As you already know, I hold a pretty controversial view on the issue of saturated fat — at least, from a dietitian’s point of view.
But, saturated fat is not the only fat we need to know something about.
You probably already know how important omega 3 fats are for good health, but what about 0mega 6?
In fact, I’ve read quite a bit recently about avoiding omega 6 fat.
The main problem I have with this type of advice, is that people start to assume all sources of omega 6 fats are bad. But, like a lot of things, getting the balance right is what’s important.
What Are Omega 6 Fatty Acids?
Omega 6 is a polyunsaturated fat (or PUFA) which is essential to the body, as is omega 3. Neither of these fats are produced by the body, hence the “essential” part, so you must get them via your diet.
Just to clarify, the main difference between polyunsaturated fat and monounsaturated fat (MUFA) is in the structure.
Monounsaturated fatty acids (like olive oil) are linked by one double bond. Polyunsaturated fats are linked by multiple double bonds.
This makes polyunsaturated fats more unstable, especially during processing. In fact, even small amounts of light, moisture, air or heat may damage polyunsaturated fats.
This is one reason why it is so important to choose cooking oils carefully. Remember, “vegetable oil” does not automatically equal a healthier option.
Why You Need Omega 6 Fatty Acids
Along with omega 3, omega 6 play an important role in brain function, as well as maintaining bone health, regulating metabolism, and maintaining the reproductive system.
Some believe that omega 6 fats cause inflammation and disease, and therefore should be avoided. It is important to be clear that omega 6 is extremely important. However, as I’ve said, the balanced needs to be right for overall good health.
One study emphasized this by saying:
Excessive amounts of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) and a very high omega-6/omega-3 ratio, as is found in today’s Western diets, promote the pathogenesis of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, whereas increased levels of omega-3 PUFA (a low omega-6/omega-3 ratio) exert suppressive effects.
In a review of the evidence researchers recommended,
It will be necessary to decrease the intake of omega-6 fatty acids from vegetable oils and to increase the intake of omega-3 fatty acids by using oils rich in omega-3 fatty acids and increase the intake of fish to two to three times per week or take supplements.
Therefore, it is the ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 that is important, more so than avoiding omega 6 fats completely.
What Is A Healthy Omega 3 To Omega 6 Ratio?
Western diets typically supply omega 6 to omega 3 fats in a 15 to 1 ratio, with some as high as 30 to 1. This is far from ideal.
One reason for the fat ratio being so off track, is because of a heavy reliance upon processed foods.
This tends to push the intake of omega 6 fats too high, which is confounded by the fact that most people simply don’t get enough 0mega 3 sources into their diet.
I suggest a further reason is the fear of saturated fats, which has been prevalent for years. This has led to an increased intake of other fat sources like corn, canola, soybean, sunflower or safflower oils.
So, what fat ratio should you aim for?
Some researchers recommend an omega 6 to omega 3 ratio of 1 to 1, as more desirable is reducing disease risk. Others recommend 2 to 1.
A lower ratio of omega-6/omega-3 fatty acids is more desirable in reducing the risk of many of the chronic diseases of high prevalence in Western societies, as well as in the developing countries… Source
Sources Of Omega 6 Fats
In particular, you should pay attention to your polyunsaturated vegetable oil intake. Most of these contain large amounts of omega 6 fatty acids.
Perhaps you are thinking you don’t consume much oil.
But, take a look at the salad dressing you are using. Oils high in omega 6 fats are common in salad dressings and mayonnaise. They are also found in margarine.
If you eat a lot of prepackaged foods like crackers, potato chips, cookies and other sweet snacks, or lots of condiments, you will certainly be consuming vegetable oils in those. Check the food label and you will see how overabundant these oils really are.
In fact, it is very difficult to find processed or prepackaged foods that do not contain one of these. Another reason to avoid processed foods, wherever possible.
Fast foods are another source of omega 6 fats.
Omega 6 Fatty Acids: What To Avoid
There are good and bad sources of omega 6 fats. You do not need to avoid all sources. But, here are some of the worst options:
- Canola oil
- Corn oil
- Cottonseed oil
- Grapeseed oil
- Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fat
- Safflower oil
- Soybean oil
- Sunflower oil
- Processed foods
What To Eat
So, what should you replace these unhealthy omega 6 fats with?
I think the “secret” to getting the balance right in your diet, is to eat real food most of the time.
- Lean meats and poultry (preferably free range, and grass fed beef)*
- Oily and non-oily fish
- Nuts and seeds
- Cold pressed extra virgin olive oil**
- Unrefined coconut oil
*I mention free range, grass fed meats because they typically contain better ratios of omega 6 to omega 3 fats.
I read a fascinating interview on Ethical Foods, from Rancher Dave Evans, which gives an in-depth view of the main benefits of eating grass fed beef. He points out that the ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids is in balance when you eat grass fed beef. Cattle fed grain predominately, will have a higher ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids.
**Essential fatty acids go rancid very quickly. They are sensitive to commercial processing, and this is why cold pressed oils are important.
Should You Avoid Nuts?
As I’ve said, nuts and seeds are quite high in omega 6 fats. And, I’ve read quite a lot recently about avoiding nuts, seeds and their oils because of this (mostly from Paleo circles).
However, I don’t think this is necessary.
Frequent nut consumption has been associated with lower concentrations of some peripheral inflammation markers in cross-sectional studies.
This suggests that even though nuts are high in omega 6 fats, they do not have the same inflammatory properties as other omega 6 fat sources.
Another review concluded,
Nuts are complex food matrices containing diverse nutrients and other chemical constituents that may favourably influence human physiology.
It’s pretty clear that nuts and seeds are not the primary culprit putting the omega 6 to omega 3 ratio out of whack. It is more likely to be the mass consumption of processed foods, containing corn or soybean oil, for example.
However, as I’ve said, omega 3 and omega 6 work hand-in-hand together, and while you don’t want your diet to be too high in omega 6 fats, I don’t see the need to avoid healthy sources of this essential fat.
8 Take Away Points
- Nuts and seeds are important in the diet, and should be consumed in small quantities — around 1 to 1 1/2 ounces each day.
- When buying nuts and seeds always go for raw, unsalted, and unroasted options.
- Replace omega 6 rich oils with one which is predominantly monounsaturated fat, for example olive, avocado or macadamia nut oil, or a saturated fat, like unrefined coconut oil.
- If buying nut or seed oils, remember they have a tendency to go off very quickly. So store them in the fridge, and go for one in a dark colored, glass bottle, where possible.
- Make sure you are getting enough omega 3 fats into your diet, such as oily fish, or take a fish oil supplement.
- Limit your intake of processed foods. Most food manufacturers use cheap vegetable oils to mass produce their products. These are extremely unhealthy.
- Scrutinize food labels to make sure you are not being tricked by misleading marketing.
- Make your own dressings and mayonnaise. And, avoid spreads and margarine completely.
What oils and fats do you use in your diet? Have you tried to cut your intake of omega 6 fatty acids?