The Omega Ratio
In proportion, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids team up to fight inflammation
and support heart health. The modern American diet, however, is overloaded with
omega-6s...which cancels any benefits and instead sets the stage for disease.
Learn how simple dietary changes can bring the omega ratio back into healthy balance.
When humans were hunter-gatherers, meeting daily nutritional needs was fairly simple: What could be more nutritionally complete than fresh mastodon, flame-broiled and garnished with local vegetation? Nevertheless, throwing spears at wild game eventually gave way to throwing plastic-wrapped meats and produce into a shopping cart, and village hunts morphed into fast-food lunches.
As shelf life and profits began to take precedence over healthful benefits, vital nutrients were lost in the shuffle. This has left modern-day humans to bear the brunt of a diet lacking in nutrients that are crucial to good health including a family of essential fats called omega-3 fatty acids.
Once thought of as run-of-the-mill fats, omega-3s have been found to perform so many jobs in the human body that health practitioners of all types are using these amazing substances in the prevention or treatment of numerous medical problems, including arthritis, cancer and obesity. But the biggest omega-3 advantage may lie in cardiovascular protection, in which omega-3s are proving themselves to be as effective as some cholesterol-lowering statin drugs—without unwanted side effects like memory problems, and muscle and liver damage.
There are a number of omega-3s, so picking the right one can be confusing. Even more confounding is that simply adding more omega-3 fats to your diet isn’t enough because their disease-fighting impact is being nullified by a lesser-known family of fatty acids called omega-6s. To understand why, it helps to know something about the different types of fat in your diet—and how modern food processing has upset the natural balance among them.
Essential Fat Tug-of-War
Of the four major types of fats found in foods—saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and cholesterol—both omega-3s and omega-6s are part of the polyunsaturated class. The
basic omega-3 is alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA. From ALA, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and DPA (docosapentaenoic acid) are produced. (There are also several types of omega-6 fats, the primary one being linoleic acid.) Consumed in proportion, omega-3 and omega-6 fats work in tandem to keep inflammation in check and fight off illness. When they are eaten out of proportion, however, havoc ensues: Experts believe that excessive, unbalanced omega-6 intake may be linked to cancer, arthritis, diabetes, stroke and heart disease.
“We want our diet to be no more than four or five molecules of omega-6 to one of omega-3,” notes Susan Allport, author of The Queen of Fats: Why Omega-3s Were Removed from the Western Diet and What We Can Do to Replace Them (University of California Press). “Both are absolutely essential, but the ratio is the problem.” While our prehistoric relatives enjoyed a 1:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats, the typical American claims a profile between 10:1 and 22:1, though some health experts estimate that this ratio may even hover somewhere between 20:1 and 50:1.
Where did this overabundance of omega-6 fats come from? Food manufacturers created a system called hydrogenation, a method whereby high heat and pressure with hydrogen gas alters the molecular structure of natural oils; this destroys omega-3 fats—which are more fragile than omega-6s—in the process. The end result—hydrogenated oil—never turns rancid and supplies a desired “mouth feel,” texture and spreadability, to say nothing of extended shelf life (hydrogenation basically converts fat into a type of cellulose similar in structure to plastic). This ability to mass-produce cheap ingredients is great for food manufacturers’ profits but bad for your health.
Almost all cooking oils and margarines are either hydrogenated or contain high proportions of hydrogenated fat, and many packaged foods that list fat, oil or partially hardened fat contain hydrogenated fat. Also known as trans fat, hydrogenated oil is a common ingredient in favorites like fried chicken and French fries. Brimming with high levels of omega-6s, these foods contain little, if any, omega-3 fats. Omega-6 fatty acids can also be found in foods prepared with commonly used oils such as corn, safflower, sunflower, peanut and sesame—further tipping the scales to an unhealthy omega ratio.
Omega-3 Cardiac Benefits
A few decades ago, people were told to stay away from all fats, no matter what their origin,
for optimum heart health. We now know that while excessive levels of fats like omega-6s can exacerbate heart disease, EPA and DHA omega-3s help to reduce heart disease risk by reducing platelet stickiness and clotting, and preventing plaque buildup by raising levels of HDL, the good cholesterol.
Omega-3s keep the processes associated with coronary heart disease in check, from reducing inflammation to lowering blood pressure. When 162 patients awaiting surgery to have plaque removed from their arteries were given either omega-3 supplements, sunflower oil capsules or a placebo, doctors discovered that those taking omega-3s had far fewer inflammatory cells, leaving them less likely to have a heart attack or stroke. Meanwhile, a large-scale study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (1/1/04) demonstrated that high intake of omega-6s increased both total cholesterol and “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL), precursors to cardiovascular disease.
“If you don’t have adequate amounts of omega-3s, your heart is not pumping blood as rapidly. The fats could slow down and stick to the artery walls,” says Allport. “When the body begins to repair artery damage with cholesterol, there is a possibility that a clot will break off. We’ve known for years how omega-3s can prevent heart disease and how omega-6s can cause it.”
