Omega-3 vs Omega-6

The importance of your Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio

My post about why you should never eat vegetable oil or margarine talked about the important ratio of Omega-3 (n-3) and Omega-6 (n-6) fats in the body, but this topic is important enough to deserve its own post.

Vegetable oils are dangerous for many reasons, including that they can easily go rancid, they are processed with chemicals, and they can turn in to trans fats when heated. Vegetable oils are also high in Omega-6 fats and proportionately low in Omega-3 fats. Why does this matter?

Omega-3 Fats

Omega-3 fats have gotten a lot of good press for their many benefits to the body and with good reason. The University of Maryland Medical Center explains that Omega-3 fatty acids may be useful for:

  • Reducing the risk of heart disease and causes of death associated with heart disease
  • Reducing severity of symptoms associated with diabetes
  • Reducing pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis
  • Reducing risk of osteoporosis and bone loss
  • Improving health and reducing symptoms for those with autoimmune disease
  • Helping those with anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder
  • Reducing risk of various types of cancers
  • Improving cognitive function

The body does not make Omega-3 fatty acids so they must be obtained from foods. As this article from the Harvard School of Public Health explains:

“There are two major types of omega-3 fatty acids in our diets: One type is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is found in some vegetable oils, such as soybean, rapeseed (canola), and flaxseed, and in walnuts. ALA is also found in some green vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts, kale, spinach, and salad greens. The other type, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), is found in fatty fish. The body partially converts ALA to EPA and DHA.”

It has often been assumed that either source (plant or fish) is sufficient, but Chris Kresser shows why this is not the case:

However, research clearly indicates that the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA is extremely limited. Less than 5% of ALA gets converted to EPA, and less than 0.5% (one-half of one percent) of ALA is converted to DHA.

In other words: while it is a great idea to eat green leafy vegetables (which provide ALA), it is also important to consume fatty fish as a source of EPA and DHA. Science has shown that EPA and DHA are especially important while pregnant and many prenatal vitamins contain them, but it is preferable to obtain them from food.

From Chris Kresser again:

“Several other observations support the hypothesis that DHA is essential:

  • DHA content in the tissues of all mammals is very similar despite widely varying intakes of omega-3 fatty acids. 1
  • DHA and AA, but not other omega-3 or omega-6 fatty acids, are selectively transferred across the placenta
  • 60% of the dry matter of the brain is lipid, and DHA and AA are the most abundant fatty acids of brain phospholipids
  • DHA status in newborns is much lower in those receiving formula with LA and ALA, than in those receiving milk or formula with pre-formed DHA”

It is pretty well established that Omega-3 fats are important for health, but how much should a person take and what is the best way to obtain these fats? That actually depends on the amount of Omega-6 fatty acids in the diet:

Omega-6 Fats

Scientists estimate that our ancestors consumed Omega-6 and Omega-3 fats in a ratio of close to 1:1. As vegetable oil consumption and processed grain consumption have risen, so has the ratio of n-6 to n-3 fats.

Vegetable oils are very high in Omega-6 fats:

  • Safflower oil is 75% Omega-6 and 0% Omega-3
  • Sunflower, Corn, Cottonseed and Soybean oils are all more than 50% Omega-6 fats with 0% Omega-3s
  • Fish oils are 100% Omega-3 and 0% Omega-6

Think about how many foods the average American consumes that contains vegetable oils, soy or processed grains compared to foods that contain fatty fish or fish oils. It is easy to see why it is now estimated that we consume (on average) a 12:1 ratio of n-6 to n-3 foods.

Why the Ratio Matters

Chris Kresser explains that Omega-3s and Omega-6s compete for the enzymes needed for digestion and that:

“In plain english, what this means is that the more omega-3 fat you eat, the less omega-6 will be available to the tissues to produce inflammation. Omega-6 is pro-inflammatory, while omega-3 is neutral. A diet with a lot of omega-6 and not much omega-3 will increase inflammation. A diet of a lot of omega-3 and not much omega-6 will reduce inflammation.”

