Anti-Inflammatory Diet: How to Balance Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Tilt the omega fats balance in your favor and turn your body into a powerful anti-inflammatory machine.
Good summary of the importance of a correct Omega 3:6 balance by THE CONCIOUS LIFE to follow on from yesterday’s post on high levels (higher than stated here) of fish oils and benefits to performance
In my last article of chronic inflammation, I mentioned that one of the causes of rogue inflammation is the imbalance levels of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in our diet. This may come as a surprise to some people as we have been brought up to believe that vegetable oils, where most of our omega-6 fats come from, are supposed to be good for health.
If we examine this imbalance closer, it is not hard to see why it is so prevalent. After all, ‘heart-healthy’ vegetable oils such as soybean, safflower, sunflower, corn and cottonseed oil are found in almost every food that we eat, even those served at high-end restaurants and in our own homes. But unknown to many, the high omega-6 and low omega-3 fats profile in these oils (as much as 200:1!) is setting the stage for chronic inflammation to take place.
Even health-conscious individuals can unwittingly tip the omega fats balance against themselves.Even health-conscious individuals can unwittingly tip the omega fats balance against themselves. You can avoid all convenience foods, or even be a strict vegetarian, and yet still have an overwhelming levels of omega-6 fats intake.
The truth is, many healthful foods found in specialty stores are coated with a layer of cheap vegetable oil to enhance their taste and texture. You can be munching on a bag of roasted nuts, thinking that you are supplying your body with potent proteins, minerals and vitamins. But unwittingly, along with the nuts, you are also ingesting a high amount of omega-6 fats that are quietly derailing your best efforts to promote health.
If unchecked, the imbalance between the two omega fats can wreak havoc on our health and pave the way for life-destroying illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, cancer and other inflammatory diseases.
Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fats: A Balancing Act
… diet that is high in omega-6 fatty acids disrupts the balance of pro- and anti-inflammatory agents …Why is it so important to strike a balance between the levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fats in our body? Study showed that an out-of-balance diet that is high in omega-6 fatty acids disrupts the balance of pro- and anti-inflammatory agents in the body, promoting chronic inflammation and elevating the risk of health problem such as asthma, allergies, diabetes and arthritis.
It turned out that omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids both utilize the same enzymes and transport systems to produce biochemicals in our body. When there are more omega-6 fats, greater amounts of inflammatory compounds will be created, and lesser enzymes will be available for omega-3 fats to create chemicals that are anti-inflammatory. What’s even more shocking is that high levels of omega-6 fatty acids can actually replace and reduce omega-3 fats.
In other words, omega-3 and omega-6 fats compete with one another in our body, and the presence of one greatly affects the behavior of the other. Although omega-6 fatty acids are essential for good health, when they cross a certain level, researchers believe that is when they start to edge out omega-3 fats and diminish their benefits.
What does this mean to you? Picture this: If your diet is low in omega-3 fats to begin with, and most of your foods are predominantly prepared with soybean, sunflower, safflower, corn or cottonseed oil, then you are essentially fueling an inflammatory factory even though you may be eating the so-called ‘healthy’ foods!
What are Omega-3 & Omega-6 Fats?
and why plants may not be a good source of omega-3
Ask anyone what is omega-3 fatty acid and most likely you will get the answer ‘fish oil’. But omega-3 fats aren’t found only in fishes, and neither do they consist of just one type of fatty acid.
Omega-3 is actually a term referring to a family of polyunsaturated fatty acids. In this family, you will find a number of members, out of which the most nutritionally notable ones are: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Likewise, omega-6 fatty acids also consist of a group of polyunsaturated fats. The ones of concern are linoleic acid (LA) and arachidonic acid (AA).
Let us take a closer look at the two omega families:
The Omega-3 Fat Family
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA is the parent in the omega-3 family and can be found predominantly in plant sources such as flaxseeds, hemp seeds, walnuts and dark green leafy vegetables. This short-chain fatty acid is considered an essential nutrient because our body cannot produce it on its own. Being the head of the family, ALA can technically be converted into other long-chain omega-3 fats such as EPA and DHA.
But in real life, studies found that the ALA conversion rate in the body is dismally low. In fact, only about 1% of ALA is converted to EPA and negligible amount is turned into DHA. The conversion of ALA is even lower if your intake of omega-6 fats is high. A more direct and efficient way to boost your levels of long-chain omega-3 fats, as research has found, is by taking EPA and DHA-rich foods or supplements.
