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Healthy fats: what are omega 3 and 6 benefits?

 

Healthy fats – to some of us, this term may seem like a contradiction, but they really do exist! Take fish, for example: fish is healthy – mainly because it contains a lot of omega-3 fatty acids that benefit our health on many levels. For many people these days, however, the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids is completely out of balance.

The Inuit, the natives of Greenland, traditionally survive almost exclusively on a diet of fish, whales and seals. Despite this rather monotonous, high-fat diet, they are surprisingly healthy. That might also be because fat is not just fat after all. The Inuit’s staple foods contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which has led researchers to take a much closer look at the health benefits of unsaturated fatty acids.

It is now clear that, during the course of evolution, the Inuit developed a gene mutation that provides their bodies with a unique lipid metabolism. Their high-fat diet is far less healthy for most people around the world than it is for them. But thanks to the Inuit, we now know more about unsaturated fatty acids and their positive effects on our bodies.[1, 2]

Curious to find out how unsaturated fatty acids omega 3 and omega 6 interact and which health benefits they offer you? Which problems arise with an omega-3 or omega-6 deficiency? How can you test your omega levels, and how can you optimise your omega levels through your diet and nutritional supplements? Read on for more insights into omega-3 and omega-6 benefits.

What are fatty acids?

Fatty acids such as omega 3 and omega 6 are chemical compounds, which are important components of the fats in our diet. A fat molecule is usually made up of the alcohol glycerol as well as three fatty acids. These fatty acids are monocarboxylic acids and contain a long carbon chain.

In general, all types of fats have the following functions in the body:

  • To act as an energy source: one gramme of fat provides just under nine kilocalories
  • To enhance taste
  • To generate heat
  • To act as an energy reserve
  • To act as components of cell membranes, necessary also for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, K)

What are saturated and unsaturated fatty acids?

Fatty acids can be divided into two different categories: namely, saturated fatty acids and unsaturated fatty acids, the latter of which include omega 3 and omega 6. Unsaturated fatty acids have double bonds between their carbon atoms and therefore differ in their chemical structure from saturated fatty acids.

The type of fatty acid critically determines the properties of a fat – that is, whether a fat is liquid or solid and whether it can be heated. Fats that are predominantly made up of unsaturated fatty acids are usually liquid at room temperature – with oil being a good example of this. Saturated fats, such as those found in meat and butter, however, are usually solid.

Saturated fats

Unsaturated fats

Butter

Olive oil

Coconut oil

Rapeseed oil

Palm oil

Sunflower oil

Red meat and oily sausages

Fish

Saturated fatty acids are considered to be unhealthy fats. They stimulate the body’s own cholesterol production and increase the level of triglycerides in the blood. Triglycerides serve as sources of energy, but they can also promote the development of cardiovascular diseases when present in high quantities. They are not harmful to health in general – with recent studies having even proven that saturated fatty acids promote various health benefits. Because they can raise cholesterol levels, saturated fat should not account for more than ten per cent of your daily calorie intake.

Curious about ways to lower cholesterol levels? Head over to our dedicated Health Portal blog article on cholesterol levels and high blood pressure. If you’re concerned about your cholesterol levels, you can additionally take a cholesterol test, which determines your total cholesterol, HDL, LDL, and triglycerides as well as the LDL/HDL ratio.

What is meant by trans-fatty acid?

Trans-fatty acids are found in small amounts in beef and cow’s milk. They are especially present when oils are industrially hardened or when unsaturated fatty acids are heated intensively for a long time – for example, when frying. Trans fats are not only found in fried foods – such as chips – but also in spreads, biscuits and many bakery products.

Larger amounts of trans-fatty acids are harmful to your health and increase the risk of arteriosclerosis and other diseases. They can quickly lead to blood clots, leading subsequently to impaired blood circulation. In addition, trans fats increase ‘bad’ LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol levels, causing micro-inflammation in our cells.[3] Trans-fatty acids are thus really unhealthy fats.

impact of omega 3 and omega 6 on blood vessels

What are unsaturated fatty acids?

Essential fatty acids, such as the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid and the omega-6 fatty acid linoleic acid, can not be produced by the human body. They need to be consumed via our diets.

Alpha-linolenic acid is converted into docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in the body. DHA and EPA are also known as active omega-3 fatty acids – which our bodies can use directly to convert into multiple health benefits.

