Without question, each of us needs omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in our diet. But the balance between the two has recently become the center of a hot debate.
These two key polyunsaturated fats are called “essential fatty acids” because our bodies can’t manufacture them; they must come from the foods we eat. Each has its own actions in the body, often opposing each other: omega-6s, for example, are converted in the body to substances that assist in responding to inflammation and bleeding; omega-3s, by contrast, convert to substances that slow blood clotting and decrease inflammatory responses. Together, they work as a check-and-balance system of sorts, and some researchers argue that our modern Western diets have thrown that balance out of whack.
Throughout most of human history, since our Paleolithic ancestors first hunted game, speared fish and gathered wild greens, humans have eaten a diet that kept the omega-6 to omega-3 balance fairly equal—”close to a 2 to 1 ratio,” notes Artemis Simopoulos, co-author of The Omega Diet. This pattern continues in the traditional diet of Crete, where heart disease and cancer rates are among the lowest in the world.
But in the United States, omega-6 fatty acids now dominate the ratio because people are eating more processed foods, such as chips and packaged cookies, which are made with high-omega-6 oils like soybean or cottonseed. Our meats, poultry and dairy products have also become more omega-6 heavy as we feed our animals grains instead of grasses. Today, the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio hovers around 17 to 1, says Simopoulos, explaining that this imbalance is a key contributor to the modern plague of heart disease. “Major dietary studies have shown that when people are fed diets that lower this ratio, their death rates from heart disease fall significantly.”
Not everyone agrees that increased omega-6s threaten our health, however. Frank Hu, of the Harvard Nurses’ Health Study, argues that omega-6s also have beneficial effects on heart-disease risk. “Because omega-6 has very strong LDL-lowering effects, it actually lowers the LDL to HDL ratio, which is the most powerful predictor of heart disease.” Reducing omega-6 levels, then, would take away some of those benefits.
Although he is skeptical, Hu suggests the following for anyone who wants to lower their omega-6 to omega-3 ratio: focus on getting more omega-3s, rather than cutting omega-6s, by eating more fish, freshly ground flaxseeds and walnuts, and by using oils that provide omega-3s, like canola and walnut.
Simopoulos counters, “If you have too many omega-6s, you can’t use omega-3s as efficiently. To get the full benefit of omega-3s, you must lower the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio.” She recommends following a dietary pattern similar to that of the traditional diet of Crete: vegetable-and-fruit laden, low in saturated fats, generous in omega-3s and stingy with omega-6s. “It is the diet on which humans evolved, and which our genetic profile has adapted to.”
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