Omega 6 and 3 fatty acids are both types of polyunsaturated fats and they are extremely important to the health and wellbeing of various bodily functions.
In children, long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids are essential for the healthy development of the brains and eyes, while they are also essential to all of us because they are needed for the production of powerful regulatory hormones. There are two classes of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, namely omega-6 and 3, linoleic acid (LA), an omega-6 fatty acid, and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid. Omega 6 fats are essential for the production of numerous pro-inflammatory hormones, while omega 3 fats are needed for the production of anti-inflammatory hormones.
AdvertisementTo maintain optimum health, it is absolutely necessary that a proper balance is maintained between levels of the two fatty acids. Over the millennia, our diets have changed dramatically, with the shift being even more pronounced in recent decades. This change is in the ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids that we ingest through our diet. Omega 6 levels have spiraled because of an abundance of omega 6 fats in chemically extracted vegetable oils, margarine and salad oil, while there has been a corresponding decrease in omega 3 intake, which in the past was available abundantly from cold water fish and grass-fed or wild meat. While the ideal ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids is 4:1 to 1:1, the average ratio in the American diet today is a shocking 20:1. These figures are just as bad in most urbanized parts of the world. The high intake of peanuts in most urban diets also contributes to the high levels of omega 3 fatty acids.
Findings of Recent StudyOur bodies can produce all of the fatty acids that we need with the exception of linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid. These fatty acids must be absorbed through the food we eat which is why health care experts and nutritionists have been concerned with the role and scope for ready-to-use therapeutic foods or RUTFs. It should also be pointed out that while our bodies can de-saturate and elongate both linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid to produce long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids like eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), our cells are not very efficient when it comes to converting alpha-linolenic acid to EPA and then DHA. It is advisable to obtain these long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids directly from food.
Dr. J. Thomas Brenna of Cornell University recently led a team of researchers who reviewed the findings of studies this far into the role of ready-to-use therapeutic foods (RUTFs). Based on their analysis of the data, it is apparent that maintaining an optimal balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids through the foods we ingest is of the utmost importance, especially in children. Ready-to-use therapeutic foods are high energy density foods that are used to treat severe malnutrition, which is most common among children in underdeveloped and developing parts of the world. A decrease in the intake of linoleic acid through the diet, with or without simultaneous increases in omega 3 intake from the diet, results in an increase of EPA and DHA content in red blood cells. Researchers point out that the most suitable strategy would be to increase DHA and EPA intake.
While the study may have focused on role of ready-to-use therapeutic foods when dealing with acute malnutrition, the problem of an omega 6 and omega 3 imbalance is typical of all industrial diets across the world. Many nutritionists and experts therefore recommend 500 mg EPA and DHA supplementation for adults and 250 mg for children. Before taking any supplements or making any drastic dietary changes however, make it a point to consult with your pediatrician and other health care providers.
Consequences of Omega 3 - Omega 6 Imbalance
As mentioned earlier, omega 6 and omega 3 aren't just used as a source of energy, but they are biologically active and needed for the creation of other fatty acids and hormones, with Omega-6s being pro-inflammatory and omega-3s producing an anti-inflammatory effect. Most diets today are imbalanced in favor of omega-6. While inflammation is essential and inflammatory responses help to protect against infection and injuries, an excessive or disproportionate inflammatory response can be counterproductive, causing severe damage and contributing to the development of various health conditions. Such a lopsided response is believed to be a contributing factor in the incidence of heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer's and even in some types of cancer. In other words, the consequences of an omega3-omega6 imbalance can severely threaten your health.
How to Maintain BalanceThe best way to maintain that balance of omega-6 and omega-3 intake is by cutting down on food sources that are high in omega-6. This does pose some problem as many of the most widely consumed foods and food products contain omega-6. To start with, avoid processed seed- and vegetable oils that have high omega-6 content. Most of these foods are not really natural to the human diet but were only introduced in the last century, completely distorting the balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. It's not necessary or desirable to eliminate every food that is rich in omega-6 because many of these foods are extremely healthy, like nuts, seeds and certain grains. It is important that such foods are consumed in moderation however.
While cutting down on your omega-6 intake is the first step to leveling the playing field, this is inadequate if you don't have any omega-3 intake from your diet. Traditionally, animal food products or meats have been the best source of omega-3 fatty acids, but because of unnatural agricultural and livestock practices, necessitated by a growing population, this too has started to change. Most cattle today are raised on grain, not grass, resulting in a decline in omega-3 content in such meat sources. Grass fed or wild meat is therefore the healthiest source of omega-3 but is not always an option. The healthiest way to boost your omega-3 intake is by including fatty fish and other seafood like salmon in your regular diet. If you don't eat much seafood then it would be a good idea to take fish oil supplements instead. Plant sources like flax and chia seeds also contain Omega-3 but not the preformed EPA and DHA and the human body is not very efficient at converting ALA into these active forms.
Reference:1. Brenna JT, Akomo P, Bahwere P, Berkley JA, Calder PC, Jones KD, Liu L, Manary M, Trehan I, Briend A. Balancing omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in ready-to-use therapeutic foods (RUTF). BMC Med. 2015 May 15;13:117. doi:10.1186/s12916-015-0352-1. PubMed PMID: 25980919; PubMed Central PMCID:PMC4433071.