Most of us have heard about the importance of getting in our omega-3's. But what exactly is an omega-3? Well, it's technically an essential fatty acid, emphasis on the word "essential". This is a type of polyunsaturated fat (vs. a saturated fat) that cannot be produced by the body, therefore we have to look to food sources to obtain it. Omega-3 fatty acids aren't the only kind we should be paying attention to, however! There's also omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids, all of which are extremely beneficial to the body and needed in particular quantities and from various sources. Almost every type of omega fatty acid has its own subtypes - confusing, right? Let me break down the types, sources, and benefits of each to help you understand why we need them and how we can get them in our diet on a daily basis.
Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acid
As mentioned before, this is a type of polyunsaturated fat that must be obtained through the diet. There are three different types: ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), all which have a wide range of benefits to the body. Other than just the difference in chemical structure (I won't bring you back to chemistry class by describing the different double bonds), each type plays its own significant role.
This plant-based type of omega-3 can be found in dark leafy greens, chia, hemp, and flax seeds, winter squash, walnuts, and soybeans. This short-chain omega-3 must be converted into its longer-chain counterparts (EPA or DHA) to be synthesized and utilized in the body, which unfortunately only occurs at a very low rate. Still, ALA plays an important role on its own. Benefits of consuming this omega-3 include improved blood lipid levels, heart rate, blood pressure, inflammatory responses and reduced hardening of the arteries.
This long-chain omega-3 is found mainly in oily fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel and sardines, with microalgae being the dominant plant source available. Along with ALA, EPA is a precursor to the fatty acid DHA, but still plays a role in maintaining overall health. Specific benefits include heart health support, mental development in children, weight management, and joint health. In the brain, EPA is rapidly oxidized compared to DHA which is stored for a longer term. There have been misconceptions that EPA is not as important or beneficial because only trace to little amounts are found within the brain, but we now know that it's due to the speed at which it is used.
Similar to EPA, DHA is found in many fish and fish oils. In general, DHA is required for healthy brain function and development, and is essential for nerve development in the first six months of life. Like other omega-3's, it has many anti-inflammatory properties and contributes to overall enhanced cardiovascular health such as reducing cholesterol and blood pressure. Additionally, both supplemental DHA and EPA have been shown to fight against levels of depression and anxiety and have been shown to almost match the effects of prescription antidepressants! Other benefits of DHA include combating rheumatoid arthritis, menstrual pain, and even asthma. Both DHA and EPA are the best types of omega-3 for hair and skin by regulating oil production, preventing acne, and delaying the aging process.
The World Health Organization suggests that we get at least 0.3-0.5 grams of EPA and DHA daily, as well as 0.8-1.1 grams of ALA. A deficiency of omega-3's in our diet can manifest as many symptoms such as:
- Poor circulation
- Impaired memory (this can lead to long-term cognitive impairment)
- Dry skin
Omega-6 Essential Fatty Acid
Similar to omega-3 fatty acids, omega-6's are a polyunsaturated fat that cannot be synthesized in the body, thus we have to look to foods and supplements to obtain them. While there are a few different types of omega-6 fatty acids, some of the most prevalent and commonly recognized are (AA): Arachidonic Acid, (GLA): Gamma-linolenic Acid, and (LA): Linoleic Acid. In our diets, the most commonly consumed omega-6 fatty acid is AA, which is typically found in meats, eggs, and dairy products. While it contributes to muscle growth, brain health, and nervous system maintenance, it's actually not a type of omega-6 we need a ton of! Our Westernized diets already contain more than we need due to large consumptions of vegetable oils and animal products, and excess amounts of this type of fatty acid can lead to excess inflammation in the body. Linoleic Acid is also found in vegetable oils, nuts, butter, and seeds. This type typically gets digested and converted to a more healthful and beneficial omega-6, GLA. However, when we have excess AA in our bodies, it prevents LA from being converted to GLA. A bit tricky, right? This is where the balance between anti- and pro-inflammatory properties can get out of balance. Hemp oil and spirulina are both rich sources of GLA, however, I find that most people (including myself) don't typically have these types of foods stocked in the pantry. A little too boujee for people like me who ball on a budget!
