I’ve stated before that I reserve the right to change my mind. I think evolving is a key factor in personal growth. Let’s not confuse evolving with flip-flopping. Evolving involves conviction- you form an opinion, you own that opinion, and when you change your opinion, you accept that your earlier belief has changed and you are open about why your opinion has evolved to a new one. Flip flopping involves changing your opinion due to lack of conviction in an attempt to please others.
So in my research on the topic of omega-6:omega-3 ratio (which is of vital importance to me for three reasons I’ll get to later on), I came across an article that really wowed me. One, because I respect the amount of thorough research that went into the article, and that this research is relevant and applicable; and two, because the author started the article saying that he used to hold one opinion, but after much research, he now has a new opinion. His view evolved. Here’s what I said before, here’s what new evidence shows; what I previously thought now seems wrong, and here’s why I am standing behind what I now know is right. I have a lot of respect for that.
Do you eat at restaurants? Do you buy foods with an ingredients list? Do you live in an industrialized nation? If you answered yes to any of these questions, I would strongly encourage everyone to read this article. But just in case you aren’t into it, I’ll give you the short(er) version.
Let’s start with some info on fatty acids. There are two fatty acids I are going to discuss here: omega-3 and omega-6. Both of these are polyunsaturated fatty acids, or PUFAs. Our healthy hunter-gatherer ancestors had an omega-6:omega-3 ratio of 1:1, and they were free of the modern inflammatory diseases like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes (the primary causes of death morbidity today).
Common ratios today are much different story, due to a few factors. One, the advent of the modern vegetable oil industry, and two, the increased use of cereal grains as feed for domestic livestock (which then altered the fatty acid profile of meat we humans consumed). We start to see the shift about the time of the industrial revolution: between 1935 and 1939, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids was to be 8.4:1. From 1935 to 1985, this ratio increased 23% to 10.3:1. Other calculations put the ratio as high as 12.4:1 in 1985. Today, estimates of the ratio range from an average of 10:1 to 20:1, with a ratio as high as 25:1 in some individuals.
Scary fact: Americans today get almost 20% of their calories from a single food source – soybean oil – with almost 9% of all calories from the omega-6 fat alone. Consumption of n-6 fats has increased at the expense of omega-3 fats. This is not good.
There is a boatload of research out there, and many great articles are written for the average person to understand, but I’ll try to sum it up here for those of you who just want the bottom line: Omega-6 is pro-inflammatory, while omega-3 is neutral. The more omega-3 fat you eat, the less omega-6 will be available to the tissues to produce inflammation. 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.
Many of you might be thinking of inflammation like swelling, which is true, but most of us don’t think of it in terms of inflammatory diseases. Elevated omega-6 intakes are associated with an increase in all inflammatory diseases… which is to say virtually all diseases. The list includes (but isn’t limited to):
- cardiovascular disease
- type 2 diabetes
- metabolic syndrome
- irritable bowel syndrome & inflammatory bowel disease
- macular degeneration
- rheumatoid arthritis
- psychiatric disorders
- autoimmune diseases
These are the consequences to human health of an omega-6:omega-3 ratio that is up to 25 times higher than it should be. The relationship between cardiovascular mortality and high omega-6 consumption is particularly alarming. A two–part article entitled Eicosanoids and Ischemic Heart Disease clearly illustrates the correlation between a rising intake of omega-6 and increased death from heart disease, and not surprisingly, the USA is highest in our intake of omega-6 fat and has the greatest risk of death from heart disease.
Recent research has recently expanded our understanding about how omega-3 and omega-3 impact our health:
Linoleic acid (LA; omega-6) converts to arachidonic acid (AA), a precursor for inflammatory cytokines. Alpha linolenic acid (ALA; plant omega-3) converts to the anti-inflammatory precursors EPA and DHA, the omega-3 fatty acids we usually associate with fish oil. Both of these conversions occur along the same rate-limited enzymatic pathway, which means they “compete” for a spot.
