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Is omega-6 good or bad for you?

| DEC 7, 2017

Too much omega-6 isn’t good for us. It stops omega-3 from working and is a major cause of illness and inflammation. The trouble is, biscuits, crisps and chips taste SO good, all of which are made with vegetable oils and are therefore high in omega-6. Often we don’t even realise we are consuming omega-6 fatty acid as it’s hidden in processed and convenience foods.

Around 150 years ago, the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 in our diets was 1:1 – now it’s closer to 1:15 and as high as 1:25 in the US.

However, according to Dr Loren Cordain, ratios are unimportant. It is the “absolute amount” of both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids that determine their biological effects in our bodies.

Here comes the science bit...

Both DHA and EPA and AA have pro and anti-inflammatory effects in our bodies. Excesses of one or the other can produce disease and pathology.  Hence it is the balance of omega-6 fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids which is the important concept. The typical Western diet is overloaded with omega-6 fatty acids at the expense of omega-3 fatty acids.

“The body requires threshold amounts of both fatty acids to operate our metabolic machinery without pathology. Once threshold (absolute) amounts for both omega-6 and omega-3 are achieved, then the concept of ratios of one fatty acid to another become meaningful.” - Dr Loren Cordain.

In layman’s terms this means too much of anything is a bad thing. It is only in the context of the standard Western diet that the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 matters. That’s why for optimal health, it’s not enough to just increase your levels of omega-3. You also need to reduce your intake of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats as well.

What foods contain omega-6?

Although we all need omega-6 in our diet, some sources are healthier than others. And to keep inflammation at bay, it always needs to be consumed in a healthy balance with our omega-3 intake. 

Refined and industrially processed vegetable oils such as corn oil, vegetable oil and sunflower oil contain very high levels of omega-6 but barely any omega-3. Unfortunately, the widespread use of these oils in the typical western diet and the manufacture of most processed foods means our balance of omega-6 to omega-3 is often out of whack. A healthy omega-6:omega-3 ratio is between 1-4:1; the typical western diet can be as high as 20:1. Therefore, avoid these oils and foods that contain them. Instead, cook from scratch and go for foods with a beneficial omega-6 to omega-3 ratio.

Nutritious sources of omega-6 include most nuts and seeds, grass-fed meat and dairy and pasture-raised eggs.

Omega-6 sources to try to avoid or minimise:

  • Corn oil: 2 tbsp contains 14.5g omega-6 and less than 0.5g omega-3
  • Vegetable oil: 2 tbsp contains almost 14g omega-6 and 2g omega-3
  • Sunflower oil: 2 tbsp contains 18g omega-6 and no omega-3

Nutritious sources of omega-6 (with a healthy omega-3 ratio of between 1-4:1) include:

  • Walnuts, chopped (the omega-6:omega-3 ratio is just over 4:1)
  • Hemp oil (the ratio is just over 3:1) 
  • Hulled/milled hemp seeds (3:1)
  • Grass-fed beef (2:1)
  • Pasture-raised eggs (just over 4:1)

Does omega-6 cause inflammation?

Like omega-3, omega-6 is essential to our health and eating foods high in omega-6 does not inevitably cause inflammation. However, what will cause inflammation is not consuming the correct balance of omega-6 and omega-3 sources. 

These two essential fatty acids have opposing effects; in simple terms, omega-6 turns on inflammation, and omega-3 turns off inflammation. Inflammation is the body's normal response to injury or illness and prompts healing. However, too much omega-6 can mean the inflammation signal doesn't get dialled down, resulting in persistent inflammation, which can lead to ill health and chronic disease. To avoid this, focus on removing foods very high in omega 6 (think processed seed and veg oils) and upping those rich in omega-3 (oily fish, fish oil, algae oil). 

Ideally, we should be eating a ratio of between 1-4:1 of omega-6 to omega-3.

What are the symptoms of too much omega-6?

Scientific research does not suggest specific symptoms related to consuming too much omega-6. However, a diet too high in omega-6 (and too low in omega-3) can contribute to inflammation which, if it persists, can cause and contribute to other illnesses .

