Omega Fatty Acids: What Are They & How Much Do I Need?
For many years, popular opinion held that fat was bad for you. Full stop. More recently, nutritional science has begun to paint a clearer, more nuanced picture about dietary fats. We now know that fats are not only not all the same, nor all bad, but that some fats are good and even necessary for human health.
Synthetic trans fats are understood to be harmful to human health and saturated fats, in general, are not healthy, though they can be consumed in moderation as part of a healthy diet. On the other hand, unsaturated fats are a very important part of good nutrition.
Mono- and Polyunsaturated Fats
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are also known as ‘omegas’. There are three types of omegas. Omega-3, -6 and -9. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are called polyunsaturated fats because they have many double bonds (‘poly-’ means many). The body can’t make omega-3 or -6 fatty acids, which is why they are called “essential” fatty acids — it’s essential that we get them from our food. Omega-9 fatty acids are from a family of monounsaturated fats that can be produced in the body, but they are also beneficial when obtained through diet.
Each type has a very different function. There are three main omega-3s. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). EPA and DHA are found mainly in fish, so they are sometimes called marine omega-3s. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), is the most common omega-3 fatty acid and is found in vegetable oils and nuts (especially walnuts), flaxseeds and flax oil, leafy vegetables and some animal fats, especially from animals that are grass-fed. Omega-9 fatty acids are partly composed of oleic acid. They’re commonly found in canola, olive and sunflower oils.
What do omega–3 and –9 fats do for our bodies?
The Harvard School of Public Health explains that omegas-3 and -9 “are an integral part of cell membranes throughout the body and affect the function of the cell receptors in these membranes. They provide the starting point for making hormones that regulate blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and inflammation. They also bind to receptors in cells that regulate genetic function.”
Omega-9 fats have anti-inflammatory properties as well. They enhance joint healing and may help prevent numerous diseases. Research has shown that omega-9 fatty acids are protective against metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease. They have also been known to increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol and decrease LDL (“bad”) cholesterol — helping eliminate plaque buildup in the arteries, which may cause heart attacks or strokes.
We’ve created a handy list of foods that contain high levels of omega-3s, -6s and 9s. Click on the button below for your free copy.
Are omega–6s bad for you?
The Paleo Mom, Dr. Sarah Ballantyne, Ph.D. is a medical biophysicist and blogger. She writes that the introduction of grains about 10,000 years ago led to a general increase in the amount of omega-6s in the human diet. This threw off the balance that existed before then, which continues to have important ramifications for our health today.
This is how she explains the importance of balancing your omega-3s and omega-6s:
“Generally, omega-3 fatty acids contribute to anti-inflammatory processes, whereas omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory. “Pro-inflammatory” sounds bad, but, in the balanced quantities that our ancestors consumed, it is critical for wound healing and fighting infections. But, when you combine excessive omega-6 fatty acid consumption with the irritation to the gut lining caused by gluten and other lectins and excessive carbohydrate consumption (which is also pro-inflammatory), our bodies have constant low-level inflammation. This sets the stage for many diseases, decreased ability to fight infection, and exaggerated allergies.”
So, while omega-3 fats have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body, omega-6s can have a pro-inflammatory effect. A high amount of omega– 6 in cell membranes is strongly associated with the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Unfortunately, today many westerners are eating a lot of foods that are high in omega-6 fats. The American Heart Association (AHA) explains that most Americans are consuming more than enough omega-6 fats in meat, eggs and dairy. The Mayo Clinic also reports that omega-6s can be found in vegetable oils, nuts and seeds. Again, omega-6 fats are not bad in and of themselves, and in fact, are even necessary for good health, but we must exercise caution and moderation when choosing our food sources.
The average American eats omega-6s and -3s in a 16:1 ratio. The ideal ratio is between 1:1 and 4:1. If you’re eating meat on a daily basis, especially grain-fed (as opposed to grass-fed) meats, you’re probably getting way too many omega-6s. If you also eat dairy, eggs and vegetable oils on a regular basis, then you fit the profile of the 16:1 American ratio. Even if you start taking an omega-3 supplement and, say, double the amount of omega-3s you’re getting, that would still mean that you’re getting twice as many omega-6s as you should.
Many people choose fish oil supplements in order to get more omega-3s. Marine phytoplankton is another great choice for omega-3 supplementation and it actually contains more EPA and DHA by weight than any fish or krill oil. Oceans Alive is a fresh liquid marine phytoplankton supplement that makes getting your omega-3s easy. The phytoplankton in Oceans Alive is grown in a photobioreactor, which is a sealed environment free of contaminants (unlike the ocean, which as we know is heavily polluted). Plus, marine phytoplankton is the only vegetarian source of EPA and DHA. An added bonus: no fish burps!
Check out our photo gallery for 5 convenient ways to take your Oceans Alive.