The New Fat Problem: Omega 6 fatty acids

With the ‘sugar crisis’ well and truly in the public eye, research is uncovering a new, less well known, problem. A new problem with FAT.

Article Summary:

  • Omega 3 and Omega 6 Fatty acids are essential to health and must be consumed in our diet as they cannot be made by the body
  • The ratio of our fatty acid consumption has changed from around 2:1 Omega 6 to Omega 3 to around 16:1 Omega 6 to Omega 3
  • Many people, including a number of scientists, believe that this change in fatty acid ratio is having a negative impact on our health
  • Omega 6 increases inflammation in the body which has been linked with obesity and heart disease amongst other conditions
  • To reduce the amount of Omega 6 fatty acids we consume we need to reduce our population’s intake of fast and processed food and switch to using an extra virgin olive oil at home
  • To increase Omega 3 consumption, ensure one portion of oily fish is consumed weekly and/or eat a diet rich in foods such as walnuts and flaxseeds

 

What are ‘Essential Fatty Acids’?

Omega 3 and Omega 6 are known as ‘essential fatty acids‘ because they cannot be made by the human body and must be obtained through food. They are essential to health and called polyunsaturated fats because they have many double bonds. Unlike some other fats, they are not simply used for energy or just stored, they are biologically active and play a role in such things as blood clotting, brain function, growth and development and inflammation. The process of inflammation is essential to us – it protects our bodies from infection and injury, but it can also cause damage where an inflammatory response is inappropriate.

The real crux of the matter is the difference and the relationship between Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids and the way in which our consumption of them has changed radically over the last hundred years – potentially impacting on our health.

The Omega-3 and Omega-6 ratio

Omega 3 and Omega 6 should be consumed in a certain ratio. Various studies have looked at our ancestors’ diets and the diets of other peoples. Stephan Guyenet, a researcher from the University of Washington, conducted research which suggested that in the diet of our ancestors, the ratio of Omega 6:Omega 3 was around 2:1-4:1. Other research and anthropological evidence also suggests that human beings evolved on a diet with an Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratio of 1:1.

Today’s ratio among the industrial countries is thought to be 16:1 (Omega 6:Omega 3). This incredible increase over the last hundred years is thought to have completely distorted the natural balance of Essential Fatty Acids in our bodies. The chief culprit in the change to our diet…processed vegetable and seed oils.

So what is the problem with Omega 6?

There is a very complex relationship between Omega 3 and Omega 6.  This is because, generally speaking, Omega 6 mostly causes inflammation and Omega 3 reduces it. Obviously this is problematic if our diet is sixteen times more Omega 6 than Omega 3. A diet such as this is likely to produce more inflammation – and inflammation is involved in most modern diseases including obesity, metabolic syndrome and heart disease.

Unfortunately the modern diet includes a great deal of processed, refined oils – soy oil, sunflower oil and corn oil, amongst others which are all very high in Omega 6 Fatty Acids and therefore are largely to blame for the huge change in the Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratio. All these oils are cheap and used a lot by the food industry, especially in fast food. A well known Doctor and naturopath, Andrew Weil, goes as far to say that he believes that this dietary imbalance may explain the rise in asthma, coronary heart disease and cancer – and also depression, obesity and possibly violence. Joseph Hibbeln, a psychiatrist expert on mental health and fats in diet, supports some of Weil’s theories. He claims that if you bring these Essential Fatty Acids into proportion then a lot of health problems will decline.

Eat more Omega 3s

The more Omega 3 you eat, the less Omega 6 will be available to the tissues to produce inflammation.

Omega 3 on the other hand, is not so readily available in our diet and is mainly found in marine and plant oils.  These foods were readily available to our ancestors. The body needs these fatty acids as building blocks for hormones, which control the immune system, blood clotting and cell growth. The best modern diets are the Japanese diet, where coronary heart disease is 87% lower than in America, despite the higher rate of smoking.

So what is the answer?

The average diet requires no Omega 6 supplements, but increasing Omega 3 alone is not enough – you would have to eat large amounts of Omega 3 foods to counter the huge amount of Omega 6 in our diets.

So…Vegetable oil vs olive oil - Omega 3 fatty acids

  • Cut down on Omega 6 consumption by reducing intake of processed and fast food (where have we heard that before?)
  • Reduce intake of corn, soy and sunflower oil and use extra- virgin olive oil – even for cooking
  • Increase your intake of Omega 3 fatty acids by consuming oily fish once a week and try to increae your intake of foods such as walnuts and flaxseeds which are high in Omega 3.