3, 6 or 9? A Guide to the 3 Omegas!
Understanding the roles of unsaturated fatty acids can empower you to make big changes to your diet. But the information out there can be confusing. Are they all beneficial? Should they be supplemented? Let’s take a closer look into these fats.
By now it’s common knowledge that saturated fats and trans fats cause harm by clogging arteries with plaques 1. Unsaturated fats have kinks in their shape, which cause them not to stick to each other like their saturated fat counterparts. Therefore, they tend to be oily rather than solid and they don’t clog arteries. In general, unsaturated fatty acids are the “good” fats but the reasons why go beyond shape.
There are three main types of unsaturated fatty acids and two of them are essential. Any time a nutrient is referred to as ‘essential’ it means that our bodies do not make it and so we must acquire it from our diet. However, nutrients that are non-essential can still become deficient. Many non-essential nutrients are built from essential ones. Omega 3 and 6 are both essential while omega 9 is not. But if omega 3 and 6 stores are low, omega 9 production will eventually decline. Since omega 9 promotes healthy immune responses and controls cholesterol levels, a shortage could pose a problem 2.
So how do the three types of omega fatty acids differ? First of all, by their food sources. Omega 3 can be found predominantly in many types of fish and algae but can also be found in flaxseed, walnuts and some leafy green vegetables 3. Omega 9 is found in vegetable fats such as olive oil, avocado oil and nut oils 3. Omega 6 is found in many cooking oils that are used for frying and deep-frying. These include safflower oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, soybean oil and cottonseed oil 3. The next major way each polyunsaturated fatty acid is unique is its role in the inflammatory cascade.
The inflammatory pathway is complicated but can be broken down to its main players. The major precursor of omega 6 in the inflammatory pathway is called linoleic acid, which eventually becomes arachidonic acid (AA). AA is a precursor to prostaglandins and leukotrienes, which are both compounds that play major roles in pain, inflammation and chronic illnesses such as asthma 4. But omega 6 isn’t all bad. It’s important for growth, nerve function and cardiovascular health 4.
The major precursor of omega 3 in the inflammatory pathway is called alpha linolenic acid (ALA), which eventually becomes other compounds that control inflammation downstream and confer numerous health benefits including cholesterol control, mood stabilization, joint health and cardiovascular health 5.
ALA and AA basically compete with each other in the same pathway. Both come from essential fatty acids and both are required for optimal health. However, when omega 6 is more abundant in the diet, too much AA enters the pathway than its opponent, ALA. So the key here is balance. Since AA has the potential to cause more problems than ALA, we need to balance the ratio. The optimal ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 is 4:1. Recall the sources of each fatty acid. Cooking and frying oils are rampant in the standard North American diet while fish oils are not. It’s no wonder the standard North American diet has been estimated to have a ratio of omega 6 to 3 anywhere from 10:1 to 25:1 6.
Omega 9 is not a contender in that inflammatory pathway because it’s a monounsaturated fatty acid as opposed to a polyunsaturated fatty acid meaning it only has one kink in it’s shape rather than several. Omega 9 has been less studied than the essential fatty acids however it seems to pose benefits including cardiovascular protection, immune strengthening and cancer prevention. Omega 9 doesn’t need to be supplemented if omega 3 and 6 are adequate in the diet but it might be beneficial in patients who suffer from inflammatory conditions 7.
What does this all mean for nutrition? When we understand the basics of the three omegas, it should come as no shock that the Mediterranean Diet has been shown to be protective against inflammatory illnesses, cancer and heart disease 8. This diet is high in fish, nuts, olives and seeds—omega 3 and 9—and low in fried foods—omega 6. This doesn’t mean that you need to completely switch to the Mediterranean Diet but it should give you a sense of areas where your diet can be improved.
As naturopathic doctors, we believe in empowering patients through education. Having general knowledge about the way omega fatty acids contribute to our health and illnesses is a great example of this principle.
- Lands WE, Morris A, Libelt B. Quantitative effects of dietary polyunsaturated fats on the composition of fatty acids in rat tissues. Lipids. 1990;25:505-516.
- Simopoulous AP. The importance of the omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid ratio in cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases. Exp Biol Med (Maywood). 2008;233:674-688.
- Odeleye OE, Watson RR. Health implications of the n-3 fatty acids. Am J Clin Nutr. 1991;53:177-178.
- Kapoor R, Huang YS. Gamma linolenic acid: an antiinflammatory omega-6 fatty acid. Curr Pharm Biotechnol. 2006;7:531-534.
- http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/71/1/179S.full?ijkey=5c7af875f3dc71a303f7df78c5 2145e8b7c31643
- Kwak SM, Myung SK, Lee YJ. Efficacy of omega-3 fatty acid supplements (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid) in the secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease: a meta-analysis of randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials. Arch Intern Med. 2012;172:986-994.
Odeleye OE, Watson RR. Health implications of the n-3 fatty acids. Am J Clin Nutr. 19