Do you hear “omega” and think “healthy?” That’s not exactly wrong, but the facts are a little more complicated. There are actually two types of omegas: omega-3s and omega-6s. Both have “essential” fatty acids that your body needs but can’t manufacture on its own. That means it’s crucial to consume some of each — but most Americans get far too many omega-6s, which can be dangerous. Here’s what you need to know so you can correctly fuel and protect your body.
Most of the buzz around omegas is focused on omega-3s, which contain an essential fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid. Found in fish like salmon, sardines and tuna — as well as in walnuts, flaxseed and chia seeds — omega-3s have powerful anti-inflammatory capabilities. Research has linked them to a variety of health benefits — most specifically a reduced risk of heart disease. Studies have also found that they may help people who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, asthma and inflammatory bowel disorders. Omega-3s can lower triglycerides (a type of blood fat) and blood pressure, too, says Sonya Angelone, R.D., a consulting nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Omega-6s don’t get nearly as much hype, but certainly deserve some attention. They contain an essential fatty acid called linoleic acid, and you’ll find them in seeds, nuts and vegetable oils like safflower, corn and sunflower oil. According to Kelly Hogan, R.D., a clinical dietician at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, omega-6s are much healthier than trans fats (oils that have been modified so they’ll stay solid at room temperature and won’t spoil). They are also generally better for you than saturated fats that come from animal products, Hogan says.
But here’s where it gets a bit tricky. In addition to healthy linoleic acid, omega-6s also have arachidonic acid, which causes inflammation. Over time, an excess of arachidonic acid can lead to problems such as blood clots, arthritis, and heart disease, says Hogan. It might even increase your risk of cancer.
“The typical American diet has an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of about 15 to one,” says Angelone. “Many experts recommend a ratio of four to one or even two to one,” which is similar to the Mediterranean diet — a way of eating that’s been associated with heart health and a longer lifespan.
Making Smarter Choices
Finding the right balance may seem complex, but it all boils down to a few key facts. You need both omega-3s and omega-6s, but you’re probably getting too many omega-6s. Shifting your intake might help reduce inflammation and possibly ward off a variety of ailments as well.
To reduce omega-6s:
- Cut back on packaged foods. They’re often high in omega-6s, as well as trans fats, says Hogan. Instead, opt for whole foods whenever possible.
- Use less oil. Many vegetable oils contain a combination of omega-6s and omega-3s, but most — including olive — are much higher in omega-6s than 3s. The exception is flaxseed oil, says Angelone, but it has to be refrigerated and it can’t be heated. Canola oil is another good choice (those steering clear of genetically engineered foods can opt for “certified organic”).
To get more omega-3s:
- Eat fatty fish a few times per week. It’s the hands-down best source.
- If you’re not a fish fan, ask your doctor about taking an omega-3 supplement. Be sure to check the label to confirm that it has at least 400 to 600 milligrams of DHA (a component that’s especially important for brain health), says Hogan. Vegetarians and vegans can choose supplements that are derived from algae instead of fish.
- Use flaxseed, chia seeds and hemp seeds in food. Sprinkle them into salads and stir-fries, and snack on walnuts — in moderation. “Too much of any fat can contribute to weight gain,” says Angelone.