As I showed in previous posts about vegetable oil consumption and heart disease, as rates of vegetable oil and sugar consumption have risen, so have rates of heart disease and many other health problems (in fact, the graphs look almost identical). During this same time, consumption of foods that contain saturated fats and Omega-3 fats has decreased:

why soy oil is bad for youwhy not to eat canola oilWheat flour and heart diseaseSugar consumption and heart disease correlation

At the same time, this happened:

number of deaths

Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/

Of course, correlation doesn’t equal causation, but it worth a second look when we have rising rates of heart disease, cancer, obesity and many other health problems.

Chris Kresser (seriously, go read his entire site) sums it up perfectly:

“The relationship between intake n-6 fats and cardiovascular mortality is particularly striking. The following chart, from an article entitled Eicosanoids and Ischemic Heart Disease by Stephan Guyenet, clearly illustrates the correlation between a rising intake of n-6 and increased mortality from heart disease:

Omega-3 vs Omega-6

As you can see, the USA is right up there at the top with the highest intake of n-6 fat and the greatest risk of death from heart disease.

On the other hand, several clinical studies have shown that decreasing the n-6:n-3 ratio protects against chronic, degenerative diseases. One study showed that replacing corn oil with olive oil and canola oil to reach an n-6:n-3 ratio of 4:1 led to a70% decrease in total mortality. That is no small difference.”

The Bottom Line

It is important to get Omega-3 fats and Omega-6 fats in a healthy balance, and as close to a 1:1 ratio as possible. This can certainly be difficult with out modern food supply and many doctors and health practitioners recommend taking an Omega-3 supplement if needed.

Personally, I try to eat fatty fish at least once or twice a week and I take supplemental forms of Omega-3 from quality sources, especially when pregnant or nursing. Some other steps that can help this ratio (and overall health:

  1. Avoid Vegetable Oils and Products Containing Them– These oils mess up the balance of protective Omega-3 fatty acids and potentially dangerous Omega-6 fatty acids in the body. They also contribute to inflammation and arterial damage. There is no reason that you need to consume these oils at any point… ever!
  2. Eat Lots of Saturated Fats and Other Healthy Fats– As studies have yet to link saturated fat intake with heart disease, and in fact, many prove the opposite, getting enough saturated fat from sources like animal fats, coconut oil, raw organic dairy, etc is essential to give the body all the building blocks it needs for proper cell and hormone function.
  3. Optimize Vitamin D and Fat Soluble Vitamins- Fat soluble vitamins in proper amounts in the body have a protective effect on tissues and organs (including the heart). If you’ve been on a law-fat diet or used sunscreen all your life, you could be seriously deficient in vitamin D, so consider getting your blood levels tested.
  4. Get Enough Omega-3s- These help balance out the Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio in the body and prevent inflammation. Omega-3s also can thin the blood and keep it from clotting too regularly, a risk factor in heart disease. Having a proper Omega-3 balance also helps keep triglyceride levels in check.
  5. Exercise– You’ve heard this one before, yet most of us don’t get enough exercise in. Exercise helps strengthen the heart and tone muscles. It increases circulation and reduces stress hormones- all good things to help reduce your risk of heart disease.
  6. Reduce Stress and Get Enough Sleep– High stress levels and lack of sleep can both increase inflammation and stress hormones in the body. Both are also linked to higher levels of many diseases, including heart disease, and increased overall mortality.

What I Take

I am not a doctor and no information on my site should be taken as medical advice. I’ve gotten several questions asking so I wanted to share my personal protocol. Again, this might not be good for everyone, but it is what I’ve found to work best for me. Each day, I take:

I also eat fatty fish a couple of times a week and make sure to consume lots of other healthy fats and foods like bone broth and fermented vegetables to enhance my ability to assimilate these nutrients.

Sources:

-Whole Health Source: The Omega Ratio

-Chris Kresser: How too much Omega-6 and not enough Omega-3 is making us sick.

-Chris Kresser: Why Fish Stomps Flax as a Source of Omega-3

-Angerer P, von Schacky C. n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and the cardiovascular system. Curr Opin Lipidol. 2000;11(1):57-63.

-Berbert AA, Kondo CR, Almendra CL et al. Supplementation of fish oil and olive oil in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Nutrition. 2005;21:131-6.

-Goldberg RJ, Katz J. A meta-analysis of the analgesic effects of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation for inflammatory joint pain. Pain. 2007 Feb 28.

-Mori TA. Omega-3 fatty acids and blood pressure. Cell Mol Biol (Nosiy-le-grand). 2010; 56(1):83-92.

Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in the food chain in the United States.

Am J Clin Nutr January 2000 vol. 71 no. 1 179S-188S

-The importance of the ratio of Omega-6/Omega-3 fatty acids. Biomed Pharmacother. 2002 Oct;56(8):365-79.

Do you take Omega 3 or Omega 6? Share below!

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Reader Comments

  1. Can I ask what supplemental forms of Omega-3 from quality sources you take? Also, how can you get your kids to take this? I have a 4 year old and 2 year old and I have the hardest time getting them to take fermented cod liver oil, etc. they taste it on food and wont eat it. Thanks for all you do!!

  2. What do you think are the best supplemental sources for Omega-3? Krill oil? Fermented cod liver oil? Something else? I’m in the market for one but not sure what to get.

  3. why do all these articles stating facts about Omega 3 and its proper ratios ALWAYS leave out hemp. Hemp oil and/or hemp seed itself is already naturally balanced as the body needs it. Hemp tastes exponentially better than fish and is a complete protein with all amino acids with a balanced amount of fiber is basically a complete food by itself.

    • Help oil contains ALA fats (in good ratio) but doesn’t have DHA and EPA (those are found in fish). The body *can* convert ALA to DHA and EPA but as the Chris Kresser article explains above, this doesn’t happen in a high enough ratio to give us the DHA and EPA we need.

      • Due to the cost of mercury-free cod liver oil and the fact that many of our seas are already over-fished (especially the North Atlantic) I have looked into organic flax seed oil as an alternative. Are their the same issues with flax seed as hemp oil?

        • I myself cook with Cocout oil and supplement all my other oils with Hemp Oil, Hemp Seed, and Norwegian Cod Liver oil.

  4. What oil do you suggest for cooking instead of vegetable oil?

      • Do you use any other types of oil for cooking? Coconut is too sweet for me in most dishes.

        • Also Sesame Oil can be a good alternative, as it can tolerate being heated. You might also try cooking with broth, which removes the oil issue altogether. Thanks

  5. Katie, what are your thoughts on Evening Primrose Oil? I take 2 caps a day ( epo I take is quality kind too) for cervical mucus purpose.

  6. Hi Katie,

    Thanks so much for your great content. I’ve recently added a lot of high-quality saturated fats to my diet based on information from Chris Kresser and the Paleo/Bulletproof communities. It’s been great to follow you as well – a great example of how a woman/mother can use this lifestyle.

    Of is common, my family and friends have some skepticism towards diet so I do a lot of defending. I came across this study recently regarding saturated fats: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24550191. Just curious whether you have any input or thoughts on this.

    Thanks again for sharing your story!

    • If you look at the study, they are feeding muffins with unspecified saturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. consuming grains/refined carbohydrates with certain forms of saturated fats is not a good idea, but the fact that both groups gained visceral fat is more an indication that the other ingredients in the muffins are suspect. Additionally, the study only lasted 7 weeks and was done on a statistically insignificant number of people (39) without mention of any other habits they had during that time period. Studies like this are great for scare tactics but don’t tell much in terms of long term health markers.

      • thx for the post Katie,

        just re your comment above “…both groups gained visceral fat…” in ref to the http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24550191 overfeeding study…

        do you have access to the full study (need to pay to access), from the abstract i could only see this bit “…overeating SFA promotes hepatic and visceral fat storage whereas excess energy from PUFA may instead promote lean tissue in healthy humans.”

  7. Are there vegan sources of omega-3? From this I gather the Plant based ALA is not as good but I’d like to know what is best or if there is a Vegan supplement.

  8. Hi Katie,

    I am loving your blog! So helpful!

    I was wondering if there are certain types of fish that you do and don’t eat. I have been concerned about eating too much fish with all the polluted waters, mercury, etc. How do you find high-quality fish?

    Thanks!

  9. hi Katie!!
    what are you toughts on avocado oil? Costco sells this naturally refined avocado oil by chosen foods proven to cook up to 500 f, do you think could be good for cooking besides coconut oil ? please I really need your answer… thanks I appreciate

    • It is ok for heating but you would still also want to consume some saturated fats

  10. I have a severe allergy to shell fish so to be on the safe side I don’t eat any fish. I have had reactions to other fishes at times. Please tell me what would be my best whole food options other than fish.

