The Omega Balance
What exactly are the omegas?
- They are types of fat.
What’s the big deal with the omegas?
- They affect levels of inflammation, and inflammation is at the root of most Western diseases (heart attacks, obesity, diabetes, breast cancer, dementia etc…).
When do the omega fats cause problems?
- When we consume too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3.
What is the perfect omega balance?
- Equal amounts of omega-6 and omega-3
What is the current ratio of omega-6:omega-3 in the Western world?
- Approximately 20:1
How can we correct this?
- Eat fewer omega-6 containing foods and eat more omega-3 containing foods.
What’s the best way of doing this?
- Cut out vegetable oils and grains, and eat more fish.
And finally, don’t fall into the ‘supplement trap’.
- Eat proper food instead.
If my sons are reading this post, then yes your mother is always right.
To everyone else I would say that your mother is nearly always right. Eat more fish is what most mothers probably say, and how right they are!
My grandmother used to tell all the pregnant and breastfeeding mothers in our family to up the fish intake whilst nursing. (Fish used to make my mother gag, but I think she did force it down).
It will make your children clever is what my grandmother used to say.
Wise words from someone who ended up being vegetarian (after my grandfather passed away she gave up meat and fish).
Enough of folklore and on to facts.
6 omega-6 facts:
- High levels of omega-6 increase inflammation
- High levels of omega-6 are found in vegetable oils, grains and grain-fed animals
- Vegetable oils have been used to induce cancer in laboratory animals
- One should aim to have equal amounts of omega-6 and omega-3 in one’s diet
- A high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is associated with aggressive prostate cancer
- Small amounts of omega-6 are essential, so one shouldn’t cut out omega-6 completely
3 omega-3 facts:
- Omega-3 reduces inflammation
- High omega-3 levels are associated with a reduced risk of breast cancer
- Good sources of omega-3 include fish, grass-fed beef, eggs
Omega-6 and omega-3 are so-called ‘essential fats’ – we have to get them from our diet as our bodies can’t make them.
Fish is high in omega-3 fats, and these omega-3s are crucial for brain development, especially in babies and infants.
Studies in recent years have shown that there is a correlation between levels of omega-3 fats in breast milk and cognitive performance in children (so my grandmother and mother were right!).
Humans have been eating fish since pre-historic times, and for the previous million years of man’s existence roughly equal amounts of omega-6 and omega-3 have been consumed in our diets.
Modern man consumes an astonishing 20 times as much omega-6 as he does omega-3. These recent changes are wreaking havoc with our biological processes. (As an aside, we now also consume about 20 times as much sugar as we used to 200 years ago).
Much has changed in the diet of modern man – not all for the better.
As with most things in life, quality matters. There’s no point in altering the fats in your diet if you change the wrong ones.
For most people the easiest way to balance one’s omegas is to reduce the omega-6 intake. If one’s starting ratio of omega-6:omega-3 is 10:1 or worse, then one would have to eat enormous amounts of omega-3 fats to redress the balance.
So before reaching for the omega-3 fish, first cut out or cut down on vegetable oil and grains.
How much omega-6 and omega-3 do we actually need?
Not much. It was hard to find an exact figure, but the consensus seems to be between 2- 8 grams a day of omega-6, and 3 – 5 grams a day of omega-3.
Finally, let’s not forget that all the omega fats are easily oxidised. And oxidised fat causes cell and DNA damage, so ideally you don’t want much more than is necessary of either type of omega fat.
5 fish with high levels of omega-3:
- Mussels – top of my list because of their low carbon footprint.
- Salmon – preferably wild Alaskan salmon
(farmed salmon practices spread diseases to wild fish).
- Atlantic Mackerel - low mercury levels.
- Anchovies – reproduce quickly so aren’t a threatened species.
- Sardines – from the Pacific – no mercury worries.
Would I recommend taking fish oil supplements?
No, I most definitely wouldn’t, because it’s always difficult to know who or what to believe – one day there’s a study telling you that a particular nutrient is a miracle cure, and that it is available in a concentrated pill form; and then there’ll be another study a couple of years down the line telling you that the supplement in question might be causing harm.
The safest option is to get your nutrients from wholesome food, and the healthiest way of doing that is to start eating a Palaeolithic diet.
Here are a couple of links to illustrate the controversies over supplements:
“Why Fish Oil Fails: A Comprehensive 21st Century Lipids-Based Physiologic Analysis”.
Counterpoint to ‘Why fish oil fails’
- Omega-6 = omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid = linoleic acid (LA)
- Omega-3 = omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid = alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
Some of the references that I used to write this post:
Omega-3 fatty acids: a growing ocean of choices.
Diet, cognition, and Alzheimer’s disease: food for thought.
Health significance of fat quality in the diet.
Adipose tissue inflammation induced by high-fat diet in obese diabetic mice is prevented by n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids.
‘Metabolic syndrome’ in the brain: deficiency in omega-3 fatty acid exacerbates dysfunctions in insulin receptor signalling and cognition.
Mammary tumor development is directly inhibited by lifelong n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Ratio of n-3/n-6 PUFAs and risk of breast cancer: a meta-analysis of 274135 adult females from 11 independent prospective studies.
Dear Dr. Madhvi,
Very interesting articles indeed !
In Southern India, Shark fish is the Grandmothers recipe for pregnant and nursing mothers. Wondering if it contains more Omega 3 or 6.
Also here is the link to the The Indian study on antibiotics use in poultry industry:
Thank you for the feedback and the link to antibiotics in poultry.
All fish contain more omega 3 than omega 6. I looked up shark fish, and it comes under the ‘white fish’ category so the ratio of 3:6 is probably in the region of 10:1, although I couldn’t find the exact figure. (Swordfish has 800 mgs of omega-3 and 30 mgs of omega-6 per 100g, and I would imagine that shark fish is similar).
The main drawback of shark fish is that it has one of the highest levels of contaminants (.979ppm compared to .391ppm in tuna and .001ppm in shrimp).
Worryingly here are some of the recommendations from the UK Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition about eating fish when trying to get pregnant, or when breastfeeding:
Shark, swordfish and marlin: do not eat these if you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant. All other adults, including breastfeeding women, should eat no more than one portion per week. This is because these fish can contain more mercury than other types of fish, and this can damage a developing baby’s nervous system.
The easiest way of improving the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio in one’s diet is to reduce the amounts of omega-6 foods by cutting back on vegetable oils which are particularly high in omega-6 fats.
Thank you Madhvi, For putting this so simply. I have found this article very useful and informative. I shall now make a conscious effort to balance my 6’s & 3’s!
Glad you found this useful!