Anti-inflammatory diet: Balancing omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids

One of the most common causes of chronic inflammation is not having the right fats in your diet.

Surprised? Maybe you thought I’d say sugar? Well, sugar is THE #1 cause, but here’s another rebalancing hint:

The chronic imbalance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in our diet—mostly due to relying on vegetable oils—is right up there causing our inflammatory woes.

If you are just now thinking “no problem, I do low-fat anyway” read on… Your health depends on knowing this.

Especially read on if you are avoiding fat by choosing those enticing to eat with really big “Low Fat” and “No Cholesterol” (as if dietary cholesterol was actually the problem).

But first, what do omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids even do? Why care?

saturated, unsaturated, polyunsaturated fat structureOmega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids are called polyunsaturated because they have many double bonds (poly = many). There are also saturated and monounsaturated fats. All are important for health.

Our bodies don’t have the enzymes to produce them so we must get them from the diet. Both of them. That is why they are termed “essential” fatty acids.

If we don’t get one or the other, then we develop a deficiency and become sick.

Before I came to see the staff at Alaska Health Improvement Center, I was fearful of finding a solution to my health problem. Now I am hopeful for a healthy life ahead of me. —DK

Why care? Because the omega fats are not just used for energy or stored:

  • They are an integral part of cell membranes throughout the body and affect the function of the cell receptors in these membranes.
  • They provide the starting point for making hormones that regulate development, sex hormones, blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and inflammation.
  • They also bind to receptors in cells that regulate genetic function.

Likely due to these effects, omega-3 fats have been shown to help prevent heart disease and stroke, may help control lupus, eczema, and rheumatoid arthritis, and may play protective roles in cancer and other conditions.

Meet the main three omega-3’s:

  1. EPA and especially DHA are directly involved in healthy fetal and infant development
  2. DHA deficiency likely plays a role in decline of mental function in healthy adults
  3. DHA also can shut down genes responsible for out-of-control tumor growth
  4. DHA benefits for other nervous system functions, cardiovascular health, and other organs
  • olive oil healthyomega-3 fatAlpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is found in nuts, flax seeds and flaxseed oil, leafy vegetables, some vegetable oils and some animal fat, especially in grass-fed animals.
  1. ALA is primarily used for energy
  2. A very small amount can be converted into EPA and DHA—very inefficient and limited.

So plants may not be a good source of omega-3, BUT before you go running for fish oil supplements…

IMPORTANT: omega-6 is not a “bad fat”!

Too much omega-6 will give your body more of this genuine building block, and cause the body to make more inflammatory products like certain prostaglandins.

Meet the omega-6 essential fat family

  • Linoleic acid (LA) is the parent in the omega-6 family and over half the fats in safflower oil, grape seed oil, sunflower oil, hemp oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, and soy oil. Like ALA, it can be converted to the other family member. Unlike ALA, this conversion is very efficient and rapid. While we do need these oils for proper skin health, muscle repair and wound healing, their main conversion product, arachidonic acid, is a key inflammatory signal.
  1. We need LA for proper health and deficiencies result in scaly skin, hair loss, and poor wound healing.
  2. And Dr. Greg loves its use as a natural insect repellant: we found a study showing that linoleic acid is released by cockroaches upon death which has the effect of preventing other roaches from entering the area. Newsworthy!  😉
  3. Arachidonic acid is converted to inflammatory compounds, excess levels of AA has been associated with increased inflammation and reduced anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3 fatty acids. The production of these derivatives and their action in the body are collectively known as the “arachidonic acid cascade.”
  • Gamma Linoleic acid (GLA) is an omega-6 fatty acid found mostly in plant based oils such as borage seed oil, evening primrose oil, and black currant seed oil
  • Arachidonic acid (AA) is derived from the linoleic acids in vegetable oils and also obtained from animal sources such as meat, egg and dairy.

Tilting the Omega Fats Balance in Your Favor

The ideal balance of omega-6 to omega-3 is 4:1 or less omega-6. Appreciate this ratio as you consider that the Standard America Diet (SAD) provides a whopping 40:1 omega-6. And, the standard vegan diet is about 20:1. Even if you avoid all convenience foods, or are a strict vegetarian, you can still have an overwhelming levels of omega-6 fats intake.

If unchecked, the imbalance between the two omega fats is what wreaks havoc on our health and paves the way for life-destroying illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, cancer and other inflammatory diseases.

Why is it so important to strike a balance between the levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fats in our body?