If we eat too much linoleic acid, the story goes, our tissue levels of AA will spike and predispose us to excessive inflammation and all the disease fallout that entails. Actually, increasing dietary linoleic acid doesn’t really increase the tissue level of arachidonic acid. Instead, since both linoleic acid and ALA use the same conversion pathway, an excess of linoleic acid does inhibit the conversion of ALA into EPA and DHA, leading to potential deficiencies in the latter nutrients and promoting an inflammatory environment – if you don’t eat preformed EPA and DHA in the form of seafood, pastured animal products, and/or supplements to make up for it.
It appears as if the problem with high ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 is the lack of omega-3, not so much the omega-6. In studies that replace saturated fats with omega-6 fats, the only ones that show benefit are those that also include omega-3s with the omega-6s, while those that replace SFA with just omega-6 increase the risk of death. As long as you’re eating enough fish and other seafood, pastured animals and their fat (and eggs), and/or high quality fish oil supplements, whole food sources of omega-6 shouldn’t increase inflammation. The ratio is a helpful way to monitor your omega-3 and omega-6 intake, but it’s not a physiological law.
So, to grossly oversimplify: eat enough omega-3’s and the omega-6’s won’t be able to horn in and wreak havoc. Easy, right?
Almost. Chances are that if you’re eating any industrial seed or vegetable oils you’ll be way, way over the optimal ratio in no time at all. Check out these omega-6 numbers (per 100g serving):
- Sunflower oil: 65g
- Cottonseed oil: 51g
- Soybean oil: 51g
- Sesame oil: 41g
- Peanut oil: 32g
- Canola and corn oil: 20g
What should your daily omega-6 intake be, omega-3 intake aside? 6 grams.
While you probably (hopefully?!?) don’t have these oils in your pantry, nearly all processed and packaged foods contain these oils, and most restaurant foods are cooked in them because they’re so cheap. If you eat out at restaurants a few times a week, you are most likely significantly exceeding the recommended omega-6 intake. Not good… especially for people with cardiovascular risk factors such as high stress levels (more on that coming soon). Think you can just skip the fries and you’ll be ok? Think again. Salad dressings, sauces, dips, wraps, breads… more than likely contain vegetable oils.
Since not everyone reads lables like I do (read: not everyone is a crazed person like I am), I thought I’d list a few things you might have in your house, and if you see any vegetable oils on their ingredient list, you might want to think twice about consuming them: salad dressings (~52g), store bought mayonnaise (~40g), shortening (~33g), microwave popcorn (~22g), potato chips (~18g). That’s just the serious offenders. The list goes on and on. (Hidden danger: beware of nuts roasted in peanut oil as well… not only are the omega-6’s increased from the oil, but that oil likely oxidized because of a high roasting temperature.)
But, wait… didn’t I say earlier that if you eat enough of the (healthy) omega-3’s they will crowd out the (harmful) omega-6’s? Yes I did. But to “crowd out” the amount of omega-6’s that are consumed by a person eating a standard American diet, they would need to eat about 11oz of salmon every. single. day. Now I really love salmon, but even that seems pretty awful to me.
So, for optimal health, and to reduce risk factors for cardiovascular disease and other inflammatory diseases, what can we realistically do?
Here’s the scoop: We need to limit/eliminate our intake of toxic sources of omega-6’s (vegetable oils, processed foods) and increase our intake of nutrient dense sources of omega-3’s (salmon, pastured eggs, grass fed animals). In doing this, we reduce our likelihood of developing inflammatory diseases as mentioned above. Why is this so important to me? Because both my maternal grandparents suffered debilitating strokes (that affected their lives, but also the lives of their families who then became their caregivers). Because my father and husband both lead high, (high, high)-stress lives. Because I care too much about the children in our family to allow sickness to impact us when it is entirely preventable.
Whereas I have included some figures in this post, I hesitate to include recommendations for numerical amounts of good things to include in our diets because I truly believe that eating should not be a numbers game. It should be a whole foods game. Eat foods as close to their natural state as possible and you are a step ahead. This inevitably means cooking for yourself and your family because most restaurants and convenience food producers aren’t prioritizing your health. So turn off the tv, log out of Facebook, and pick up your kitchen knife. Even better, get in the kitchen with people you love. My motto used to be “get out of my kitchen.” But, I’ve evolved… come on in to the kitchen with me and let’s have some fun cooking together.