What About the Omega-6/Omega-3 Fatty Acid Ratio?

It’s estimated that the Old Stone Age diet provided much more omega-3 fatty acids and much less omega-6s, compared to modern Western diets.  This may have important implications for development of certain chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease.

This’ll improve your omega-6/omega-3 ratio!

I haven’t studied this issue in great detail but hope to do so at some point.  Evelyn Tribole has strong opinions on it; I may get one of her books.

I saw an online video of William E.M.Lands, Ph.D., discussing the omega-6/omega-3 ratio.  He mentioned free software available from the National Insitutes of Health that would help you monitor and adjust your ratio.

You can see the video here.  Dr. Lands’ talk starts around minute 12 and lasts about 45 minutes.  He says it’s just as important (if not more so) to reduce your omega-6 consumption as to increase your omega-3.  And don’t overeat.

Steve Parker, M.D.


Filed under Fat in Diet

10 responses to “What About the Omega-6/Omega-3 Fatty Acid Ratio?

  1. Emily Deans

    I find myself endlessly confused at a biochemical level about this issue when I try to make sense of the literature. I think once you drench the body in enough omega 6 some other enzymes come online to ameliorate the damage as long as you have SOME omega3 on board, but I think the prudent approach is to limit the omega 6 also, given the ancestral precedent and the clear active role of the polyunsaturates in inflammation, lipid rafts, etc.

  2. This subject is a bit confusing.While most of us know that processed foods using any kind of oil are usually high in omega 3, we kind of assume that olive oil and coconut oil are better. Dr. Mary Newport, who advocates a mildly ketogenic diet for some conditions, notes that olive oil has a 13:1 ratio of omega 6 to 3, while non-hydrogenated canola oil is at a 2:1 ratio (closer to ancestral levels, right?) Coconut oil, which a lot of us use instead of canola oil, has no omega 3 oil at all, but is 4% omega 6. (see her blog at http://coconutketones.blogspot.com/2009/07/more-on-omega-3-and-omega-6-fatty-acids.html) If the omega 6 to ratio were the only consideration, non-hydrogenated canola oil looks like the better choice. More omega-3 rich foods are probably the answer.

    The “human as aquatic ape” (http://www.ted.com/talks/elaine_morgan_says_we_evolved_from_aquatic_apes.html) theory makes sense to me, which means the diet would have had much higher levels of shell fish and seafood than previously thought.

    • Frank, thanks for that info. You may have hit on why Walter Willett and company always list canola oil as one of the healthy ones. Especially as a replacement for the evil saturated fats (I question that theory).

    • For salad oils I use a variety of oils – olive, canola, and walnut; predominantly the latter because it has a light taste and seems to have a 5:1 ratio of omega 6 – omega 3.

      Something else I would like to point out is that the omega-3 fatty acids found in any of the above oils are of the type ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) while the types found in fish oil are predominantly EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) or DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). The body cannot make ALA and can only make limited quantites of EPA and DHA from ALA (women do this better than men for some reason.) There are differing opinions about whether, given plenty of ALA, we can make adequate supplies of EPA or DHA, both of which seem to be used for more processes (affecting heart health, brain health, hormonal health, etc) than ALA (although still important). Therefore it seems prudent to make sure you get ALA from vegetable oils and EPA/DHA from fish oils.

  3. I’ve seen statistics that point to omega-6:omega-3 ratios as high as 20:1 in many Americans’ diets while several studies point to a possible optimal ratio of 2:1 or even lower – maybe 1:1. Our omega-6 fatty acid intake skyrocketed with the push to corn and soybean oils, increased processed food consumption, and the increase of omega-6 (and subsequent decrease of omega-3) in commercial meats and farmed fish due to grain-based feed.
    Both omega-3 and omega -6 fatty acids are needed by the body, but we have thrown the balance way out of whack – leading to more inflammation-based disease and other problems.
    Cutting back on grains, cutting out all processed food, throwing out the seed oils, and returning to grass-fed meat and wild, fatty fish would alleviate a large amount of the health problems in this country.

    • Hello and welcome, RoseAnne! I’ve seen omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 3:1 also proposed as the healthiest, certainly in the ballpark you mention. Dietitian Evelyn Tribole, I think, was the first to bring the ratio to my attention, about five years ago.

      Because they are so ubiquitous, it’s going to be hard to do population-wide observational studies comparing low versus high omega-6 consumption and effects on long-term health and longevity. We’ll have to settle for logic and basic science for the foreseeable future.

  4. I actually take an omega 6 supplement (borage seed oil), along with my omega 3. For women it helps balance hormones, and for anyone with dry skin, eczema, or “chicken skin” on the back of the arms, it helps the body hold onto moisture and reduce these symptoms.

    • I just started a fish oil supplement (1200 mg omega-3) for brain preservation. It could be my imagination or placebo effect, but my joints seem to feel better when I’m getting more omega-3 fatty acids, whether in food or a supplement.