You’ve most likely heard it’s important to get enough omega-3 fatty acids in your diet. These polyunsaturated fats are necessary for many important functions throughout the body, but most Americans aren’t getting enough of them. These low levels of omega-3s, combined with higher levels of omega-6 fatty acids, can contribute to internal inflammation and other dangerous health conditions.

Polyunsaturated fats

Omega-3 fatty acid and omega-6 fatty acids are both types of polyunsaturated fats. They are considered “essential” fatty acids because they are required for human health and development, but the body cannot produce them, and they must be obtained from the diet.

A healthy diet should contain a balance of omega-3s to omega-6s; however, because of the high volume of certain vegetable oils and red meat in the standard American diet, most people consume 14 to 25 times more omega-6 fats than omega-3s. Many health experts believe this imbalance promotes inflammation and contributes to numerous chronic diseases, including heart disease and cancer.

Benefits of omega-3 fats

Omega-3 fatty acids play a vital role in many functions throughout the body. Omega-3s:

  • Promote healthy brain function, including memory and cognitive performance
  • Are necessary for cell growth and development
  • May reduce the risk of chronic disease such as heart disease, cancer, and arthritis
  • Reduce the severity of symptoms associated with diabetes
  • Reduce the risk of osteoporosis and bone loss
  • Reduce inflammation in the body

Omega-3s are especially important during pregnancy. Infants who do not receive enough omega-3 fats from their mothers in utero are at risk of developing vision and nerve problems.

Symptoms of low omega-3 levels include fatigue, memory problems, dry skin, heart problems, mood swings, depression, and poor circulation.

Types of omega-3 fatty acids

There are 3 main types of omega-3 fats:

  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which come mainly from fish.
  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is more common in the Western diet. It’s found in canola oil, walnuts, flax seeds, leafy vegetables, and grass-fed meat.

Experts say you need all of these — it’s not enough just to eat leafy greens and walnuts for your omega-3s. You need to include fish in your diet or take fish oil supplements to obtain EPA and DHA, which are especially important during pregnancy.

Benefits of omega-6 fats

Like omega-3s, omega-6 fats play a role in brain function, growth, and development. They help stimulate hair and skin growth, regulate metabolism, and maintain bone health.

Omega-6s fatty acids are found in meat, although grass-fed beef has a more favorable ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats. Vegetable oils like corn, sunflower, soybean, and cottonseed oil are more than 50% omega-6 fats and contain no omega-3s. When you consider that these oils are commonly used in the production of packaged foods, it’s easy to see why most people consume so many more omega-6 fats than omega-3s.

Tips for balancing essential fatty acids

Decreasing your omega-6 to omega-3 ratio can help reduce inflammation in the body and protect against disease. Try to get as close to 1:1 as possible with these tips:

  • Cut back on packaged foods, and avoid foods made with soybean oil, corn oil, or sunflower oil
  • Follow a Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes fish, olive oil, and other healthy fats while placing less emphasis on red meat
  • Eat fatty fish once or twice a week
  • Take an omega-3 supplement
  • If you eat red meat, replace your conventional meat with grass-fed beef
  • Eat other healthy fats such as olive oil, coconut oil, and avocados
  • Make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D
  • Get plenty of sleep and reduce your stress

Genetic factors contributing to fatty acid imbalance

Your genetics also play a role in your balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fats. Individuals with a certain variant in the FADS1 gene were found to have lower levels of EPA. If you are at a genetic risk of decreased EPA levels, you should increase your intake of omega-3 fats and take a fish oil supplement.

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