“In all the years I’ve had rheumatoid arthritis, I’ve read much literature – and received much advice – on how to reduce the pain. Finally I met Dr. Greg who taught me why, how and when to take specific steps, when to wait on others, and with much detail. Those who take the time to learn and heed can find answers to their chronic pain.” —CY

It turns out that omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids both use the same enzymes and other systems. But what is shocking is that when there are more omega-6 fats, these are used preferentially over omega-3 fats. Even if you eat or supplement with omega-3 fats, if you also eat a lot more omega-6 fats then your body will use the omega-6 fats first. It ignores the omega-3’s.

In other words, omega-3 and omega-6 fats compete with one another in our body. The presence of one greatly affects the behavior of the other. Although omega-6 fatty acids are essential for good health, when they cross a certain level, researchers believe that’s when they start to edge out omega-3 fats and diminish their benefits.

What does this mean to you? Picture this: If your diet is low in omega-3 fats to begin with, and most of your foods are predominantly prepared with soybean, sunflower, safflower, corn or cottonseed oil, then you’re essentially fueling an inflammatory factory even though you may be eating the so-called ‘healthy’ foods!

How Much Omega-3 & Omega-6 Do You Need?

Here’s what the experts say:

Omega-6 Fats:

  • The International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids (ISSFAL) group sees no evidence to recommend any minimum intake of omega-6 fatty acids. Instead it states that an adequate linoleic acid intake for healthy development is two percent of daily total calories (or about 4.4g if based on a 2,000 calorie diet).
  • While ISSFAL does recognize the unhealthy effects of excessive intake of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, they state there is insufficient data to determine an upper healthy limit.

However, it is worth noting that other national bodies have recommended a limit on the consumption of linoleic acid to prevent coronary heart disease and other chronic illnesses. For instance, the Japan Society for Lipid Nutrition recommended the intake of linoleic acid to be reduced to 3-4% of energy in the Japanese diet, which already contains higher amounts of beneficial omega-3 fats than typical western diet.

Omega-3 Fats:

  • For cardiovascular health, ISSFAL experts recommend a minimum combined total of 500mg of EPA and DHA a day for healthy adults as effective in significantly reducing the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.
  • For alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the recommended healthy intake by ISSFAL is about 0.7 percent of daily total calories (or about 1.5g when based on a 2,000 calorie diet).
  • If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, ISSFAL recommends at least 200mg of DHA per day due to the importance of DHA in fetal and early postnatal brain development. Increased intake of the precursor, alpha-linolenic acid, to elevate DHA levels is far less effective with regard to DHA deposition in fetal brain than the intake of preformed DHA.
  • If you are diagnosed with coronary heart disease, the American Heart Association recommends that you consume approximately 1 g/day of EPA and DHA preferably from oily fish, or to consider EPA + DHA supplements in consultation with your doctor.

Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fats: A Balancing Act

Simply boosting omega-3 intake without reducing omega-6 will not work.

Unfortunately, even health-conscious individuals can unwittingly tip the omega fats balance against themselves. All those ‘heart-healthy’ vegetable oils such as soybean, safflower, sunflower, corn and cottonseed oils found in pre-made, pre-packaged foods—clearly labeled so we know they are “cholesterol free”—those oils are super high in omega-6 fats.

During Eating to Restore Balance, I recorded my foods in such a simple way that helped me learn to listen to my body and eliminate foods that irritate my gut.
I also learned to take time for myself; to pay attention to my moods and what causes them. I’m eating clean and really appreciated the day we covered healthy fats. —RK

How to Cut Your Omega-6

With the right attitude in mind, let’s look at some practical ways to bring down the amounts of omega-6 fats in our diet:

  • coconut fat, like other saturated fats, is heat stableChange your cooking oil. Avoid “heart healthy” vegetable oils like cottonseed oil, safflower oil, soy oil, corn oil, grape seed oil and sunflower oil that all contain obscene amounts of omega-6 and minuscule levels of omega-3 fatty acids. An all-around and cost effective cooking oil is extra virgin olive oil. Or choose coconut oil, pasture butter or even lard from grass-fed cows; saturated fats are more heat stable and (despite current propaganda) not unhealthy—you need them also.
  • Be especially careful of dressings, margarine, mayonnaise and spreads. Not only do practically all premade condiments host huge amounts of added sugars, they are also made with cheap soybean or vegetable oil. Make your own, check out the easy options at www.OurNutritionKitchen.com in the condiments section.
  • Limit processed foods. Processed food manufacturers use cheap vegetable oils to mass produce their products. You can easily slash a third or more of the omega-6 fats from your diet by choosing whole foods over processed ones. There are so many quick and easy options to most pre-made foods.
  • Scrutinize food labels like a hawk. This is a life-saving habit everyone should cultivate. Not just to check the fats content in the products that you buy, but also for the other vital information like sodium, protein and ingredients used. This will, in some ways, prevent you from being tricked by clever but often misleading marketing campaigns.
  • Avoid deep fried foods. Although traditional fryers and even McDonalds USED to use rendered beef fat, someone mistakenly thought it was happier and healthier to use all vegetable oils. So now, most commercially-fried foods use a Sysco product that is half corn and half canola oil. You may have heard that canola is high in omega-3 fats. Well, it is higher than other seed oils that is true. However, canola is not low in omega-6 fats—which you now know makes all the difference in the world and especially with the added omega-6-ful corn oil. Plus, neither is heat stable and both introduce compounds that could cause cancer.

