Finding a Balance in Dietary Omega-3s and Omega-6s

Dorian Martin Health Guide February 28, 2012
  • How essential are omega fatty acids in an American’s diet? And is there too much of an essential thing?


    Those questions came to mind when I read about a new study out of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville, Tennessee. In that study researchers found that consuming at least three weekly servings of fish (which contains omega-3 fatty acids) may decrease women’s risk of developing some types of colon polyps that may become cancerous. The study, which involved more than 5,300 people, found that women who ate this amount of fish were a third less likely to develop these polyps and also had lower levels of a hormone that is related to inflammation.


    Interestingly, the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center researchers found that men’s colon health was not affected by eating fish three times a week. The scientists hypothesized that this difference may be due to men eating more omega-6 fatty acids in their diets.


    So what is the difference between these omega fatty acids? In her book, 50 Secrets of the World’s Longest Living People, Sally Beare describes the fat found in fish as essential fat which can't be made by the human body and must be obtained daily through diet. “These essential fatty acids (EFAs) come mainly from the fresh, unspoiled polyunsaturated oils found in nuts and seeds and in oily fish,” she wrote. “The EFAs from nuts and seeds and their oils are mostly omega-6 fats (or linoleic acid), and the EFAs from oily fish are omega-3 fats (or alpha-linolenic acid).”


    So what do these EFAs do? According to the Washington Department of Health, omega-3 fatty acids are good for the heart since they lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart attacks, abnormal heart rhythms and strokes. These fatty acids also may decrease the risk of depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and diabetes. Beare also pointed out these fatty acids may boost metabolism and decrease cancer tumor formation, while deficiencies in this fatty acid may be behind premenstrual syndrome (PMS), rheumatoid arthritis and eczema.


    Omega-6 fatty acids play a different role in the body. Dr. Andrew Weil, clinical professor of medicine and director of the Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, states that omega 6-fatty acids create hormones that can increase inflammation, blood clotting and cell proliferation.


    So let’s talk about how you should incorporate these fatty acids into the diet. The University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) states that a healthy diet contains a balance of omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. However, American and European diets often does not reach this level of balance. “The typical American diet tends to contain 14-25 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids,” the UMMC website states. This imbalance may have health consequences. “This dietary imbalance may explain the rise of such diseases as asthma, coronary heart disease, many forms of cancer, autoimmunity and neurodegenerative diseases, all of which are believed to stem from inflammation in the body,” Dr. Weil stated. “The imbalance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids may also contribute to obesity, depression, dyslexia, hyperactivity and even a tendency toward violence.”


  • Instead, UMMC recommends a Mediterranean diet, which has a better balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Dr. Weil recommends an anti-inflammation diet that he’s developed. He also notes that you can decrease omega-6 levels by limiting consumption of processed and fast foods and polyunsaturated vegetable oils, including corn oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, soybean oil and cottonseed oil. Try to use extra virgin olive oil for cooking and for salad dressings. To increase your omega-3 levels, eat more oily fish (such as salmon, sardines, trout, herring, canned light tuna, canned mackerel and oysters). You also can take fish oil supplements as well as eat walnuts, flax seeds and omega-3 fortified eggs.


    Finding balance in the essential things in life (like fatty acids) may be difficult to do. However, it ultimately is important to find and maintain this balance in order to protect and support your health.

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