The misunderstood omega 6
Omega 3 gets so much positive attention. It is super important for our health and an essential part of the diet. However, what about omega 6? It often gets a bad rep but why? Is it really that bad?
There are three omega fatty acids– omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9. All three are important dietary fats that boast many health benefits. Yet, the balance among them is crucial because an imbalance may contribute to developing illnesses.
We should be getting a balance between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. The ratio should be in the range of 2:1 to 4:1, omega-6 to omega-3, although it is possible that those ratios should be even lower. There are three omega fatty acids– omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9. All three are important dietary fats that boast many health benefits. Yet, the balance among them is crucial because an imbalance may contribute to several chronic illnesses. Anthropological research suggests that our hunter-gatherer ancestors consumed omega-6 and omega-3 fats in a ratio of roughly 1:1.
At the onset of the industrial revolution (about 140 years ago), there was a marked shift in the ratio of n-6 to n-3 fatty acids in the diet. Consumption of n-6 fats increased at the expense of n-3 fats. This change was due to both the advent of the modern vegetable oil industry and the increased use of cereal grains as feed for domestic livestock (which in turn altered the fatty acid profile of meat that humans consumed).
So clearly although omega 6 is required in lower amounts, the fact that a ratio is important shows that omega 6 can't be all bad. The problem is that many modern day diets have too much omega 6 so there is a huge push to encourage people to take more omega 3 not only to balance it out but because many diets lack it as well.
Omega-6 fats, which we get in the highest amounts from vegetable oils (a whole blog post in itself because not all vegetable oils are healthy and it depends how they are consumed), are also beneficial in the right amounts and in balance with omega 3. They lower LDL cholesterol and boost HDL. They help keep blood sugar in check by improving the body's sensitivity to insulin. Yet these fats don't enjoy the same sunny reputation as omega-3 fats.
Unfortunately this is not a free pass on omega 6. It is a little more complex and it's bad reputation has not come from nowhere although I would argue it's more our fault than omega 6 itself. What we have been taught for many years is that omega 6 is pro-inflammatory and omega 3 is anti-inflammatory but we know it is not that simple.
The main charge against omega-6 fats is that the body can convert the most common one, linolenic acid, into another fatty acid called arachidonic acid, and arachidonic acid is a building block for molecules that can promote inflammation, blood clotting, and the constriction of blood vessels.
But the body also converts arachidonic acid into molecules that calm inflammation and fight blood clots...
Inflammation is a normal process that is part of host defence and tissue healing. However, excessive or unresolved inflammation can lead to uncontrolled tissue damage, pathology and disease.
In our diet, the most commonly consumed omega-6 fatty acid is Arachidonic Acid (AA) found in meats, eggs and dairy products. This particular omega-6 fatty acid is vital for muscle growth, brain development and maintaining a healthy nervous system; but our body does not require much of this omega active and when consumed in excess, it can promote inflammation. We also consume a high amount of another omega-6 fatty acid called Linoleic acid (LA) found in nuts, butter, seeds and vegetable oils. Usually this fatty acid gets digested in our body and converted to another omega-6 fatty acid, GLA, delivering a range of health benefits arising from its anti-inflammatory effects. However, when we have an excess of AA in our body, it prevents LA from converting into GLA. When LA is not converted to GLA, it can pose a problem, as balance between pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory nutrients is not maintained in our body. Because of this, an excess of AA can cause deficiency in GLA. When we consume anti-inflammatory nutrients such as GLA, it balances the inflammatory properties of AA and other pro-inflammatory nutrients.
So, to summarise- what decides if omega 6 is inflammatory or not include the quantity ingested, the ratio with omega 3, our intake of Arachidonic acid and the quality of the food source containing omega 6. Our genetics and metabolic factors also play a role in how effectively we break down essential fatty acids.
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