Eating the right ratio of omega fats can help prevent inflammation and chronic disease.
In the 1980s, a low-fat diet swept the nation. Health officials told consumers to eat less fat, and food companies responded by creating low-fat or reduced fat products. Unfortunately, the ingredients they substituted weren’t any healthier. Many low-fat foods contained more carbohydrates and sugar and just as many calories as their regular-fat counterparts. As a result, people started eating more weight-sabotaging sugars and simple carbs and missing out on healthful fats in their diets.
Today, about 30 years later, diet experts have a better understanding of fats. We know that what matters is the types of fat a person eats. Public health officials now encourage people to eat less saturated fats and trans fats, and moderate amounts of healthy fats like polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, such as omega-3s. Whats important is getting more good fats and fewer not-so-good fats. And it all comes down to the effect certain fats have on the body: inflammation.
Omega-6s: Necessary but don’t overdo it
Most Americans are eating too many omega-6 fatty acids from processed and fast foods. Excessive intake of omega-6s is a contributor to disease today. A diet regularly high in omega-6s can cause chronic inflammation, a condition that may be responsible for heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes, depression and a number of other diseases. For this and other reasons, its best to limit your intake.
Found in seeds, nuts and their oils, such as vegetable and soybean oils, these polyunsaturated fatty acids are extremely prevalent in the modern diet. In fact, its estimated that soybean oil a key ingredient in fast and processed foods makes up a staggering 10 percent of a persons calories every day.
To be clear, omega-6s are necessary to the body, aiding in brain health, bone health, and skin and hair growth. Like healthful omega-3s, you need healthy levels of omega-6s in your diet. But eating too many omega-6 fatty acids can have negative effects on your health.
The key? Getting plenty of healthy fatty acids and limiting omega-6 intake.
Meet the healthy omegas: 3, 7 and 9
Eating more of certain fatty acids supports the health and function of your body. There are two types of fatty acids: essential and nonessential. Essential fatty acids so named because a person must get these fats through diet are found in certain vegetable oils like olive and flax, and in seeds, nuts and fish. Nonessential fatty acids are made by the body but can also be beneficial when consumed through food sources.
Eating moderate amounts of healthy fats helps manage your body’s inflammatory response. Reduced inflammation means a healthier cardiovascular system, better immune health, and fewer musculoskeletal and joint issues like arthritis. There are three fatty acids you should know about when looking to support health:
Omega-3s These essential fatty acids have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and lower cholesterol, and they’ve also shown promise in conditions like cancer, depression and ADHD. Omega-3 DHA and EPA are found in fatty fish; plant sources of ALA (which must be converted by the body to DHA and EPA) include flax seeds and walnuts.
Omega-7s There is emerging research on the importance of this unique omega. Unlike other omegas, which are building blocks for cell membranes and hormones, omega-7 works through a hormone-like activity to reduce inflammation directly. There aren’t many dietary sources of omega-7. Sources include macadamia nuts, sea buckthorn fruit and specially processed fish oils.
Omega-9s While your body makes these nonessential fatty acids, omega-9s may be beneficial in moderation by supporting healthy cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Olive oil is a great source of the most common type of omega-9, oleic acid.
Your omega-6/omega-3 ratio: Balance for optimal health
Research suggests that our hunter-gatherer ancestors likely ate a diet with a 1:1 omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. Other experts believe that our ancient kin didn’t have inflammatory diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer. So, why do we now suffer from deadly modern diseases?
Today, the ratio hasnt just doubled, tripled or even quadrupled. The University of Maryland Medical Center estimates that Americans eat 14 to 25 times more omega-6s than omega-3s. Processed foods are a large part of the problem. By consuming massive amounts of processed foods made with omega-6-rich corn, safflower, sunflower, soybean and cottonseed oils, we wreck the omega-3/omega-6 balance that’s essential for maintaining optimal health.
To support wellness, I recommend reducing the ratio from 25:1 to 2:1. It’s relatively easy to eat this way. Since most of the oils that contain omega-6s are found in processed foods, such as commercial baked goods, you can limit processed foods and instead build your diet around fresh, whole fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and lean proteins like poultry and fish.
Many people still believe that all fat is bad for you. But don’t buy into the low-fat myth. Instead, make sure you’re getting good fats in your diet and complementing your balanced eating with a healthy, active lifestyle. You’ll not only live a vital, full life, but you’ll also potentially avoid disease and life-limiting conditions down the road.
Balancing Your Intake
Want to achieve balance in your diet? Here’s what to eat and what to avoid.
Fatty fish like salmon, herring and tuna
Lean protein like poultry
Fresh fruits and vegetables
Nuts and seeds
Certain polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, in moderation
Processed and fried foods
Saturated and trans fats
Dr. Andrew Myers is an expert in nutrition and preventive medicine and the co-author of The New Heart Health and the Health Is Wealth series.