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). EPA is a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid that is found in oily fish and certain algae such as spirulina. EPA is converted into hormone-like substances called prostaglandins by the body to regulate cell activity and maintain healthy cardiovascular function. The anti-inflammatory properties of EPA, as well as DHA, have been backed by numerous studies, ranging from keeping blood cholesterol levels and depression in check, to stroke and cancer prevention.
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). DHA is another long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fats found in abundance in fatty fish and some algae. In the body, it is the predominant omega-3 fatty acid in the brain and the retina, so an adequate supply of DHA is essential for proper brain, eyes and nerve functions. Low levels of DHA have been associated with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
The Omega-6 Fat Family
- Linoleic acid (LA). LA is the parent in the omega-6 family. Like ALA, it is also considered an essential fatty acid for the body which must be obtained through one’s diet. However, it is more likely that you have an oversupply rather than a lack of linoleic acid due to the high levels of this fatty acid in vegetable oils.
- Arachidonic acid (AA). Arachidonic acid comes mainly from animal sources such as meat, egg and dairy products. It can also be derived from the linoleic acids in vegetable oils. In the body, this long-chain omega-6 fatty acid is found in abundance in the muscles and brain, with almost similar quantities as DHA in the latter. As arachidonic acid is more readily converted to inflammatory compounds, excess levels of AA has been associated with increased inflammation and reduced anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3 fatty acids.
How Much Omega-3 & Omega-6 Do You Need?
At this point, you are probably thinking how much omega-3 and omega-6 fats do you really need? Let us hear what the experts have to say:
- For cardiovascular health, the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids (ISSFAL) recommends a minimum combined total of 500mg of EPA and DHA a day for healthy adults. This amount is found to be effective in reducing the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease significantly.
- For alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the recommended healthy intake by ISSFAL is about 0.7 percent of daily total calories (or about 1.5g when based on a 2,000 calorie diet).
- If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, ISSFAL recommends at least 200mg of DHA per day due to the importance of DHA in fetal and early postnatal brain development. Increased intake of the precursor, alpha-linolenic acid, to elevate DHA levels is far less effective with regard to DHA deposition in fetal brain than the intake of preformed DHA.
- If you are diagnosed with coronary heart disease, the American Heart Association recommends that you consume approximately 1 g/day of EPA and DHA preferably from oily fish, or to consider EPA + DHA supplements in consultation with your doctor.
- The ISSFAL expert group sees no strong evidence to recommend a minimum intake of omega-6 fatty acids. Instead it states that an adequate linoleic acid intake for healthy development is two percent of daily total calories (or about 4.4g if based on a 2,000 calorie diet).
- ISSFAL recognizes that there are possible unhealthy effects of excessive intake of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids. But it stopped short of putting forward an upper limit for linoleic acid due to insufficient data to determine a precise value.
However, it is worth noting that other national bodies have recommended a limit on the consumption of linoleic acid to prevent coronary heart disease and other chronic illnesses. For instance, the Japan Society for Lipid Nutrition recommended the intake of linoleic acid to be reduced to 3-4% of energy in the Japanese diet, which already contains higher amounts of beneficial omega-3 fats than typical western diet.
Tilting the Omega Fats Balance in Your Favor
Okay, since it is so important to keep the two omega fats in balance, cannot we resolve that by just eating more fish, or pop some fish oil capsules?
That is a good start but unfortunately, it is not the whole answer.
Several studies have found that it is not helpful to boost your omega-3 fats consumption without lowering high omega-6 fats intake.
To get more bang for your bucks, you need to lower your omega-6 to omega-3 essential fatty acids ratio to about 2:1. If you follow ISSFAL’s recommendations mentioned earlier and keep your linoleic acid intake to about two percent of your total calories each day, you won’t be too far off.
Note: At this point, it is tempting to think that omega-6 is the ultimate bad guy we should eliminate and omega-3 is the hero we need to have more of. This is a misleading and dangerous viewpoint. Every nutrient has its place, including omega-6 fats, and shouldn’t be eliminated altogether.
The key here is moderation. Anything in excess is bad for us, even if it is good. For instance, we know that extra virgin olive oil is a potent anti-inflammatory food that confers heart-protecting compounds. But it is still full of high caloric fats and over-consumption of any fat can lead to unwanted weight gain and obesity, no matter how good it may be.
How to Lower Omega-6 Fats Intake
With the right attitude in mind, let’s look at some practical ways to bring down the amounts of omega-6 fats in our diet:
Cut Your Omega-6
- Change your cooking oil. After coming this far, this should be an obvious step to take. Vegetable oils that contain obscene amounts of omega-6 and minuscule levels of omega-3 fatty acids should be avoided. The top offenders are grape seed, cottonseed, safflower, corn and sunflower oils. Alternatives to consider are olive, macadamia, avocado and coconut oils. Check out this cooking oil buying guide to learn how to choose the appropriate cooking oil.