The Bottom Line

Please don’t think of omega-6 as the ultimate bad guy we should eliminate and omega-3 as the hero we need to have more of. This is a misleading and dangerous viewpoint. The key is balance.

Rebalancing omega fats is a long-term process.

Most people are storing immense amounts of Omega-6 fatty acids in their body fat stores and it can take years to get rid of them.

And several studies have found that it’s not helpful to boost your omega-3 fats consumption without lowering high omega-6 fats intake.

By being more mindful about the foods you eat each day, it’s not difficult to attain a well-balanced omega fats profile and shift your body to anti-inflammatory mode. Make sense?

References

Sarter B, Kelsey KS, Schwartz TA, Harris WS. Blood docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid in vegans: Associations with age and gender and effects of an algal-derived omega-3 fatty acid supplement. Clin Nutr. 2014 Mar 14. pii: S0261-5614(14)00076-4. doi: 10.1016/j.clnu.2014.03.003. [Epub ahead of print] | link

Chong EW, Kreis AJ, Wong TY, Simpson JA, Guymer RH. Dietary omega-3 fatty acid and fish intake in the primary prevention of age-related macular degeneration: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Arch Ophthalmol. 2008 Jun;126(6):826-33. | link

Hooper L, Thompson RL, Harrison RA, Summerbell CD, Ness AR, Moore HJ, Worthington HV, Durrington PN, Higgins JP, Capps NE, Riemersma RA, Ebrahim SB, Davey Smith G. Risks and benefits of omega 3 fats for mortality, cardiovascular disease, and cancer: systematic review. BMJ. 2006 Apr 1;332(7544):752-60. Epub 2006 Mar 24.

Kornsteiner M, Singer I, Elmadfa I. Very low n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid status in Austrian vegetarians and vegans. Ann Nutr Metab. 2008;52(1):37-47. Epub 2008 Feb 28. 10:1 n-6/n-3 for vegetarian diets and lower LC n-3 levels. (Abstract only).

Kris-Etherton PM, Hill AM. N-3 fatty acids: food or supplements? J Am Diet Assoc. 2008 Jul;108(7):1125-30. (No abstract available.)

Mangat I. Do vegetarians have to eat fish for optimal cardiovascular protection? Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 May;89(5):1597S-1601S. Epub 2009 Mar 25.

Muskiet FA, Fokkema MR, Schaafsma A, Boersma ER, Crawford MA. Is docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) essential? Lessons from DHA status regulation, our ancient diet, epidemiology and randomized controlled trials. J Nutr. 2004 Jan;134(1):183-6. Link

Wang C, Harris WS, Chung M, Lichtenstein AH, Balk EM, Kupelnick B, Jordan HS, Lau J. n-3 Fatty acids from fish or fish-oil supplements, but not alpha-linolenic acid, benefit cardiovascular disease outcomes in primary- and secondary-prevention studies: a systematic review. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006 Jul;84(1):5-17.

Marie Sternquist

Marie Sternquist, MS CHHC is a graduate of the University of Colorado, with 30 years of health-related clinical research published peer-reviewed medical journals, Marie's interests lie in how chemical and metal toxicities affect our health, hormones and immune function—and how to heal these problems with whole foods. In 2014, Marie completed the Health Coach program at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition where she studied 100’s of dietary theories with an emphasis on developing step-by-step nutritional programs and is currently working on her Nutritionist certification through the Masters in Functional Nutrition program and the University of Western States. Marie’s signature nutrition programs have helped thousands of people just like you regain health and quality of life. In 2016, Marie Sternquist completed her Advanced Level in Nutrition Response Testing®, joining her husband Dr. Greg Sternquist as an advanced clinician. Marie is also a wilderness explorer, skier, photographer and mom. Visit her at www.SuccessHealthCoach.com and www.OurNutritionKitchen.com

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