine which one of them will be used to make any of the hormones our cell may need. Our cells do not discriminate or choose the omega-6 or omega-3 fat, it is simply a matter of availability.
Typical western diets are producing ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 that are often higher than 10 to 1, we need to reduce that ratio to near 1 to 1. It is difficult to do that without knowing which foods are high in omega-6 and which ones are high in omega-3. My book, The Oil Change Diet, provides that information for common foods and also has recipes and menus that will help reduce your omega-6/3 ratio. It is available as an ebook or paperback at Amazon and other major book retailers.
There is no other health factor that I am aware of that is as important as the omega-6/3 ratio. It affects almost every disease and medical problem you can imagine. The reason is the effects occur at the cellular level and regulate very basic processes that are involved in our response to any problem. High ratios of omega-6/3 cause excessive inflammation—the basic process involved in many diseases and medical problems from heart disease to arthritis and even Alzheimer’s. Even many kinds of cancer are increased by repeated damage/repair events caused by excessive inflammation.
The only other health factor that is even close to causing as many different problems as a high omega-6/3 ratio is obesity. Obesity can cause heart disease, diabetes and, according the American Cancer Society, like smoking, obesity can cause 12 different kinds of cancer. However, we now know that even obesity is related to high omega-6/3 ratios due to the endo-cannabinoids that it creates.
The foods we are consuming that are high in omega-6 are so high it is almost impossible to balance them by consuming more foods that are high in omega-3 or even by taking fish oil supplements. There are many foods that contain more than 10,000 mg of omega-6 per ounce; there are almost no foods that contain even 1,000 mg of omega-3 per ounce. Many of the foods that are high in omega-6 are even foods that are considered “health foods”. While consuming small quantities of these “health foods” may be beneficial, I believe that consuming too much of them can be detrimental to our health.
Why don’t doctors and dieticians tell us about the importance of the omega-6/3 ratio? There are probably several reasons for that. In defense of doctors, much of the basic information about omega-6 and omega-3 is published in journals like Lipids and Biochemistry, these are not journals that many doctors read. There are a few doctors, like Dr Mercola and Dr Andrew Weil that have picked up on this information and are trying to help people understand the importance of maintaining a healthy balance of omegas. There are two big obstacles to getting this information out to the public—big pharma (the drug companies) and industrial agriculture (the especially the processed food industry).
Our dietary guidelines are written by the USDA (Department of Agriculture), they refuse to acknowledge any harm coming from excessive amounts of omega-6. The drug companies would like to keep selling us the drugs like NSAIDs (anti-inflammatory drugs) we have to take to counter the effects of high omega-6. Dietary studies are incredibly complex, we eat thousands of different foods and no study can control account for all of the different effects on thousands of different people. In addition, most studies don’t last more than a few years at most. Some of these studies are designed or sponsored by drug companies that want to obscure the benefits of reducing our omega-6/3 ratio.
Studies that look at factors like the omega-6/3 ratios in our bodies and compare them to various health factors like the incidence of heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s are more informative since they incorporate the final result of all the different foods we eat. Dr. Lands’ study that looked at the omega-6/3 ratio vs CHD risk is very convincing and it shows a very high correlation between high levels of omega-6 and heart disease. Biochemical studies that look at the different hormones and their effects on our bodies are even more important. Studies that discovered how these essential fats turn into important hormones like the prostaglandins were awarded the Nobel Prize. These biochemical studies show us how excessive omega-6 actually causes heart disease.