Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past decade, you’ve heard of fish oil or omega-3 fatty acids. You may have noticed “Omega-3” labels on different foods. Or maybe your favorite day time talk show host has discussed their benefits in wonder. But unlike raspberry ketones or green coffee extract, omega-3s deserve the hype they get.
Not only do omega-3s play an integral roll in cardiovascular function, nervous system function, brain development, and immune health, they have also been shown to:
- increase metabolism
- aid in cell repair and regeneration
- help prevent heart disease and stroke
- allow muscle tissue to absorb more nutrients
Omega-3s, a type of polyunsaturated fat, are essential to the human diet. Our bodies need these fatty acids but are unable to make them on their own. Omega-3s come in three different types: Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which come from algae, and Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which can be found in things like nuts, flax, and hemp.
When you look at it like that, getting our omega-3s in the form of ALA seems like a good idea. Eating nuts, flax, and hemp sounds more appetizing than consuming algae. But for our bodies to use the ALA found in these foods it must first convert the ALA into a usable form. Unfortunately, this is an inefficient process. The ratio of ALA conversion is somewhere between just 5-15%. That means for every 1 gram of ALA we consume, our bodies are only able to use 0.05 – 0.15 grams of it. Because of this poor conversion rate, EPA and DHA are by far the best bang for our buck when it comes to getting in enough omega-3s. But seeing as we don’t eat much algae these days, our EPA and DHA usually come from fish (who do eat a lot of algae).
And I don’t know about you, but my family and I don’t eat a lot of fish. We’ll have salmon or trout once or twice a week, but that’s not enough to ensure enough healthy omega-3s.
Just like omega-3s, omega-6s are essential to the human diet. You’ll usually find omega-6 fatty acids in plant oils and factory raised meats. And while omega-3s are not usually used in processed foods, omega-6s can be found in almost all of them. Look through your fridge and cabinets and see how many products you can find without one of the following in it:
- Soybean oil
- Canola oil
- Corn oil
- Safflower oil
- Cottonseed oil
- Sunflower oil
- Peanut oil
- Sesame oil
- Rapeseed oil
- Rice Bran oil, or
- the “catch-all” Vegetable oil
Due to the overwhelming amount of omega-6s in our diet, our omega-3:omega-6 ratio is way off. Our bodies do best on an intake ratio of 1:1 (1g omega-3:1g omega-6). But with our current diets, this is far from the norm. We eat so many plant oils, factory raised meats, and processed foods, that this ratio is closer to 1:20! That’s 20x more omega-6s than omega-3s!
These two fatty acids compete with each other in our bodies. They’re constantly fighting for space in cell membranes and the attention of enzymes. Our bodies thrive on a 1:1 ratio, and when this ratio is off, bad things happen. Omega-6s are pro-inflammatory, while an increase in omega-3s help to stave off inflammation.
If we want to be healthy, we need the balance.
The typical North American diet is far too high in omega-6s. This high consumption creates a pro-inflammatory environment inside our bodies, which puts us at major risk. A skewed omega-3:omega-6 ratio is associated with an increased risk of all inflammatory diseases. Including things like:
- cardiovascular disease
- type 2 diabetes
- metabolic syndrome
- irritable bowel syndrome & inflammatory bowel disease
- macular degeneration
- rheumatoid arthritis
- psychiatric disorders
- autoimmune diseases
So yes, omega-3s are important. And if you eat like a somewhat normal person, chances are you’re not eating enough.
Omega-3s are not a magical cure-all. They are an essential part of our diet that has slowly vanished since the industrial age began. Processed foods, cheap oils, and factory farms all deserve part of the blame.
So What Do I Do?
The way I see it, you’ve got a few options. You could completely change your diet, swearing off most of what you eat now to reduce your omega-6 intake. Or, you could start eating more fish and/or supplementing with fish oil.
It doesn’t matter what you choose, all that matters is that you get your omega-3:omega-6 ratio in check. And when it can be as easy as taking a few fish oil capsules every day, there’s no excuse. Fixing this broken ratio is one of the easiest and most effective ways to improve your health.
We already have enough people suffering from the above inflammatory diseases.
Please, don’t be another.