The importance of omega 3: omega-3 benefits

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids – that is, fatty acids with multiple double bonds on their carbon atoms. The position of the first double bond between the carbon atoms determines whether it is an omega-3 or an omega-6 fatty acid. If the first double bond is at the third carbon bond, it is an omega-3 fatty acid. When it occurs at the sixth carbon bond, it is then referred to as an omega-6 fatty acid.

Omega-3 function: why do we need omega 3?

Omega-3 benefits are numerous. This fatty-acid group, like other fats, are energy sources and components of cell membranes. In addition, they perform a wide range of functions in the body. These include:[3]

  • Formation of tissue hormones
  • Antioxidant activity
  • Blood dilution (anticoagulation) and lowering of blood pressure
  • Strengthening of the immune system and protection against infections
  • Vasodilation

Your body will be able to perform all these functions better when it receives a sufficient amount of omega 3. Several studies have shown in recent years that fatty acids can help to prevent or treat certain diseases.

Where omega 3 is needed in our bodies

How does omega 3 help the heart?

Much research has been done on the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on heart health. The American Heart Association and researchers at Harvard University recommend eating omega-3-rich fish regularly to prevent heart disease and reduce the risk of premature death.[33]

In studies conducted, omega-3 benefits included:[29–31]

  • lowering the risk of a heart attack by 19 to 45 per cent,
  • lowering the risk of death from cardiovascular diseases by 45 per cent, and
  • bringing cardiac arrhythmias under control.

In animal studies involving mice, omega-3 fatty acids counteracted inflammation in the blood vessels – a possible indication that they might be effective in preventing and treating arteriosclerosis. However, no clinical studies on humans have confirmed this.[32]

People with cardiac insufficiency should be careful when introducing omega 3 into their diets, however. Fatty acids can reduce cardiac excitability, which lowers heart activity and can present problems in an already weak heart.[3]

banner to omega 3 test

How does omega 3 help your brain?

Omega-3 fatty acids also find their way into brain cells – and may, according to some studies, exert positive effects on the development of the brain and the psyche. In a number of studies, omega-3 supplements have been shown to lower the risk of depression and anxiety disorders and to improve the severity of psychoses.[34, 36–39]

Omega 3 may also have effects on neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s dementia. An omega-3-rich diet may, according to some studies, slow the progression of Alzheimer’s and improve the mood of those affected.[41–43]

Studies on children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have also shown that omega-3 supplements might enhance alertness and reduce hyperactivity.[27, 45]

Have omega-3 fatty acids made humans more intelligent? Some scientists have suggested that humans have only become so intelligent over the course of evolution because the unsaturated fatty acids in our diet have caused our brains to grow faster.[40]

Does omega 3 boost the immune system?

The anti-inflammatory effect of omega-3 fatty acids may also help to boost the immune system. This could have a positive impact on immunodeficiency as well as autoimmune diseases such as rheumatism, asthma and Crohn’s disease – the latter of which showed signs of improvement after the introduction of high-dose omega-3 supplements in studies.[46–49]

You can generally test your immune system health by measuring the presence of lymphocytes in your blood. With some immune system tests, you can take a blood sample at home and send it in to a certified laboratory for analysis. The results from such home health tests will reveal your lymphocyte count and sometimes even give you useful tips on how to improve your immunity.

Omega-3 benefits for pregnant women and children

In children, fatty acids are thought to play a key role in the development of the brain. Studies have found that, among other benefits, omega 3 positively influences reading, concentration and attention. So as a parent, it’s worth making sure that your child is receiving enough omega-3 fatty acids.[13, 14] Pregnant and breastfeeding women should additionally ensure they receive sufficient doses of omega 3 – it is likely that omega 3 promotes the foetus’ physical and mental development as it grows in the womb.[53]

There is a catch, however. Certain omega-3-rich fish species – especially large predatory fish such as tuna, halibut, swordfish and eel – often contain high levels of the toxic heavy metal mercury. Health authorities recommend that pregnant women and children avoid these fish species because mercury can disrupt the development of the nervous system. Species such as salmon, herring and cod are less toxic.

To find out more about the ideal diet during pregnancy and breastfeeding, head over to our Health Portal article now.

Which omega-3 fatty acids are important?

Individual fatty acids differ in how many carbon atoms they have. The most important omega-3 fatty acids include:

  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) – 18 carbon atoms
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) – 20 carbon atoms
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) – 22 carbon atoms

The right diet: foods high in omega 3

Alpha-linolenic acid is found in certain plant-based foods – and in larger quantities especially in linseed oil, rapeseed oil, chia seeds and walnuts. In the body, ALA is converted into the two fatty acids DHA and EPA. However, an amount of these fatty acids can be lost during this conversion process, meaning that ALA will often only produce small amounts of EPA and DHA.

