Written By Stephanie Rouillard
Your intake of Omega 3 to Omega 6 fat is one of the most important nutrient ratios to achieving an anti-inflammatory diet.
Understanding dietary fatty acids – it’s as easy as omega 3, 6 & 9
Fatty acids are some of the most potent inflammatory mediators – in other words, they have the capability to signal messengers that either switch your immune system ‘on’ or ‘off’. There are 3 different types of omega fatty acids: Omega 3, 6 and 9.
Unlike omega 9; our bodies cannot make omega 3 & 6, meaning that we need to get them from foods or supplements.
Mega confusion clarified
NOTE: both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are essential for health, and participate in the body’s metabolism and building of cellular structures.
In general, excessive intake of omega-6 fats tend to promote inflammation, and may contribute to modern diseases such as heart disease, autoimmune diseases or gut issues (like Inflammatory Bowel Disease – IBD).
Omega-3 fats have the opposite effect: they’re anti-inflammatory, relax the blood vessels, and protect against blood cells aggregating together into clots.
But, why then if omega-6 fatty acids are essential, can they be so detrimental to our health?
Well, as with many things in life, too much of anything is never good and this is especially true when it comes to omega-6 fatty acids. It’s all about balance.
When consumed in excess, omega-6 fatty acids can: advance the progression of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), induce inflammatory signalling, promote oxidative stress (excessive production of unstable molecules, that cause damage to ‘healthy’ cells) especially when they aren’t balanced out by their counterpart, omega-3.
The Omega 6: Omega 3 Shift:
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors are thought to have consumed equal amounts of omega-6s and omega-3s, but today’s diets have been estimated to contain 14-25 times as much omega-6 as omega-3 fat.
Oh my Omega! That’s a real problem.
Omega-6 fats are readily available from in foods such as:
- Vegetable oils: sunflower, safflower, corn, grape-seed and soybean
- Processed foods like baked goods, salad dressings or commercial snacks
- Deep-fried and foods fried in vegetable oils, as mentioned above
Omega-3 fats are richest in foods such as
- Fatty fish like salmon, herring, sardines or anchovies
- Nuts like walnuts and pecans
- Seeds like flaxseed, chia seed or hemp seed
So, where are you sitting on the omega-spectrum?
So you’ve just read that the correct ratio of omega 6:omega 3 intake is essential for reducing chronic inflammation in the body. However, there’s more to it: when looking at dietary sources of omega 3, we can consider both the biologically ‘active’ forms (EPA & DHA fatty acids) and the ‘inactive’ form (known as ALA).
The ‘active’ forms are predominantly found in fish, whereas the ‘inactive’ form is more prominent in plant-based sources of omega 3. Basically, ALA needs to be converted to EPA & DHA in the body before we can benefit from it.
So, what does this mean for plant-based eaters?
Unfortunately, not all of us have the ability to effectively convert ‘inactive’ fatty acids to the ‘active’ counterparts (so in practice, we like to perform genetic testing to see who the real ‘strugglers’ are).
In other words; you may not benefit from chia, flax or walnuts as much as your best friend does. For these individuals, we like to use an algae-derived supplement, which is the only plant-based supplementation out there that is rich in the ‘active form’ of omega 3.
Ok – so if I want to eat fish – what does that mean for the environment?
For those of us concerned about the health and environmental impacts of eating fish, here are some useful 4 tips:
1) Choose smaller fish
Not all fish are created equal, and in the deep blue sea, smaller fish are lower in contaminants.
Think about it: fish ‘pick up’ the toxins that we dump into the ocean; larger fish are higher up on the food chain, and harbour higher concentrations of toxins overtime as they feed on smaller ‘contaminated’ fish. Toxins may include petrochemicals, dioxins, furans, and heavy metals such as mercury. Farm-raised seafood is also at risk for contamination, and may contain antibiotics and have lower omega-3 levels due to poor-quality feed.
2) Use the SASSI website to make sustainable choices
Thank you to the South African Seafood Initiative (SASSI) for helping us make sustainable choices. SASSI encourages us to choose fish from the most well-managed populations, or from those species that can handle the current fishing pressure.
3) Opt for anchovies & sardine
Generally, fish lower in mercury include anchovies, sardines and wild-caught salmon. Currently, fish on SASSI’s green list are anchovies, hake (SA demersal longline), king & queen mackerel, sardines, yellowtail and hottentot.
THE WINNERS – the fish that gets green on both health and environmental fronts – are anchovies & sardines!
4) Lastly, you be a Wise Fisherman
Ask questions – know where your fish comes from. Remember—while there are plenty of fish in the sea, not all of them belong on your plate.
Chat to your dietitian today to get that Omega 3: Omega dietary ratio in tip-top condition!