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Omega-6 Fatty Acids: An Essential Nutrient In Need Of A Good Publicist

Omega-6 fatty acids are an essential nutrient, meaning you need to obtain them from food. But many health experts place more emphasis on omega-3’s while vilifying omega-6’s. Is it the simple truth that omega-3’s are good and 6’s bad? This article will examine the following:

  • What are omega-6 fatty acids?
  • Why does the nutrient have a bad reputation?
  • What’s the difference between omega-6s and omega-3s?
  • Are omega-3s really better than omega-6’s?
  • Are there any health benefits of omega-6s? 
  • What foods contain the highest amounts of omega-6’s?

Omega-6 Fatty Acids: In The Nutritional Grey Zone

Good vs. evil. Democrat vs. Republican. Red state/blue state…

These days, polarization is endemic. The nutrition world also seems rife with black and white myopic thinking. Take essential omega fatty acids for example. Omega-3’s have a reputation as being far superior for health than omega-6’s. Omega-3’s: good. Omega-6’s bad. 

But like anything else in life, nutrients most often lie in the grey zone. There is perhaps no better example of this than omega-6’s. 

We’ll examine why 6’s have a dubious reputation, perhaps unfairly so. But first, let’s cover the basics…

What Are Omega-6 Fatty Acids? 

Essential fatty acids are to fat what amino acids are to protein. Like omega-3’s, 6’s are essential building blocks of fat in the food we eat. These fatty acids are also the building blocks of the fat in our bodies. Despite its negative connotation, fat plays a protective role in the body. Of course, too much of it adversely affects health. 

The digestive enzyme, lipase, breaks down fat into fatty acids. The fatty acids then travel into the bloodstream, where they can contribute to our health—or degrade it. 

Both 3’s and 6’s are essential fatty acids. This means that our bodies do not produce this building block of fat on its own; we need to get this nutrient from food. 

There are three main types of dietary fats: polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and saturated. Omega-6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats. So are Omega-3’s. Then what’s the difference between the two you may ask? 

Omega-3s and Omega-6s: Key Differences

Before we reveal the differences, let’s explore the similarities between these key building blocks of fat.

Both 3’s and 6’s provide structure to cell membranes. You can think of cell membranes as the protective barrier of the cell. If a house has a weak frame, it won’t stand very long. The same is true with your cells. If there are too many weak cell membranes, disease and premature aging can result. 

As for their differences, it mainly comes down to where the double bonds in their respective molecular makeup occur. But don’t worry. If chemistry isn’t your favorite subject, we’ll do you the favor of not diving any deeper. 

Are Omega-3s Better Than Omega-6 Essential Fatty Acids? 

Most nutrition articles recommend consuming more foods with omega-3’s than 6’s. Omega-3’s are heart-healthy and benefit the cardiovascular system as well as cognitive function. 

Is it as simple as that? In order to achieve superior health, is it a good idea to eat lots of omega-3’s and skip the 6’s? 

The truth is more complex than that. Many articles suggest that people are wise to eat more 3’s and less 6’s. But even this advice is not entirely correct. It is true that the average American eats far more omega-6’s than omega-3’s. In fact, according to a research article in Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, the Western diet contains nearly 17 times more 6’s than 3’s.

Many health experts say that a far healthier ratio of 6’s to 3’s is at most 4:1. In other words, four times more omega-6’s than 3’s. Some researchers believe the ideal ratio is even less: two-to-one 6’s to 3’s. The research article from above takes it a step further. It says, “Human beings evolved on a diet with a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFA) of approximately 1:1.”

The reality is that omega-6s are critical for human health. Furthermore, hardly anybody spends their days taking stock of their omega-6:3 ratio. 

Health Benefits of Omega-6 Fatty Acids

It’s far more important to understand that there are healthy and unhealthy sources of omega-6 fatty acids. 

In the next section, we’ll cover the good vs. bad. (Yes, in life, there are times when things can be placed in the good/bad camp. For instance, there is no gray zone when it comes to Twinkies.)

If you didn’t eat any foods with omega-6 fatty acids, your cells would cease to function properly. But with the standard American diet (SAD), it’s impossible to not eat foods with 6’s.

It’s important to learn what the healthiest sources of 6’s are. That’s because, according to Mount Sinai Health System, 6’s contribute to the following health benefits: 

  • Provides energy for the body.
  • Protects the cardiovascular system.
  • Assists in healthy brain function.
  • Builds structural support for hair, skin and nails. 
  • Regulates metabolism. 
  • Maintains bone health.
  • Plays a supporting role in reproductive health.

The Downside of Omega-6’s From Junk Food

Considering all these health benefits, why do omega-6 essential fatty acids have a bad reputation? Especially since new research suggests replacing saturated fat with omega-6’s can actually lower inflammation and reduce the chances of developing heart disease. In addition, some research shows that cutting down on saturated fat and boosting intake of healthy 6’s reduces harmful LDL cholesterol. 

So where does all the misinformation on omega-6’s come from? If it’s not as bad as many say it is, what’s behind its deleterious reputation? 

This is where the grey zone of nutrition operates. You see, too many 6’s from processed foods promotes inflammation in the body. One example of inflammation is a build-up of plaque in the arteries. 

Snacks that come in packages—chips, crackers, pastries, etc.—are made with low-quality vegetable and seed oils. Think corn, canola, soy, Crisco. The problem with these oils is twofold. First, they contain a very high omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio. Remember: for optimal health you need a ratio that’s close to 1:1. 

The other problem with omega-6-rich vegetable and seed oils is that they often go rancid. These cheap oils that food manufacturers use to crank out snacks and TV dinners are stored in clear plastic bottles. Light and heat chemically denature these omega-6 oils. As a result, consuming low-quality oils with high amounts of omega-6s leads to inflammation in the body. 

More inflammation in the body places one at a higher risk for heart disease. 

What Are Healthy Omega-6’s? 

The best sources of 6’s are these natural foods: 

  • Walnuts
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Fermented soy (tempeh)
  • Hemp seeds
  • Almonds
  • Cashews

You don’t need to avoid all vegetable oils in order to get healthy sources of 6’s. Avocado oil has a high smoke point. This means that when you cook at a high temperature, the avocado oil will not spoil and the omega-6 fatty acids in the oil will not denature. (Technically avocados are fruit so avocado oil is really a fruit oil.)

omega-6 fatty acids

Omega-6 Fatty Acids—In Moderation—Are Essential For Health

Omega-6 fatty acids aren’t as bad as you may have heard. But it’s probably a good idea to limit them in your diet—especially from snack foods and inexpensive vegetable oil. However, your life depends on omega-6 fatty acids. So make sure you get this critical nutrient from the healthiest sources. If there is one thing that’s an absolute truth in nutrition, it’s this… Eat real food and eliminate highly-processed, empty-calorie food. 

If you’re struggling with getting enough healthy foods in your diet, check out our free resource: Your Innovative Medicine Diet Plan

This 22-page PDF download will help you restore your body’s natural state of balance. 

Disclaimer: The statements made in this article have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Any products or treatments mentioned are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Please consult a licensed medical practitioner for medical advice.

At Innovative Medicine, we believe in transparency. We want you to know that we may participate in affiliate advertising programs pertaining to products mentioned herein.


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Meet the Author

Judd Handler

Judd Handler is an Encinitas, CA-based natural health writer and a graduate of Functional Diagnostic Nutrition (FDN) and a certified Metabolic Typing Advisor.
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