Confused about omega-3 fatty acids? Wondering about omega-6 fatty acids? Did you also know we also eat omega-9 fatty acids?
The “omega” actually refers to the scientific system of naming unsaturated fats and each fatty acid plays a different role in our health.
Omega-3s are essential fatty acids because they are essential to human health but cannot be made by our bodies. Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce risk factors for heart disease, cancer and arthritis, reduce inflammation and newer research is looking at the role it plays in reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Omega-3 fatty acids come from three different sources, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapantaeonic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). While techically your body can make EPA and DHA from ALA, it generally doesn't. So eating all three sources is important for good health.
- ALA sources: flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, canola oil, hemp, walnuts and walnut oil
- EPA and DHA sources: salmon, tuna, halibut, mackerel and herring
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends three grams of omega-3 fatty acids daily from food sources. If you take a supplement, do not take more than two grams per day, and be sure to talk to your doctor first since omega-3s act as a blood thinner and may interfere with anticoagulant medication such as warfarin (Coumadin®) or clopidogrel (Plaxil®).
Omega-6 fatty acids are also considered essential fatty acids. However, the typical American diet provides 10 times the needed amount of omega-6 fatty acids in the form of linoleic acid (LA). It’s this unhealthy ratio of too much omega-6 fatty acids compared to our current intake of omega-3 fatty acids that may be contributing to many chronic diseases. A healthy diet should have a ratio of 4-to-1 omega-6s to omega-3s. The typical American diet has a ratio from 14- to 25-to-1 omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-6 fatty acids come from two sources, LA and arachidonic acid (AA).
- LA sources: sunflower, safflower, corn, cottonseed and soybean oils
- AA sources: egg yolks, meats and poultry.
So even though omega-6 fatty acids are essential, because Americans already eat too much it’s helpful to look for ways to reduce your omega-6 fatty acids intake. One way is to replace your corn or safflower oil with canola or olive oil. Olive oil is rich in a third fatty acid, omega-9.
Omega-9s are important but technically not essential fatty acids because our bodies can make them from other unsaturated fats. You can find omega-9 fatty acids in olive oil, avocados, almonds, peanuts, sesame oil, pecans, pistachio nuts, cashews and hazelnuts. There is no current FDA recommended amount for omega-9s in our diet.