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Food Chemistry Basics: Proteins, Fats, and Carbs (part 9) - Fats - Omega 6 vs. Omega 3 Fat Ratio

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7.3 Omega 6 vs. Omega 3 Fat Ratio

Apparently, another piece of dietary-fat data to pay attention to is the ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 essential fatty acids. Here, with the pizza slice, it is 1,749 mg to 188 mg, or about nine to one in favor of Omega 6. So what are Omega 3 and 6 fats, and why should you care about them?

Omega 3 and 6 fats are subsets of the polyunsaturated fats. They, in turn, are super-categories for a number of different Omega 3s and 6s, each with their own technical names. The two groups of fats are often referred to by the position of the first double bond in their molecules: n-3 and n-6.

Note

The first revealed essential fatty acids were called vitamin F until scientists decided, “Hey, they’re not really vitamins, they’re macronutrients—fats.”

Both n-3s and n-6s play a number of important roles in the body, including the provision of the raw ingredients for the biochemicals of the immune system called prostaglandins. Both fatty acids are used in the body’s cell membranes, and n-3s are particularly important for the developing brains of youngsters and babies, as well as the aging brains of us old coots.

We have to eat these essential Omegas because the body does not have the wherewithal to synthesize their long-chain versions, such as EPA (the unpronounceable one) and DHA (another n-3 fat), as well as arachidonic acid, an n-6. Two food chemicals in our diets that are raw materials or precursors for these essential fatty acids are the shorter-chain fats linoleic acid, an n-6 fat, and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an n-3, or Omega 3 fat.

Bump up those n-3s

A biochemical the body needs called arachidonic acid is synthesized from linoleic acid (the n-6) using enzymes. Linoleic acid competes for the same enzymes that help make EPA and DHA (the two downstream n-3s our bodies require) from ALA.

Too much n-6 in the diet, for example, will tend to ramp down the production of the important EPA/DHA Omega3 nutrients, because they compete for the same enzymes. And thus the Omega 3s don’t make their way into cell membranes, brain matter, and other places where they do good work.

The western SAD diet contains too high a proportion of Omega 6 fats. It is easier to get n-6 fats than n-3s, particularly if you consume a lot of polyunsaturated vegetable oils like corn, soy, or safflower oil (as in, things that are cooked in those oils), which are rich n-6 sources.

A number of otherwise healthy foods, like eggs (15 to 1 ratio of n-6 to n-3; a pastured egg will have higher amounts of n-3s though), avocados (15 to 1; but you don’t want to stop eating avocados and lose all that healthy monounsaturated fat), almonds (2,000 to 1, more than three grams n-6; but a very good source of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals), and walnuts (4 to 1, with most of the n-3 in the form of ALA), have unfavorable n-6 to n-3 ratios.

Note

Nutrition is often a trade-off between benefits, drawbacks, and uncertainties involving the synergies of certain foods with others on the same plate. This is why it’s sensible to vary the types of food you eat, so you can attenuate or “hack out” any mistakes or imperfections in food choices. E.g., you don’t have to stop eating nuts like almonds or macadamias, but make sure that you are getting good sources of n-3s.

Our genes are selected for closer to 1:1

Scientists have posed a theory that humans are genetically programmed for an Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio of closer to 1:1. This is based on the different composition of foods that our wild-eating Paleolithic forebears chowed down on (like seafood), as well as what they didn’t eat, like Burger King french fries and salad dressing made out of soy oil.

Note

The french fries have an n-6 to n-3 ratio of about 30 to 1, but at least equally bad are the six grams of the Franken-lipid trans fatty acids, which you should never eat.

“Studies on the evolutionary aspects of diet indicate that major changes have taken place in our diet, particularly in the type and amount of essential fatty acids and in the antioxidant content of foods,” writes Dr. Artemis P. Simopoulos in the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition. “It has been estimated that the present Western diet is ‘deficient’ in Omega-3 fatty acids with a ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 of 15-20/1, instead of 1/1 as is the case with wild animals and presumably human beings.”

Note

An Omega 6 called conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA, appears to be pretty good for us. You can find it in grass-fed beef and pastured or free-range eggs, for example.

Omega 6 fats tend to be more inflammatory when overconsumed, and Omega 3 fats are anti-inflammatory in nature. So how do you help correct your own ratio so it falls more on the Omega 3 side? Eat rich sources of Omega 3 fats (including EPA/DHA) like seafood and shellfish every few days: salmon, arctic char, herring, sardines, tuna, mussels, mackerel, oysters, halibut, crab, and shrimp.

Legitimately pastured eggs and meats are richer sources of Omega 3 than their industrially produced counterparts, but some of these foods can also be somewhat high in Omega 6 fats (e.g., even grass-fed beef has an n-6 to n-3 ratio of 4 or 5 to 1).

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You can get lots of servings of small but significant amounts of n-3 fats such as ALA from fresh veggies like broccoli (92 mg and a 4 to 1 ratio of n-3 to n-6). Even fruits like bananas and blueberries have small amounts of ALA. The conversion rate by the body of ALA to EPA and DHA (the building of a shorter-chain n-3 into a longer-chain one), however, is quite low: in men, as low as 8 percent of ALA is converted to EPA and 4 percent to DHA.

This means that if you eat eight grams of ALA, it converts into far less than a gram of EPA or DHA, the forms your body really needs. The conversion rate is higher in women, according to the Linus Pauling Institute’s description.

Note

A tablespoon of caviar, or fish roe, wouldn’t you know it, is good for you, if not your wallet. It’s a good source of minerals and vitamin B12 and has more than a gram of Omega 3 fatty acids, with about an 80 to 1 ratio of n-3 to n-6 essential fatty acids. So if you run into a Russian fellow who wants to gift you his caviar container for that extra ticket to the Knicks game...

It also helps to cut back on foods and oils that are rich in Omega 6, because as we mentioned, they are ubiquitous in the Western diet. Here’s a tiny but telling example: a small portion of wheat crackers, like the amount that I used to routinely eat (14 of them) contains almost a gram of Omega 6 because they’re cooked in a vegetable oil like soy oil; they have an n-6 to n-3 ratio of about 19 to 1.

You have to watch out for nuts, too, and their Omega 6 content. A small portion of macadamia nuts, however, has healthy monounsaturated fats and a 5 or 6 to 1 n-6 to n-3 ratio—not too bad a trade-off.

The foods richest in Omega 6, according to NutritionData, are various vegetable oils (sunflower, safflower, grapeseed, soy), various types of mayonnaise (hold the mayo!), sunflower seeds, and fast-food sauces such as “creamy ranch” and “spicy buffalo.”

7.4 Health Hack: Testing for Omega 3

You can actually test the Omega 3 content of your body fat, as another health hack. The tests examine the fat content of the cell membranes of red blood cells for its percentage of EPA and DHA. These cells turn over in the body every three to four months, so the tests are designed to determine your recent n-6 and n-3 consumption. There are commercial testers such as OmegaQuant or GeneSmart, or you could just ask your doctor to order the test.

Although potentially interesting, this is a very minor element of biomarker testing (I’ll probably indulge in this test one day anyway). It would be pretty meaningless unless you’d taken care of the major fitness issues first, like body weight, cutting back on refined sugar, inflammation, and a solid exercise program. Most of the time, just upping your fish intake and backing off of industrial vegetable oils will give you the most bang for your buck in this arena.

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