There are several essential fatty acids (EFAs) that we need in our diets, and yet Westerners often get too much of one and not enough of the others thanks to broad changes in foods on the market. The essential fatty acids we need more of are types of omega-3 fatty acids, but this article will also discuss the ideal ratio between the omega-3, -6, and -9 fatty acids, and highlight the importance of balance between the three.
As the world changes, and our regular food sources change with it, we may be losing out on the essentials we need. To know what’s missing is the first half of the problem, and the second half is finding a sustainable way to solve it. Read on to learn about the importance of these fatty acids, where they come from, and how to best get your levels in balance.
Omega-3-6-9: Which Are the Essential Fatty Acids?
Omega-3, -6, and -9 are dietary fats that bring important health benefits to the human body. One category is essential and needed, one is essential but overabundant, and the third is nonessential, but useful in achieving balance between the other two. Here are the full details.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3s are polyunsaturated fats, and are considered essential nutrients because our bodies cannot make them in-house, meaning it’s essential that we get them from the foods we eat.
Polyunsaturated refers to the chemical structure of these fats, meaning there are many (“poly”) double bonds (“unsaturated”) that make up the molecular composition of omega-3 fatty acids. The dietary recommendation from the World Health Organization (WHO) is that humans should eat about two portions of oily, fatty fish per week, and that is because oily fish like herring, salmon, and mackerel are particularly rich in omega-3 fats. The three most common types of omega-3s are as follows.
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA): This fatty acid produces anti-inflammatory chemicals known as eicosanoids and helps aid against depression.
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): DHA is needed for proper brain functioning and development, as it makes up about 8% of the brain’s total weight.
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA): This fatty acid is principally used in the body for energy, though it can also be converted into the above EPA and DHA fats when needed.
Not only do the omega-3 fats play a vital role in our cell membranes, but they also work to bring us the following benefits.
- Mental health: Omega-3s are scientifically associated with reducing the symptoms of schizophrenia, depression, and bipolar disorder.
- Heart health: Omega-3s are known to help increase “good” HDL cholesterol, reduce blood pressure, and prevent the hardening of arterial plaque.
- Anti-inflammatory: Omega-3s play an important role in reducing the unhealthy inflammation that contributes to chronic diseases.
- Brain health: Omega-3s may contribute to a slowing of age-related decline in cognition.
- Bone health: Those with a higher intake of omega-3s are also shown to have better bone mineral density.
As the Western diet no longer contains a sufficient, balanced amount of omega-3s, their deficiency may be a contributing factor in the rise of conditions like diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. The best source of dietary omega-3s is from oily fish (EPA and DHA), seeds, and nuts (for ALA).
- Lake trout
- Albacore tuna
- Chia seeds
Omega-6 Fatty Acids
What the Western diet of most Americans lacks in omega-3 fatty acids, it overcompensates in omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-6s are an essential fatty acid; however, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.
Omega-6s are also polyunsaturated fatty acids, the sole difference being their final double bond, which contains six instead of three carbon atoms. Largely used for energy, the most common omega-6 fat is linoleic acid, which can be converted into arachidonic acid (ARA), a longer omega-6 fat. ARA (like the omega-3 EPA) can also produce eicosanoids, but of the pro-inflammatory variety, too many of which can lead to an increase in inflammatory diseases.
The recommended ratio between omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3s should be about 4:1, but in the Western diet it’s somewhere between 10:1 and 50:1, completely out of balance. That means that, though this is an essential fatty acid as important as omega-3, most of us is the developed world should eat less of it to improve our risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
Whereas we have an essential fatty acid deficiency when it comes to omega-3s, with omega-6 we have an overabundance. That is not to say, however, that it would be useful to eliminate omega-6 from our diets. Just like food itself, too much can be unhealthy, but no food at all means starvation.
Omega-6 fatty acids are known to help treat symptoms of chronic disease, specifically gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), an omega-6 fatty acid found in such oils as borage oil and evening primrose oil, which in a high enough dose can reduce the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and might be effective in treating breast cancer.
So while omega-6 fatty acids are nowhere near poison, they are still far too prevalent in our diets, as you may be able to tell from the list below. These are foods like refined vegetable oils (or anything that’s fried in vegetable oil) and mayonnaise that you already know to use as moderately as possible. Nuts and seeds are also natural sources of omega-6s.
- Soybean oil
- Corn oil
- Sunflower oil
- Sunflower seeds
Omega-9 Fatty Acids
Unlike the omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, omega-9 fatty acids aren’t essential, because they can be produced in the body. So what are they doing in this article, you may ask? Because while omega-9s are quite abundant in our bodies, consuming them can still bring us health benefits and contribute to the ideal ratio of essential fatty acids we should aim for.
Omega-9s are monounsaturated fatty acids, meaning they have only one (“mono”) double bond, but also nine carbons on the omega side chain molecule (as omega-6s had six, and omega-3s had three). The most common omega-9 fatty acid is oleic acid, which is also the most common monounsaturated fat in our diets.
Diets high in monounsaturated fats could replace “bad” VLDL (very low density lipoprotein) cholesterol in diabetes patients, as well as improve insulin sensitivity and decrease inflammation in humans, an improvement when compared against those who eat a high-saturated fat diet. Basically, though omega-9s are not essential, they are still beneficial to eat.
The omega-9 fatty acids are also common in oils, as well as seeds and nuts. Since they are nonessential, there is no recommended daily intake amount. However, the following foods hold this useful fat.
Should You Take an Omega-3-6-9 Supplement?
To recap our discussion on essential fatty acids, you may remember that omega-3s are essential and lacking in our diet, omega-6s are essential and overabundant in our diets, while omega-9s aren’t essential at all but could be a useful way to replace unhealthy fats in our diets. So the answer to should you take an omega-3-6-9 supplement is… probably not necessary!
That begs the question, is there any supplement you should look into? The answer to that is: for sure. Omega-3s are the essential fatty acids you need more of if you’re living in the developed world. While normally you should be able to easily obtain these fats from your diet, the Western diet contains more omega-6 fats than you’d ever need to supplement, while your fish consumption depending on where you live (i.e. far from a coastline where the quality will be lower and the cost higher for fish) might still leave you with an essential fatty acid or EFA deficiency.
If you’d like to get your EFA balance back in line, we suggest a three-pronged approach:
- Increase omega-3 intake: Eat more oily fish or choose a high-quality omega-3 supplement.
- Decrease omega-6 intake: By eliminating, reducing, or replacing the foods containing omega-6s.
- Use omega-9 as a replacement: In cooking, use olive oil over vegetable oil for example.
Balance Is Key
Long story short: your essential fatty acids are the omega-3 fatty acids, because you already get way too much of the (also essential) omega-6s. The nonessential omega-9 sources of fat can be used to help reduce your omega-6 intake to a healthy level.
Keep in mind that the ideal ratio between omega-3s and omega-6s is 4:1 (and researchers agree that at least 2:1 should be the minimum). If it’s difficult to consume double and quadruple the amount of an essential fat already way too high in your diet through no fault of your own, then an omega-3 fish oil supplement may be just what you need to get started on perfecting your essential fatty acid intake.