Foods high in omega 3

Alpha-linolenic acid in mg/100 g

Linseed oil

52,800

Chia seeds

19,000

Walnuts

10,172

Rapeseed oil

8,584

It is more effective to consume EPA and DHA directly via foods. However, the two omega-3 fatty acids are usually only found in fish from the ocean. Salmon, mackerel, herring, tuna and sardines are the fish species boasting the highest omega 3 content, giving us thus great omega 3 benefits.

It is recommended that you purchase your fish from sustainable sources, as some fish species – such as wild salmon – are increasingly under threat of overfishing. Ways you can do your bit for the planet include purchasing Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)-certified products, for example.

Fish species

EPA in g/100 g

DHA in g/100 g

Omega 3 (total) in g/100 g

Tuna

1.4

1.2

2.6

Salmon

0.7

1.9

2.6

Matjes herring

0.7

1.2

1.9

Mackerel

0.6

1.1

1.7

Sardine

0.6

0.8

1.4

Why does fish contain such a large amount of omega 3? Cold-water fish feed mainly on algae and crustaceans that contain large amounts of the omega-3 fatty acids ALA, EPA and DHA. The fish depend on these fatty acids: without them, their cell membranes would solidify in the cold temperatures of the sea.[4]

How much omega 3 do I need per day?

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recommend at least 250 milligrammes of omega-3 fatty acids per day – that’s what the body needs to effectively maintain cardiac function. However, according to both organisations, two to four grammes of omega-3 fatty acids per day are optimal. Indeed, such amounts have been shown to improve conditions such as coronary heart disease and depression, for instance.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends different amounts of omega 3 according to age group:

Daily omega-3 requirement in milligrammes (mg) according to the NIH:

Age

Men

Women

From birth to 6 months

500 mg

500 mg

From 7 to 12 months

500 mg

500 mg

From 1 to 3 years

700 mg

700 mg

From 4 to 8 years

900 mg

900 mg

From 9 to 13 years

1,200 mg

1,000 mg

14 years and older

1,600 mg

1,100 mg

To consume more than two grammes of omega 3 per day, you would need to consume five grammes of linseed oil per day. But this intake is easier to achieve with oily fish: just two meals a week containing saltwater fish are enough to meet your requirements.

What should my omega-3 level be?

In the Western world, most people do not consume enough omega 3. For example, the Association of UK Dieticians recommend eating two meals of roughly 140 grammes of fish per week.[12] If you are concerned about your omega 3 levels, it is recommended that you test your omega levels – either with a doctor or with a simple at-home omega-3 test.

If you are vegetarian or vegan or if you do not eat fish for other reasons, you may find it difficult to consume enough EPA and DHA fatty acids through your diet. In this case, you should consider introducing vegan omega-3 supplements into your diet. For more information on a vegan diet, visit our Health Portal article.

What are the functions of omega 6?

Like omega-3 fatty acids, omega-6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids. You can distinguish them from omega-3 fatty acids by their chemical structure: for omega-6 fatty acids, the atomic double bond is located at the sixth carbon atom.

The most important omega-6 fatty acids are:

  • Linoleic acid – 18 carbon atoms
  • Gamma-linolenic acid – 18 carbon atoms
  • Arachidonic acid – 20 carbon atoms

Among omega-6 fatty acids, linoleic acid is an essential fatty acid that our body cannot produce on its own. If we consume linoleic acid through our diet, the body can use it to form gamma-linolenic acid and arachidonic acid.

Omega-6 benefits: why do we need omega-6 fatty acids?

Are omega-6 fatty acids as bad as their reputation, or are there omega-6 benefits we should consider? Omega-6 fatty acids in many ways represent the antagonists of omega-3 fatty acids. The functions of omega 6 include:

  • Vasoconstriction
  • Coagulation of the blood
  • Blood pressure regulation
  • Lowering cholesterol levels
  • Growth and repair processes

Omega-3 fatty acids are said to have an anti-inflammatory effect, whereas omega-6 fatty acids are said to promote inflammation. This is because arachidonic acid forms certain tissue hormones, which in turn generate free radicals. The free radicals attack the body’s own cells, resulting in inflammation.

Which foods contain omega-6 fatty acids?