So what should we be eating or avoiding? All in all, I find that the best way to avoid an excess of omega-6 is to swap processed vegetable oils such as corn, sunflower, canola and soybean oil with olive, avocado, or flaxseed oil. We consume foods cooked in vegetable oils every single day without considering how they might be affecting us in the long run. Don't get me wrong, omega-6 is absolutely beneficial and necessary for the body. Some inflammation is required for the body's natural healing capabilities! It's maintaining the balance between omega-3 and omega-6 that is so essential.
For some perspective, it's recommended that we maintain a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 around 4:1. Currently, the average American diet contains a ratio closer to 20:1. Yikes. It makes sense why Americans are suffering from so many different inflammatory-related diseases! With that in mind, don't think that you now have to eat 10 pounds of Alaskan salmon a week to counteract the effects of an excess of omega-6! Instead, try to decrease the consumption of omega-6 while incorporating small amounts of omega-3 for an overall healthier ratio.
The best/healthier sources of omega-6 fatty acids are:
- Hemp oil, hemp seeds
- Flax oil, flax seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Raw sunflower seeds
- Pine nuts
Don't worry about avoiding these foods above to limit your intake of omega-6: it's more-so about limiting refined cooking oils like sunflower, soybean, corn, and canola oil that are hidden in tons of foods such as roasted nuts, packaged snacks, and salad dressings! These oils are cheap to make and typically so refined that they can be added to almost everything. It's no wonder our diets have such an out of whack ratio! By consciously adding in more sources of oily fish or plant sources of omega-3's and limiting refined sources of omega-6, we can better our health in the long term and keep our bodies in balance.
Omega-9 Fatty Acid
Unlike its omega-3 and omega-6 counterparts, this is a type of monounsaturated omega fatty acid that isn't considered "essential" because the body already produces it on its own. Still, it's important for us to obtain this nutrient through food sources to maintain a healthy balance between mono- and polyunsaturated fats! The most significant and widely researched type of omega-9 is oleic acid, especially with the role it plays in cardiovascular health and its anti-inflammatory properties. People might recognize this fat mainly from talk of the "Mediterranean Diet" which promotes a diet rich in monounsaturated and heart-healthy fats.
A diet high in monounsaturated fat promotes a lower level of "bad" cholesterol (VLDL), less inflammation in the body, and better insulin sensitivity. Replacing a diet high in saturated fat with a diet high in monounsaturated fat has been shown to be extremely beneficial in regards to metabolic health, especially for diabetics!
Sources of omega-9 fatty acids:
- Olive oil/olives
- Avocados/avocado oil
- Wild-caught salmon
- Sesame oil
This isn't a type of omega fatty acid you really need to worry about getting enough of. The idea is to consume healthy and mainly unsaturated fats in general which alone will provide you with all the omega-9 fatty acids you need!
Long story short, omega fatty acids can get to be a little confusing. What they are, where to get them, what to avoid... it's a lot of information! Key things to take away from this post - try to work in at least one significant source of omega-3 each day, whether it be from oily fish, chia seeds, other nuts and seeds, or leafy greens. As I mentioned, not all omega-3's are considered equal, so it's important to rotate between a variety of foods! For those who can't stand fish or seafood, consider a high-quality fish oil supplement if you feel that you're experiencing omega-3 deficiency symptoms. If you're worried about that, check with your doctor for a proper assessment.
Omega-6 fatty acids are essential to the body for proper health. It's the source and balance of it that we should be most concerned about! Like I said, aim to limit refined cooking oils and swap for more heart-healthy options. By doing that and adding in sources of omega-3's throughout the week, you'll already be on your way to building a healthy ratio!
Omega-9's are those super heart-healthy, monounsaturated fats that you can find in avocados, olive oil, and many nuts. Even though the body already technically provides us with this fatty acid, it's still important to focus on obtaining these types of fats every single day!
We're way past the old "fat makes you fat" fad that followed us into the late 2000's. Healthy fats are essential for hair and skin health, a strong cardiovascular system, and keeping our metabolism and insulin levels in check. Don't be afraid to incorporate fats into every single meal and snack!
As a reference, check out this bar graph to compare the levels of omega-3, -6, and -9 in various fat sources.