- Limit processed foods. This is perhaps one of the best, but admittedly drastic, ways to cut omega-6 fats. But the fact remained that most processed food manufacturers use cheap vegetable oils to mass produce their products. If you choose whole foods over processed ones, you can probably slash a third or more of omega-6 fats from your diet. Take heart, however, if this sounds too ‘revolutionary’. There are other ways to cut down omega-6 fats from your diet.
- Scrutinize food labels like a hawk. This is a life-saving habit everyone should cultivate. Not just to check the fats content in the products that you buy, but also for the other vital information like sodium, protein and ingredients used. This will, in some ways, prevent you from being tricked by clever but often misleading marketing campaigns.
As far as omega-6 fats are concerned, avoid or limit foods that use high amounts of those vegetable oils mentioned in point 1.
Tip: There is actually a free computer program called Keep It Managed version 2 for both PC and Mac that gives you the omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acid contents of over 9,000 food types. Download it if you are concerned about your omega fats intake.
- Be careful of dressings, margarine, mayonnaise and spreads. Lots of omega-6 fats can be hiding in these soybean or vegetable oil-derived concoctions! Instead, look for healthier alternatives made with olive or macadamia oil.
- Opt for fat-free or low-fat foods. If given a choice, choose the lower fat version. This will have to prevent more omega-6 fats from getting into your body. Of course, read the ingredient list to make sure no other harmful additives are added in place of the fats.
- Avoid deep fried foods. Not only are they coated with a thick layer of omega-6 fats, the high temperature cooking process also introduced compounds that could cause cancer.
How to Increase Omega-3 Fats Intake
After taking care of the omega-6s, it is time to tackle the omega-3s:
Boost Your Omega-3
- Be a discerning cat. Contrary to common beliefs, to increase your omega-3 fats intake, you don’t need to eat fish everyday. Eating two portions of fish per week, including one portion of oily fish, is enough to boost your blood levels of omega-3s. Having said that, if you eat seafood other than fish, you may need more portions per week as the omega-3 levels in them are usually lower.
But since almost every sea on this planet has been tainted, it is crucial to choose your seafood careful to make sure you are not ingesting mercury and dioxins along with omega-3s. Some good choices are wild salmon, sardines and anchovies. Check out the Environmental Defense Fund’s website for a useful list of eco-friendly and safe seafood to eat.
- Seek out EPA and DHA fortified foods. Increasingly, we are seeing more products that have been enriched with EPA and DHA for all types of consumers, including vegetarians.
But make sure that the products you choose are also low in omega-6 fats. It won’t do you any good to increase your omega-6 levels further even though you may be getting more long-chain omega-3 fats. And please don’t assume that the omega-3 stamp on the package refers to EPA and DHA. It could well be ALA only. Make sure you see the words EPA and/or DHA clearly printed before buying.
- Don’t dismiss ALA food sources. Alpha-linolenic acid is usually found in plants. Although our body is not quite efficient in converting ALA to EPA and DHA, that does not mean we should eat less fruits and vegetables. Plants such as flaxseeds and dark leafy green vegetables provide us with more than just ALA. They are also important sources of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and antioxidants that strengthen and protect our health.
- Buy free-range or pasture fed meats. As opposed to animals that are grain fed, free-range or pasture fed meats have comparatively higher amounts of EPA and DHA. But still, they are unlikely to beat fish anytime soon.
- Pop EPA & DHA supplements. You should try to meet all your omega-3 requirements through your diet. But if you are a vegetarian, don’t like seafood or suffering from a health condition that may benefit from higher dosage of omega-3s, taking supplement is an option to consider (with your physician’s blessings, of course). Young children who are fussy eaters may also benefit from supplementation.
There are a number of EPA and DHA supplements available. The most popular and most extensively researched is omega-3 fatty acids derived from fish oil. There are also plant-based EPA and DHA supplements that are extracted from algae.
Note: If you are planning to take EPA/DHA supplement, make sure you are not also taking any medication or supplement that may have their effects intensified by omega-3 fats (such as blood thinner and diabetic drugs). Consult a trained health care practitioner if in doubt.
By being more mindful about the foods you eat each day, it is not difficult to attain a well-balanced omega fats profile and shift your body to anti-inflammatory mode. What say you?
8 MIN AMRAP
Reminder this Sundays class is 4PM not 9.30