Omega 3’s and Omega 6’s have a unique relationship in our body that can help or hurt us. For millennia, we have eaten foods that contain both of these essential fats. But, in more recent history, a shift in our diets has caused an imbalance in the amounts of omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids we consume. This in turn has increased our risk for many inflammatory diseases.
Humans, since Homo erectus, have existed for about 1.7 million years. For most of this time, we were hunters and gatherers eating a wide variety of foods that consisted of fruits and vegetables, wild plants, nuts, seeds, fish and meats. Our genes co-evolved with these foods over time. About 10,000 years ago the agricultural revolution occurred. This led to a global shift that turned grains into the main staple food for most people around the world.
500 generations or so have passed since the agricultural revolution (about 0.1% of our existence). In terms of evolution, there have been no significant changes in our genetic makeup. This means that we are still genetically “designed” to eat a plant-based diet, rich with fruits and vegetables, fish, nuts, seeds and some meat.
We have been consuming more foods that are low in omega 3’s and high in omega 6’s for the past 10,000 years. Prior to the agricultural revolution, we ate a wide variety of plants. Today, only 17% of plant species make up about 90% of the world’s food supply. Most of these plants are grains. Today, wheat, corn and rice make up 75% of all the grains we consume.
Grains are high in Omega 6 fatty acids but contain virtually no omega 3 fatty acids. Corn and Wheat, two staple grains in our diets, are very high in omega 6 fatty acids.
Ratios of Omega 6 to Omega 3 in Grains
|Grains||Ratios – Omega 6 : Omega 3|
|Whole Wheat Bread||23:1|
|Brown and White Rice||22:1|
|Whole Grain Wheat Flour||22:1|
Evidence suggests that humans around the world evolved on a consistent diet with a 1:1 ratio of omega 6’s to omega 3’s. Today, the ratio around the world averages from 15:1 to 17:1. The ratio is even higher for Americans, ranging from 20:1 to even as high as 50:1. When in balance, Omega 6 and Omega 3’s act as anti inflammatory compounds. When out of balance, Omega 6 fatty acids begin to have a negative effect because they promote inflammation and can increase your risk for heart disease and cancer. It can also increase the risk for chronic inflammatory conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and arthritis.
Omega 6’s in the Blood
Omega 6’s, in the ratios we are finding in humans today, begin to act like sandpaper or shards of glass in the bloodstream and slowly scrapes away the inner lining of the arteries, which triggers an inflammatory response to heal those cuts. The body heals them with cholesterol and calcium deposits, which are harder than the rubbery walls of your arteries. The calcium and cholesterol “scab” can slowly build up and block the artery over time, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke. The deposits can also lead to a condition called atherosclerosis, which is a hardening of the arteries that can lead to heart disease.
Heart disease is the #1 cause of death in the United States.
Secondly, those who have high blood pressure are already experiencing the same effect on their arterial lining. Blood is trying to squeeze through blood vessels that have become less elastic or clogged due to diet, stress, age or other factors. The higher pressure exerted by blood on the arterial walls can cause that delicate lining to become scraped up and scarred. Eating Omega 6 fats can compound the problem even more since they can have the same effect even when blood pressure is normal. It’s especially important to start decreasing your Omega 6 fat intake if you have high blood pressure and begin to replace them with more Omega 3 fats in your diet.
Fixing the Damage
The good news is that the damage, risk of disease, and inflammation caused by consuming too many foods high in Omega 6’s, can be reversed. They key is exercise and consistently consuming foods high in omega 3’s. A diet high in Omega 3’s can reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure, improve your cognitive function (awareness, memory), reduce depression, and lower your risks of heart disease, heart attacks and strokes.
Studies are showing that lowering your Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio to 4:1 can bring some significant health benefits. One study showed that a 4:1 ratio of Omega 6’s to Omega 3’s resulted in a 70% decrease in mortality rate, while a ratio of 5:1 helped with asthma, 2.5:1 reduced the rate at which colorectal cancer cells spread, and, also suppressed inflammation caused by rheumatoid arthritis. The lower the ratio the better the health benefits.
Types of Omega 3’s
Although there are several foods that are high in Omega 3’s, not all Omega 3’s are the same. There are 3 major types of Omega 3: DHA (Docosahexanoic acid), EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) and ALA (Alpha-linelenic acid). The most important are DHA and EPA because these are the forms of Omega 3 fatty acids that our bodies can use. ALA has to be converted by our bodies into DHA and EPA and we are not very efficient at doing it (about 5-10% of ALA’s we consume get converted into EPA and DHA by our bodies). Nevertheless, ALA omega 3’s are still beneficial.
Foods Highest in Omega 3’s
Farmed fish that are fed grains like corn or soy lose out on gaining the natural omega 3’s that can build up in their bodies. Farmed fish tend to have higher omega 6 fatty acids in their body than fish found in the wild. If your diet prevents you from eating fish or consuming fish products.
Purslane is a plant that grows all across the country and is considered a weed in the United States. What makes it so great is that it contains EPA and DHA omega 3’s. It is one of the few natural non-seafood sources of EPA and DHA omega 3’s in the world. In Europe, and other parts of the world, this plant is eaten regularly.
Besides Purslane, you can also get omega 3’s from a wide variety of nuts and seeds. Chia seeds, Walnuts, Flaxseed, flaxseed oil are high in ALA omega 3’s. Sometimes these foods are more affordable than foods high in EPA and DHA and offer plenty of vitamins, minerals and fiber. Take note that some of the nuts and seeds we commonly eat are very high in Omega 6’s and low in ALA omega 3’s.
Nuts and Seeds Higher in Omega 3’s
|Nuts and Seeds||Ratios (Omega 3 to Omega 6)|
Nuts and Seeds Higher in Omega 6’s
|Nuts and Seeds||Ratios (Omega 6 to Omega 3)|
Note: All of these foods are healthy foods that contain plenty of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, protein and fiber. You shouldn’t avoid these foods solely because of their omega 6 content.
Some manufacturers are beginning to add Omega 3’s to their products, making this clam on the front of the package. These foods may include some brands of milk, eggs and bread. Some manufacturers may neglect to inform consumers (usually intentionally) that the omega 3’s their products are fortified with are ALA omega 3’s and not EPA or DHA.
Be informed and aware about what you are consuming. Omega 3’s and Omega 6’s are both beneficial to our body but it is the rates at which we consume them that can cause problems for our health. If you notice that the bulk of your diet comes from grains, try some seafood or cold-water fish like salmon. If your diet prevents you from eating fish or consuming fish products, you can get omega 3’s from plants like purslane, as well as nuts and seeds.