Omega-6 fatty acids are found primarily in plant-based foods:

Foods

Omega-6 content in mg/100 g

Safflower oil

74,500

Corn oil

53,510

Soybean oil

50,418

Pumpkin seed oil

50,000

Olive oil

9,763

Sunflower oil

3,606

Coconut oil

1,800

Avocado

1,689

Beef

310

How much omega 6 per day?

The Food and Nutrition Board of the US Institute of Medicine recommends that adult men take 14 grammes of linoleic acid per day and that women take 11 grammes.[15]

Is there such thing as an omega-6 deficiency? In fact, most people in the United States and Europe consume sufficient amounts of omega 6, and an omega-6 deficiency is extremely rare. It is much more common that people from these regions suffer from omega-3 deficiency, meaning that there is an imbalance of fatty acids. This is why it is important to check your omega-3 levels if you suspect that you have this particular nutrient deficiency.

Omega 6 foods

Striking a balance between omega 3 and omega 6

If you want to fully take advantage of the omega 3 and 6 benefits in your diet, the ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids in your body is crucial.

What is the ideal omega-6-to-omega-3 ratio?

Some scientists assume that our ancestors as hunter-gatherers still managed to maintain a ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 of 1 to 1 – and evolution has tuned our bodies to this ratio.

However, this ratio is barely achievable with our modern diet, which includes a plethora of omega-6-containing foods. An omega-3-rich fish lands much less frequently on our plate than a piece of bread with omega-6-rich margarine or as food that is fried or dressed in plant oil. Specialist organisations such as the German Nutrition Society therefore recommend a ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 of 5 to 1.[16]

But most of our diets in the Western world deviate considerably from these recommendations. It is estimated that the ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 is 15 to 1 on average, and other figures even report values of up to 30 to 1.[17, 18, 19] In Europe and the United States, in particular, many more omega-6-containing foods are consumed than foods containing omega 3. For most people, it makes sense to deliberately consume fewer omega-6 fatty acids and a greater number of omega-3 fatty acids.

In this table, you can see the relationship between these two types of fatty acids in various foods:[20]

Omega 3 and omega 6 foods

Omega-6-to-omega-3 ratio

Salmon (100 g)

1:12

Tinned tuna, preserved in oil (100 g)

15:1

Tinned tuna, without oil (100 g)

1:20

Almonds (20 g)

1987:1

Sunflower seeds (20 g)

312:1

Sunflower oil (1 tsp)

120:1

Margarine

80:1

Linseed oil (1 tsp)

1:4

Olive oil (1 tsp)

11:1

Spinach (100 g)

1:5.4

Carrots (100 g)

57:1

Cereals in general

10:1

Did you know that the Inuit, who eat omega-3-rich fish, seals and whales, eat a greater amount of omega 3 than omega 6. Their ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 lies between 1:2 and 1:4.[21]

Why is the ratio between omega 6 and omega 3 important?

Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids regulate processes in the blood vessels and are involved in inflammatory processes. Omega-3 fatty acids dilate blood vessels, improve blood flow and inhibit inflammation, while omega-6 fatty acids have the opposite effect. They constrict the blood vessels, promote blood coagulation and are pro-inflammatory.

Omega 3 (eicosapentaenoic acid)

Omega 6 (arachidonic acid)

vasodilator

vasoconstrictor

anticoagulant

procoagulant

anti-inflammatory

pro-inflammatory

When omega 3 and omega 6are in a state of equilibrium, this is considered to contribute greatly to good health. It can help keep your blood vessels stable, keep your immune system highly functional and help your blood supply the body with essential nutrients.[25]

An excess of omega-6 fatty acids can lead to vasoconstriction and blood clots. In such a case, blood flows less effectively through the arteries and veins, meaning that important nutrients reach the organs and muscles less effectively. In addition, excess omega-6 fatty acids will increase the risk of developing inflammation – for example, in the heart and lungs.[22] Similarly, high levels of omega 6 are often seen in overweight people, and a ratio favouring omega 6 might promote fat cell formation and increase the risk of weight gain.[50, 51]

A severe excess of omega-3 fatty acids may also present its own problems. Studies have linked high levels of omega 3 with an increased risk of prostate cancer and a weakened immune response to viruses and bacteria, among other things. However, it is certainly difficult to ‘overdose’ on omega 3 with the food we eat. Such cases only occur when people consume high-dose omega-3 supplements.[23, 24]

What are typical omega-3 deficiency symptoms?