There are many widespread signs and symptoms of chronic inflammation. The most prevalent being:

  • Joint pain
  • Fatigue
  • Skin rashes
  • Depression/anxiety
  • Weight gain/inability to lose weight

Does omega-6 cause weight gain?

If consumed in a healthy ratio to omega-3, eating omega-6 will not cause weight gain. However,  persistently consuming too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3 will contribute to inflammation in the body, which may ultimately lead to weight gain  and other inflammatory conditions.

One of the most reliable ways to ensure you are consuming enough omega-3 is to supplement with fish or algae oil. Two capsules of Life and Soul Daily Capsules contain 1460mg of omega-3. For those following a plant-based diet, two capsules of Vim & Vigour Vegan Omega-3 contain 750mg of omega-3. 

There are different types of omega-3 fatty acids, the main ones being alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), all of which are essential, meaning we must include them in our diet, and all of which have their unique health benefits. 

The good news is that the body can convert ALA to both EPA and DHA; the bad news is that this conversion is often inefficient and unreliable. Saying that, as a vegan, including healthy sources of ALA in your diet will contribute to your daily omega-3 intake.

The best vegan dietary sources of ALA include:

  • Flax seed oil: 1 tbsp contains just over 7g of ALA. Do not use flax seed oil for cooking as it will oxidise quickly. Instead, use it in salad dressings and smoothies.
  • Flax seeds: 2 tbsp contain over 3g of omega-3s (as well as other beneficial nutrients) but remember to grind them before you eat them: the whole seeds tend to pass straight through the digestive system, meaning you will miss out on their nutritional benefits. 
  • Hulled/milled hemp seeds: a tasty and nutritious addition to any smoothie or salad, 2 tbsp contain almost 2g of ALA
  • Chia seeds: these tiny seeds pack 3.5g ALA into 2 tbsp 
  • There are also small amounts of ALA  in green vegetables, such as spinach and kale, so don't forget to include these in your daily diet.

Traditionally, the best sources of EPA and DHA have been fish and seafood products, so no good for vegans. The best way for vegans to get these essential fatty acids, avoiding the unreliable conversion from ALA, is through eating microalgae and seaweeds. The minimum recommended omega-3 intake is 250mg/day of combined EPA/DHA, and just two capsules of Vim & Vigour Vegan omega-3 contain 500mg DHA, 250mg EPA, and 4 mg of astaxanthin, a powerful antioxidant. 

How to cut down on omega-6

"People want cheap treats and the food industry has responded by using highly-processed vegetable oil, which is cheap to produce and can be made into any consistency”. Dr Alex Richardson, founder of Food and Behaviour Research and senior research fellow at Oxford University.

Vegetable oil is the main culprit responsible for boosting our omega-6 intake. Sunflower oil, soy bean oil and corn oil are widely used in processed foods and in many homes, despite the fact they have little nutritional value and are responsible for a number of modern diseases. “I can’t believe they haven’t been banned,” states Dr Richardson.

Even if you follow a healthy diet with no processed foods, you may be eating too much omega-6 without realising it. Locally sourced, organic rapeseed oil seems like a healthy choice for you and the environment, but it is chock-full of omega-6. Similarly fresh meat from your butcher will contain omega-6, unless it is from grass-fed animals as cows and chickens are frequently fed corn and soy, which are high in omega-6 and low in omega-3s. And those posh vegetable crisps?  Yep, cooked in vegetable oil.

According to Dr Richardson there are three key things you can do to reduce omega-6 in your diet:

  • Swap the vegetable oil you cook with for traditional fats like butter and lard
  • Avoid processed foods
  • Eat grass-fed beef and chicken; animals raised on industrial farms are frequently fed corn and soy which, in turn, makes the meat high in omega-6s and low in omega-3s
  • Swap meat for fish a few times a week

Coconut oil is also becoming increasingly popular as a healthier and vegan option in many households. We choose the fair trade, ethically sourced brands.  

Read the label on everything in your home. You’ll be surprised at how much contains omega-6.

It's important to supplement with a high-strength omega-3 to keep your levels of omega 3-6 balanced. Read more about the delicate omegas balancing act in our Benefits of omega-3 fish oil guide

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