What are omega-6 fatty acids?
Although they seem like the outcast of the family of fats, omega-6 fatty acids deserve to share the spotlight. After all, you’ll find notable amounts of these fats in nutritious foods, like nuts, seeds and vegetable oils.
Despite all of the attention given to omega-3s, omega-6s are also good for your body, including your heart.
Just like all other types of fats, there are several different omega-6 fatty acids. The two most common are linoleic acid (LA) and gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). LA is an essential nutrient, meaning your body can’t make it, yet your cells need it to live. That’s where your diet comes in.
Pros and cons of omega-6
Research suggests that a high intake of omega-6s may be associated with inflammation and arthritis. This may happen as your body derives compounds called eicosanoids from these fats, which seem to increase inflammation, per the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism.
However, a growing body of research supports a variety of benefits of omega-6s. The possible link between omega-6 fatty acids and inflammation may not be what it’s cracked up to be. A research review published in Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes & Essential Fatty Acids finds that an increased intake of certain omega-6s – arachidonic acid or linoleic acid – won’t increase inflammation and, in fact, may play a role in reducing it. To ensure this occurs, you need to pair omega-6s with a nutrient-rich diet.
Since omega-6s are unsaturated fats, they’re considered good for your heart and may lower LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol levels. A meta-analysis published in Vasa, the European journal of vascular medicine, found that a greater intake of nuts (which are high in omega-6s) is associated with a lower risk for cardiovascular disease.
What’s more, a meta-analysis in Nutrients finds that there’s no connection between omega-6 consumption and risk of cancer – and a potential for the fats to lower the risk of cancer.
Still, it’s possible that overdoing omega-6s may hinder the anti-inflammatory abilities of omega-3s.
Is the Western diet too heavy on omega-6s?
Your overall diet naturally contains a mixture of various fats. Individual foods that contain fats, like nuts, will offer a mixture, too. For heart health, it’s advisable to eat more unsaturated than saturated fats.
Getting into specifics, many nutrition experts recommend aiming for a certain omega-6:omega-3 ratio for the healthiest approach to heart health. Research in the journal Oilseeds and Fats, Crops and Lipids suggests a 2:1 ratio. Meanwhile, research in the journal Open Heart recommends a 1:1 ratio. (In comparison, a typical Western diet can have an unbalanced ratio that’s 15:1 omega-6 to omega-3.) For adults age 19 to 50, the Institute of Medicine’s recommended adequate intake for omega-6 is 12 grams per day for women and 17 grams per day for men.
For overall good health, instead of trying to meet a strict omega-6:omega-3 ratio in your diet, think of it as a simple balancing act by letting the ratio happen naturally. Here’s how: simply add more omega-3s to your eating plan. That’s it. One way of doing this is by including your favourite omega-6-rich foods along with omega-3-rich foods in the same meal, such as adding a nutty pesto (high in omega 6s) to grilled salmon (high in omega 3s).