If omega-3 deficiency and an excess of omega 6 is present, the following problems may occur:[26]

  • Fatigue and depression
  • Bad memory performance
  • Dry skin
  • Heart problems, high blood pressure and vasoconstriction
  • Greater susceptibility to infection

Testing your omega-3 levels

The ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 can be measured in your blood – a laboratory analysis depicts the different fatty acids and their relationship to each other.

How can I test my omega-3 levels?

An omega-3 test not only measure your omega-3 index, but it also measures the all-important ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids within your blood. By taking a simple blood test and sending your sample in to a laboratory, you can find out whether you have an omega-3 or omega-6 deficiency and subsequently then take steps to optimise your omega levels.

To take an omega-3 test, you can take a sample within the comfort of your own home. To do this, take a blood sample yourself by pricking your finger and sending the sample to a specialist laboratory. The laboratory then determines the presence of fatty acids in your blood and calculates the ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 levels in your blood as well as an omega-3 index – that is, the proportion of omega-3 fatty acids in your total fatty acid count. Sometimes, you are even given advice on how to improve your values through your diet or supplement intake.

Omega-3 and omega-6 supplements: which ones are best?

If you want to strike the optimal balance between omega 3 and omega 6 through your diet, you really only have one option: you must eat cold-water fish at least twice a week. This is also a common recommendation from professional organisations, such as the World Health Organization and the German Nutrition Society.

For people who are not partial to fish, this might of course be difficult – as would also be the case for vegetarians and vegans. In these instances, omega-3 supplements can be used to optimise your values.

 

People who should take omega 3 supplements

Which omega-3 supplements should I take?

Good supplements should contain omega-3 fatty acids in their active form – namely, the fatty acids EPA and DHA. This will allow the body to directly utilise omega-3 fatty acids. In addition, as few additives as possible should be present in the supplement so as not to interfere with its effect on the body. Useful additives include antioxidants that make the product last longer.

Normally, dietary supplements are made with omega 3 in the form of capsules or measured liquid doses. Many of the supplements are based on fish oil, so vegetarians and vegans need to pay attention to what the product is made of when buying it. Vegan omega-3 supplements are usually made with algal oil.

Scientists are currently exploring the effectiveness of omega-3 supplements when it comes to promoting fitness. Preliminary studies have suggested that omega-3 fatty acids can promote muscular growth and endurance, as well as shorten recovery periods after exercise.[52]

Omega 3 and omega 6 – at a glance

What are omega fatty acids?

Fatty acids like omega 3 and omega 6 represent a significant proportion of the fats in our diet. As unsaturated fatty acids, they have a characteristic chemical structure: certain atoms in their long carbon chains are linked by double bonds. For omega-3 fatty acids, the first double bond is on the third carbon atom, while for omega-6 fatty acids it is on the sixth.

What are unsaturated fatty acids?

Fatty acids are considered essential if our bodies can not make them on their own, and to obtain them, we need to consume them through our diets. Essential fatty acids include the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid and the omega-6 fatty acid linoleic acid.

Why are omega-3 fatty acids important?

Omega 3 performs many important functions in the body. Among other things, these fatty acids contribute to cardiovascular health and brain function – especially in developing children and immune system health.

Which foods contain omega-6 fatty acids?

Omega 6 is found in many plant-based foods, such as in margarine, sunflower oil, olive oil, pumpkin seed oil and avocados. In the Western world, people tend to eat a lot of omega-6 fatty acids.

Which foods contain omega-3 fatty acids?

The active forms of omega 3 that our body can directly utilise are found almost exclusively in oily fish including mackerel, tuna, salmon and herring. Some plant-based foods, including linseed oil, rapeseed oil and walnuts, contain alpha-linolenic acid, which the body first needs to convert to active omega-3 fatty acids. During this conversion process, some of the fatty acids are lost.

How much omega 3 do I need per day?

Experts recommend one to two meals of oily fish per week to ensure an optimal intake of omega-3 fatty acids. According to experts, at least 250 milligrammes per day are required to ensure that enough omega 3 is available to maintain cardiac function. Two grammes or more are recommended. If you do not eat fish, omega 3 can also be consumed via food supplements that are usually based on fish oil or algal oil.

Why is the ratio between omega 6 and omega 3 important?

Omega 3 has a vasodilating, anti-inflammatory and anticoagulant effect, while omega 6 has a vasoconstrictive, pro-inflammatory and procoagulant effect. Experts suggest a ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 of 5 to 1 or lower in order to achieve a balance and thus an inflammation-neutral state, but in the Western world, the ratio is 15 to 1 on average.

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