Unless you’ve been living in the woods without TV or internet for the past decade, you’ve probably heard a lot about omega-3s, the fatty acids found in fish oil supplements. However, there’s another key omega that might not be on your radar: omega-6s. These lesser known fatty acids also have major impacts on your health and well-being—read on for what you should know about them.
Both omega-3s and omega-6s are polyunsaturated fats, which are considered heart-healthy, says dietitian Amy Goodson, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., L.D. Our bodies can’t make all of these fatty acids (called ‘essential fatty acids’) on their own or synthesize others efficiently, so we need to get them from food.
Though both play a role in cell formation and development and immune function, they have a number of key differences. Omega-3s support the body’s inflammatory response, healthy cholesterol levels, and overall heart health, says dietitian Jenny Dang, R.D. They also support joint, brain, and eye health.
There are three types of omega-3s: DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), and ALA (alpha linolenic acid). You can find DHA and EPA in animal sources such as grass-fed beef and fatty fish like salmon and tuna, while you can find ALA in flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts.
While omega-3s wear a health halo, omega-6s often get a bad rap for their ability to trigger inflammatory responses in the body—but that doesn’t quite tell their whole story. Omega-6s actually play a lot of important roles, including supporting hair and skin growth, bone health, and a healthy metabolism, says Dang. They’re also crucial for growth and development and brain and reproductive health. You can find these fatty acids in meat, but many of the omega-6s in the American diet come from vegetable oils (like soybean, corn, sunflower, and cottonseed oil) that are added to packaged foods.
Omega-6s Gone Wrong
Both omega-3s and omega-6s are key to a healthy diet—in the right ratio. “The goal with omega-6s and omega-3s is to have a happy little balance,” says Goodson. Research suggests we should eat a four-to-one ratio of omega-6s or omega-3s (or lower) for optimal health. The issue is, the standard American diet comes in at closer to a 20-to-one ratio. Omega-6-containing oils are so common in processed and fast foods that many Americans consume far more than they realize, she says.
Eating such an omega-6-heavy diet can promote inflammation in the body and lead to a number of health issues. According to research published in Nutrients, excessive omega-6 intake can promote blood clotting and plaque buildup in the arteries and contribute to conditions like obesity and diabetes. Plus, an excess of omega-6s can also exacerbate symptoms and inflammation for those with conditions like autoimmune diseases or type 2 diabetes, Goodson says. Research even suggests that such an imbalance of omega-6s and omega-3s in the diet can impact risk for certain cancers.
Balancing Your Omega Intake
The negative health effects of an out-of-whack omega balance are no joke—so how can you tip the scales back in the right direction? Since so many Americans take in crazy amounts of omega-6s, your first task is to cut down on your intake (because it’s probably too high).
We need just about 12 to 17 grams of omega-6s per day (about 108 to 153 calories), an amount that can be surpassed with just one ride through the drive-thru or stop in the snack aisle, says Dang.
Start by swapping out one processed or packaged meal or snack a day with a whole food, recommends Goodson. “If you’re limiting your intake of omega-6s, you improve your ratio even if you don’t change your intake of omega-3s,” she says. Once that becomes habit, find another processed food to swap out.
Once you’re a master omega-6 swapper, you can begin focusing on incorporating more omega-3-rich foods into your diet. (The jury is still out on just how much EPA and DHA we need daily, but the National Institutes of Health recommends men shoot for 1.6 grams of ALA per day, while women shoot for 1.1 grams a day.) Boost your intake of all three omega-3s by eating fish twice per week and omega-3-enriched eggs, adding walnuts to cereal, yogurt, and salads, snacking on edamame, or through supplementation.