Omega-3s’ health benefits only start with the heart. For example, a Harvard School of Public Health study shows that men who consume large amounts of omega-3s can slash the risk of developing colorectal cancer by 40%, while a UCLA School of Medicine study involving patients with breast cancer reported that corn and safflower oils—sources of omega-6 fatty acids—encouraged tumor growth. Omega-3 fish oils, on the other hand, inhibited tumor growth.
The benefits of omega-3s extend to the mind. Countries where large amounts of fish are consumed enjoy low rates of depression and bipolar disorder compared with countries where fish is rarely on the menu, and fish oil has reduced anxiety in men with a history of substance abuse. And researchers at Tufts University in Boston found that people with the highest blood levels of DHA saw their dementia risk drop 47% (Archives of Neurology 10/06). Omega-3s help both moms and babies, too. The National Institutes of Health tracked 14,541 women from their eighth week of pregnancy to eight months following birth, and learned that those who did not consume any omega-3-rich seafood suffered from twice the rate of depression as those who dined on fish; other scientists found that prenatal fish oil supplements led to better hand-eye coordination in early childhood.
Change Your Fat
The first practical thing anyone can do to up their intake of omega-3s while minimizing their exposure to omega-6s is to give up as many fried foods as possible, since fried fats contain alarming quantities of omega-6 and trans fats.
Instead, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends preparing food with walnut and flaxseed oils; just remember that flaxseed oil cannot be heated to high temperatures and can be sprinkled in foods instead. While the AHA also recommends canola oil, health-conscious consumers should be wary. “When canola oil is refined from rapeseed, it needs to be partially hydrogenated, and thus contains a fair amount of trans fats,” says Dr. Brooke Kalanick, ND, LAc, MSAOM, who practices in New York City. Look for cold-pressed, unrefined canola oil to reap omega-3 benefits without falling into the trans fat trap. Hemp oil and pumpkin seed oil rank relatively high in both omega-3 and omega-6 content; soybean oil weighs in at a respectable ratio of 7:1 omega-6 to omega-3 but should be consumed in moderation.
Other excellent plant sources of omega-3s include green leafy vegetables, algae, nuts, great northern beans, navy beans and peanut butter enriched with flax seed oil. Flax seeds contain more ALA than any other known plant source, and also include fiber and healthful compounds called lignans. “Keep flax seeds stored in the refrigerator and grind them just before use,” advises Kalanick. “Another trick for pulling out flax seeds’ healthy compounds is to soak them overnight in a small amount of water...this softens them so you can chew on them or put them in a smoothie.”
If it’s the healthy omega-6, GLA, that you’re after, supplementation is your best bet—look for GLA-rich cold-pressed borage oil or evening primrose oil supplements. Better-quality fatty acid supplements should also contain GLA.
You can also improve your omega ratio by changing the type of meat and eggs you eat. “The omega-3 content in various meats depends in great part on what they eat,” explains Allport, since cows, chickens and other animals fed corn and grain generate meat, eggs, cheese and other dairy products high in omega-6s and low in omega-3s. Consuming animal products found in grocery stores and restaurants will typically worsen your ratio of omega-6 to omega-3, given that most of these products are grain- or corn-fed. The products with the highest omega-3 content come from animals that are raised primarily or entirely on grass diets, preferably organic. Additionally, organic eggs from grass-fed chickens have far lower levels of saturated fat than conventional eggs, since grains force the birds’ bodies to increase insulin levels.
While fish remains one of the best sources of omega-3s—with cold-water fish such as
sardines, salmon, herring, mackerel, halibut, striped bass, tuna, shark and cod offering ample concentrations of DHA and EPA—consuming excessive fish comes with a warning. Both the Environmental Protection Agency and the FDA urge younger women and children to shun shark, swordfish, king mackerel, albacore tuna and tilefish due to high levels of mercury, instead suggesting two meals a week of fish lower in mercury, such as shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock and catfish.
“Cold-water fish are also the best supplemental sources of omega-3s,” says Kalanick. She prefers fish to flax seed among oils, because many people lack the enzyme necessary to convert the ALA found in flax seed oil to the higher-order EPA and DHA found in the fishy variety. “Even in people that have this enzyme,” Kalanick explains, “only about 10% is actually converted.” (The best fish oils meet the strict requirements of California’s Proposition 65, The Safe Water and Toxic Enforcement Act.) Flax seed and fish oil supplements are readily available at your natural foods store.
Though the processed, trans-fat laden, deep-fried standard American diet has skewed omega ratios to unhealthy proportions, achieving a beneficial balance is easier than you think. So ditch the corn oil and junk food (don’t even think about having that deep-fried Twinkie) and start loading up on the omega-3 fatty acids that will restore you—and your heart—to a state of good health.