  11. If you wanted to do something deep fried can you still use coconut oil for this?

  12. The only real way to know for sure is to have your fatty said profile analyzed through a special blood test. Instead of worrying if you are getting enough or spending money on a test, best to have a healthy balance of raw and cooked veggies, some fruit and yes, some animal products. Fish is a good source because our bodies can easily use them alone..

    I would do research on enzymes – tinyurl /m5arh47 – specifically here a good start would be Lipase because it breaks down fats into an absorbable form without damage to the fats. Look for a product which is plant based and contains multiple enzymes for example at least 8 and some even over 14. The reason I would focus here is because enzymes are the catalysts which makes all the minerals, vitamins all life period to function – I below will suggest focus on ratio – why because we have in most of us WAY way too much 6 – and the body will treat these two the same from my understanding so if you have minor amounts of 6 and almost NIL of 3, how can it be converted – kinda like fighting for a special ingredient in your soup – there’s 6 people at the table and only 1 special ingredient – solution cut that ingredient up and put more of them with less of the fillers.

    Chlorella can be used, although on a long term and massive dosages should be investigated. Spirulina, I believe could be under ideal circumstance but where is that ideal? That said I believe it will support your other nutritional intake and support the whole will enable the whole to be more productive – could it be we lack enough WELL people to form an ideal standard of assimilation?

    The best way to look at this is focus on reducing the 6 and eat for the 3 – after all the ideal ratio is between 1-1 to 3-1 and most people are way over balanced to the 6’s which leads to illness. We know examples of rich sources are walnuts, flax, chia, black seed, sea veggies, sprouted radish, sardines, sea buckthorn, etc – eat what feels right. A rich source is coconut oil or it’s cousin with concentrations of MCT.

    Although not for me because MAN touched it – there is a new technology with the phosholipid bound oils in them made from salmon.

  13. Would you recommend the Real Dose omega 3 and fermented cod liver oil while pregnant or TTC?

    • I would take it during that time because the DHA and EPA are great for fertility and for developing baby but as always, check with a doc before taking anything while pregnant!

  14. I am currently treating SIBO and leaky gut with diet and supplements.. I was thinking about adding Sea Buckthorn oil… Thoughts? I also use hemp oil regularly as a salad dressing. Is there any concern with “overdoing” it? I am looking into supplementing DHA as well but in a separate form. Thanks!

  15. Katie , I appreciated the Realdose video along with your very informative article. I have one question. Do you take both the fermented cod liver oil and the Realdose Omega-3 TG daily and why do we need both? Thanks ahead of time for explaining 🙂

    • I do. The FCLO is more for the fat soluble vitamins but isn’t the highest source of omega-3 so I take the RD for the Omega-3

  16. hello Katie,

    Thank you so much for all your information, you’re definitely my ” go to” for any health related questions. I think it’s amazing how many families you’ve helped, including mine. So, I have a question; my daughter ( 13 year old) has been dealing with what I think is a hormone imbalance. She gets her menstrual cycle every 6 months or so, and usually has it heavy for 2-3 months non stop. I recently started giving her cod liver oil, probiotics, and red raspberry leaf ( all from your recommended resources?) just wondering if you would recommend I also try omega 3, or any other supplements on top of that? And is there certain ones I should give at certain times? I give her cod and raspberry in the am and probiotic at night time. I would really appreciate your thoughts. Hope to hear back soon. Thank you sooo much?

    • I’d try to find a naturopathic doctor and maybe use herbs and progesterone cream to try to normalize her cycle

