by Geri Walton ~ March 18th, 2009
You have probably heard about omega oils and how important they are to good health. There are three important ones: omega-3s, omega-6s, and omega-9s. Of these three omegas, two are essential because they can only be acquired through diet. They are omega-6s (linoleic acid or LA) and omega-3s (alpha-linolenic acid or ALA). Both these essential fatty acids (EFAs) are polyunsaturated and both are necessary to the body because they aid in the proper functioning of blood vessels, nerves, and skin. The third beneficial omega oil, which is also linked to good health but not considered essential, is a monounsaturated fatty acid known as omega-9.
Omega-6s are easy to obtain from foods when compared to omega-3s. In fact, researchers currently estimate that Americans consume too much omega-6s and two little omega-3s (somewhere between a 10:1 and 25:1 ratio). Studies over the last decade seem to indicate it is important to balance the two, and, although the optimal ratio is still under debate, most researchers believe the correct ratio is somewhere between 1:1 and 4:1 (omega-6s to omega-3s). One reason omega-6s are so easily obtained, is they are available in plant oils—canola, corn, peanut, soy, walnut, safflower, sesame, and sunflower—as well as in wheat germ, rice bran, and oat germ. Thus, many of the foods Americans typically eat are rich in omega-6s.
Elson Haas, M.D., and author of Staying Healthy With Nutrition, 21st Century Edition: The Complete Guide to Diet & Nutritional Medicine, claims the EFA ratio is important for a variety of reasons. First, omega-6s and omega-3s are linked to cell membrane flexibility and “nearly all chemical communication throughout the body depends at least in part on the correct balance.” The second assertion made by Haas is that a balanced intake of omega-6 and omega-3s reduces a person’s risk for certain diseases. For instance, Haas maintains that an EFA imbalance results in “non-insulin-dependent diabetes, obesity, … weight loss, coronary heart disease, [and] chronic inflammation … [and that] healthy genetic processes also appear to depend on this balance.” The third thing to keep in mind is that omega-6s tend to promote inflammation whereas omega-3s tend to reduce or inhibit inflammation.
Omega-3s are also more difficult to obtain from diet than omega-6s. Omega-3s are found in flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, pumpkin seeds, pumpkin oil, sea vegetables, walnuts, and cold-water fish, such as salmon, halibut, trout, mackerel, and cod. Besides reducing inflammation, omega-3s also appear to play a major role in behavior because several prison inmate studies indicate low omega-3 levels result in aggressive behavior of inmates. This may also correlate to a person’s mood and depression because omega-3s help feel-good neurotransmitters, such as serotonin or dopamine, move and in and out of cells handily, and that results in a person having a better mood and feeling better. For these reasons and many others, researchers suggest that where possible, you benefit when you replace omega-6 fatty acids with omega-3s.
Besides the ALAs acquired from omega-3s, fish also contains two other important omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic aicd (DHA). In fact, EPA and DHA may be even more important than ALA, and although technically EPA and DHA can be made from ALA, the body doesn’t do a great job at it, so that’s another reason to eat fish. EPA and DHA acids are important to health because they have been shown to raise HDL “good” cholesterol and also lower triglyceride and LDL “bad” cholesterol levels. In addition, they appear to regulate chemical reactions that reduce inflammation, thereby discouraging inflammatory diseases, such as those related to cardiovascular health.
Besides omega-6s and omega-3s, another omega oil that provides substantial health benefits is omega-9. Omega-9s contain monounsaturated oleic acids, which are considered heart healthy. Similar to EFAs, monounsaturated oleic acid offers a protective role against arterial cholesterol build-up and may also lower heart attack risk. In addition, omega-9s appear to play a protective role against cancer. Foods rich in omega-9s include avocados, olive oil, and certain nuts, such as almonds, peanuts, and macadamias.
Good health relies on variety, and as you can tell from this list, it takes a balanced ratio of omega-3s and omega-6s to ensure good health. If you find you are eating too many omega-6s and too few omega-3s, try replacing your beef, pork, or chicken with fish. Additionally, omega-9s appear to contribute to good health, so where possible replace canola, corn, peanut, soy, walnut, safflower, sesame, or sunflower oils with olive oil. By reducing omega-6s and incorporating more omega-3s and omega-9s into your meals, you may find you’re on the upside when it comes to good health.