Omega-3 and Omega-6 don’t seem like a great comparison, but it’s important to understand the differences between these fatty acids and how they each play important roles in our overall health.
Omega-3 and Omega-6 are a type of polyunsaturated fat that provides the body with a number of health benefits. However, an improper balance and too much omega-6 in our diet and too little omega-3 can lead to health complications such as excessive inflammation. This can damage the cells of our body and eventually lead to a stroke and even a heart attack.
Whether you’re making a conscious effort to eat two servings of oily fish a week, taking supplements every day, or throwing nutrient-dense superfoods into a blender to make a smoothie, there are many ways to ensure that your body is getting the best of both worlds Worlds.
To help you weigh omega-3 versus omega-6 and figure out which one you need to add more to your diet, we spoke to the experts. They shared everything you need to know about these essential fatty acids, what their benefits are, and how to incorporate them into your diet.
What is omega-3?
Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid. There are three different types of omega-3 fatty acids, each of which play a specific role in supporting your health. These are:
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
EPA has been linked to decreased inflammation in the body. Inflammation is the way our body defends itself against infection and injury. In addition, it can lead to long-term illnesses like cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. Symptoms of chronic inflammation include body pain, constant fatigue, and mood disorders such as anxiety.
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
DHA helps build organs in the body like eyes, skin, and brain. Low DHA levels in these areas can lead to impaired vision or altered brain function.
- Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA)
ALA is needed for digestion, to absorb nutrients from food and to convert those nutrients into energy so that we can use them.
“Omega-3 is often referred to as ‘essential’ because the body can’t do it, so it has to be ingested through food,” said Rob Hobson, nutritionist at Healthspan. “You can get omega-3s naturally in your diet by eating oily fish like salmon, sardines, and mackerel.”
According to the cholesterol charity Heart UK, you should try to eat two 140g servings of fish a week, one of which should be oily.
You can also get omega-3 through plant-based foods such as the healthiest edible oils like flaxseed, walnut, soy, pumpkin, and seaweed oil. In addition, green leafy vegetables, nuts (especially walnuts) and seeds such as flax, pumpkin, chia and hemp seeds.
Omega-3 is also available as a supplement that you can take anytime during the day. When choosing a dietary supplement, try combining 500 mg of EPA and DHA daily. This is roughly equivalent to a 140g serving of fatty fish per week. Vegan or Vegetarian? Look for a marine oil additive made from algae.
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What Are The Health Benefits Of Omega 3?
Omega-3 is known to reduce inflammation, which can lower the risk of heart attack symptoms in women and support your mental health.
- Heart health
“Omega-3s can help increase good HDL cholesterol and reduce triglycerides in the blood,” says Rob. Triglycerides are a type of fat that is found in your blood. High concentrations can increase the risk of various chronic health problems such as diabetes and heart disease.
- Reduces joint pain
If you have arthritis, research published in the Mediterranean Journal of Rheumatology shows that omega-3s can help relieve stiff joints and tenderness.
- Improves mood
Studies have found that people who eat a diet high in oily fish are less likely to experience depression. However, omega-3 is not a treatment for depression. If you are struggling with your mental health, see a doctor.
What is omega-6?
“Omega-6s are types of fats,” says NHS-registered nutritionist Anna Hardman. There are four different types known as polyunsaturated fats. These include:
- Linoleic acid (LA)
Research has shown that linoleic acid can lower cholesterol levels. Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in your blood. Too much cholesterol can clog your blood vessels and increase your risk of heart disease and heart attacks.
- Arachidonic acid
Arachidonic acid is responsible for regulating muscle growth and tissue injury during strength training. Inflammation is part of the healing process.
- Gamma Linoleic Acid (GLA)
GLA plays an important role in maintaining brain health, bone health, and metabolism.
- Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA)
CLA is found in the meat and milk of animals such as cows, goats and sheep. Some studies have shown that CLA can contribute to weight loss and bodybuilding. However, more research needs to be done in this area.
“Omega-6 fats come from some vegetable oils, including corn, evening primrose seeds, safflower oil, and soybean oil,” says Anna. “Omega-6 fatty acids are also found in small amounts in meat (especially pork and red meat from turkey or chicken) and in nuts and seeds such as pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and walnuts.”
Most people do not need to supplement omega-6 as the average diet contains more than enough. “However, GLA is an omega-6 fatty acid found in evening primrose oil, and many women use it to relieve breast tenderness,” says nutritionist Amanda Hamilton. “If you’re looking to supplement essential fats, opt for a blend that also contains omega-3s.”
In many countries there is no recommendation for the amount of omega-6 that should be consumed on a daily basis.
“Omega-6s aren’t usually listed directly on food labels, so you probably don’t track your intake every day,” says Anna. “It’s important to understand that the most important factor is making sure we’re consuming enough omega-3s and keeping the ratio between the two low.” Anna advises that the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 in your diet should be 1: 0.25
“In Western diets, the ratios consumed tend to be higher, which can increase the risk to cardiovascular health,” Anna adds.
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What Are the Health Benefits of Omega 6?
The health benefits of omega-6 include many of the same health benefits of omega-3. “This includes helping control cholesterol levels by lowering the ‘bad’ cholesterol LDL and increasing the ‘good’ cholesterol HDL,” says nutritionist Jenna Hope.
Omega-6 can also help prevent heart disease and possibly lower liver fat. “But it has other benefits as well, such as helping hormone production and brain function and growth,” Jenna adds.
Omega-6 fatty acids also support the functioning of our muscles, nerves and bones and send messages to and from the brain. If we don’t have enough omega-6s in our diet, our cells won’t function properly. This can affect brain and bone health, as well as the functioning of our reproductive system.
Signs that you are missing omega-3s include eczema, poor memory, difficulty losing weight (especially in the middle), and fatigue.
Omega-3 vs Omega-6: What Are the Differences?
The difference between omega-3 and omega-6 is the inflammatory response it triggers in the body. “Too much omega-6 causes inflammation, while omega-3 reduces it,” says Anna.
Inflammation is our body’s natural protective response to injury and infection. However, excessive inflammation can damage the cells of our body, which can eventually lead to stroke and even heart attack.
Hence, it is the balance of these two fatty acids that helps us stay healthy, but today’s modern diet means that the balance is being tilted too much in favor of omega-6.
(Image credit: Getty Images / Upper Ramirez)
Omega-3 vs Omega-6: Which is Better?
Neither of these essential fatty acids is better than the other. In fact, the most important thing for health is to find the right balance.
“Like many others in nutrition, nutrient combinations work best to promote health and prevent disease,” says nutritionist Nicola Guess. “The combination of omega-3 and omega-3 lowers the risk of many diseases more than any single one.”
The best plan of action is to make sure that your diet is high in omega-3 foods and be aware that you are consuming an excess of foods high in omega-6s.