The Real Deal: Omega 3 or Omega 6?
Omega-3’s and omega-6’s seem to have become buzzwords in the world of healthy eating, but what exactly are they? They are different kinds of polyunsaturated fatty acids – omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids – and they are both important to a healthy diet. So why does it seem that omega 6’s are getting so much bad press, while omega-3’s are the media darling? For starters, Americans tend to eat more omega-6’s than omega-3’s, rather than a healthy balance of the two (2). If you imagine a see-saw, both sides need to be holding the correct amount to stay in balance. Our omega-6/omega-3 ratio is like that, and we need the right amount of each. An increased omega-6/omega-3 ratio is thought to be one of the most likely contributors to the increased incidence of cardiovascular disease and inflammatory disorders in our country (3). Omega-6 fatty acids can be converted by the body to prostaglandins, which cause inflammation (1), while the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) can be used by the body to decrease inflammation (1). It should then come as little surprise to know there are more than a dozen randomized controlled trials that show benefits of omega-3 supplementation in rheumatoid arthritis patients (4).
So what does this mean for you? Balance – since both types of fatty acids are an essential part of the diet, it is important to consume each of them, however, focus on trying to consume similar amounts. As omega-6’s tend to be more readily available in the typical Western diet (sources include beef, poultry, safflower oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, and processed foods), trying to reduce your omega-6 intake while boosting your omega-3's may help you obtain the optimal balance. Omega-6 intake can be reduced by limiting processed foods, and choosing olive oil or coconut oil to cook with instead of other vegetable oils like corn, soybean, or sunflower. Animal sources, specifically oily fish, are the best way to consume EPA and DHA outside of a supplement (2). The most common omega-3 in food is Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA), which, while it can be converted by the body to EPA and DHA, may not be efficiently converted (1, 2). Therefore, getting a mix of omega-3’s from plant and animal sources is a good way to ensure you’re getting enough of the inflammation-reducing kinds.
On top of all that, while boosting omega-3’s from foods naturally to help alleviate RA symptoms, you’ll also be protecting yourself from a variety of cancers as omega-3's inhibit certain cancer inducing enzymes (5,6). Below are some tips on increasing your omega-3 intake.
Ways to boost Omega-3 intake:
- Add ground flaxseed to your diet. Store in the fridge and make sure you buy the ground not the seeds unless you plan to grind it fresh in your coffee grinder. Add flax meal to muffins, pancakes, cereals, casseroles, applesauce or yogurt.
- Try a variety of cold-water, oily fishes such as salmon, herring, sardines, or tuna (2). For safe amounts of fish containing mercury visit the Environmental Defense Fund. A bonus of sardines? If you eat the kind that includes the bones, you get an extra dose of calcium as well! Chop them up and add them to pasta sauce over buckwheat, quinoa or brown rice pasta for a tasty dish!
- Throw in some walnuts. You can buy them whole or pre-chopped, and can eat them on their own or add them into salads, muffins, or trail mix. It’s probably a good idea to store these in the fridge as well.
- Chia seeds – packed with omega-3’s and very versatile. Mix in with yogurt, add to homemade granola, or add to a smoothie!
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