  17. The Chris Kresser article you have cited is somewhat dated. In fact, in the comments for his article, “How much omega-3 is enough? That depends on omega-6,” Kresser admits that his position on omega ratios may require revision. A reader identified as Andrius commented: “most studies that found omega 6 are harmful are done with damaged omega 6, which are added to various foods, spreads etc. These omega 6 are heated , partially hydrogenated, so no wonder their consumption is associated with disease. However, omega 6 in their natural state most often are found beneficial. For instance, consider studies on nut consumption. Almost every study determines nut consumption to be beneficial, even though most nuts are much higher in omega 6 than omega 3.” To which Chris Kresser replied: “I’ve changed my view somewhat on omega-6 from natural sources since writing this article. I think it’s somewhat unlikely that n-6 from walnuts would cause harm, and of course nuts and seeds have health benefits as you pointed out. Walnuts are also quite high in n-3, which probably explains their effect on arterial flexibility.” When asked about studies evaluating the omega ratio (specifically http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21663641 and http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17045070), Kresser admitted, “Yes, there is quite a bit of conflicting research on the n-6:n-3 ratio. I may need to revise this article based on what I’ve been reading lately, but the jury is still out.” There are also several noteworthy takeaways from a 2011 podcast with Chris Kresser (a partial transcript of which can be viewed at https://weightmaven.org/2011/03/16/chris-kesser-robb-wolf-on-omega-3s/). In this podcast, Kresser states, “I think the benefits of fish oil supplementation have been pretty overstated. Most of those studies show that benefits are short term, they generally last less than one year. A meta-analysis on almost 80 trials lasting more than six months showed … there was no reduction in cardiovascular and total mortality. One of the things that worries me the most is that the only fish oil study lasting more than four years, which is the DART 2 trials, showed an increase in heart disease and sudden death (among subjects taking omega-3 fish oil supplements). So of course the question is why and how could this happen? Well, if you understand the structure of fats, fish oil is a omega 3 polyunsaturated fat, which is the most unstable and the most vulnerable to oxidative damage of any fat, even more unstable than the dreaded omega 6 polyunsaturated fat. And what we know is that when fat particles oxidize, they break down into smaller compounds like MDA, and MDA is dangerous because it can damage proteins and DNA and other cellular structures. And in fact, studies do show that oxidative damage by compounds like MDA increases as the intake of omega 3 fat increases.”

    Ultimately, the overwhelmingly clear conclusion here is to eat a balanced diet consisting of whole, nutritious foods. Naturally, increasing consumption of whole food sources of long-chain (EPA and DHA) omega-3 would be enormously beneficial. In an excellent article (http://www.marksdailyapple.com/why-the-omega-3omega-6-ratio-may-not-matter-after-all/#axzz3ic8JuYN8), Mark Sisson explains that the omega-3:omega-6 ratio is not, necessarily, inherently problematic. Omega-6 doom-sayers argue that consumption of short-chain omega-6 (linoleic acid) ties up the pathways our bodies use to convert short-chain omega-3 into usable long-chain omega-3. However, if an individual consumes adequate quantities of long-chain omega-3, conversion pathway considerations are not an issue as EPA and DHA do not require conversion. Moreover, Sisson points out that nearly 70% of U.S. PUFA (and, probably, an even greater percentage of omega-6 specifically) consumption comes in the form of oxidation-prone margarine, shortening and cooking oils (and prepared foods which contain these items). The data can be seen here, http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/sites/default/files/nutrient_content_of_the_us_food_supply/FoodSupply2005Report.pdf (Table 11). In other words, the reason our omega ratio is out of whack is not because we’re eating too many almonds and walnuts, it’s because we’re eating too much margarine, shortening and omega-6-heavy cooking oils. Naturally, if Americans were to eliminate these sources of omega-6, we would instantly have a favorable ratio – if not 1:1, than certainly no worse than the 1:4 target ratio. Also, as Sisson points out, whole foods like almonds, walnuts and avocados contain nutrients which mitigate the deleterious effects of linoleic acid. Sisson does an excellent job of encouraging the reader to step back, relax, put down the food journal and calculator, and simply rely on the intuitive wisdom of a balanced diet. If one eliminates prepared foods and unhealthy fats, opting instead for a diet consisting of a well-balanced assortment of fresh fruits and vegetables, well-sourced proteins, adequate servings of long-chain omega-3 foods (primarily fish), reasonable daily servings of legumes and nuts (dry roasted or raw, not those roasted in rancid omega-6 oils made even more rancid by roasting) and moderate dairy, perfect nutrition and a favorable omega ratio are not simply possible, they are inevitable. Even the esteemed Chris Kresser seems to be coming around to this position.

    • Great conclusion with the exception of raw nuts and seeds. They must be soaked in filtered water about 8 hours with 1 T sea salt and then dried in dehydrator until crisp to neutralize the anti nutrients which protect them when growing from pests. That way the minerals will be available for your body to access. They’re delicious too. Temp shouldn’t exceed 105 degrees to keep enzymes alive