The human body is capable of producing all the fatty acids it needs, except for omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. These two fatty acids, also called ‘essential fatty acids’ have to be consumed from the diet as the human body cannot produce them on its own.
Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are important components of our body’s cell membranes and are precursors to many other substances in the body such as those involved in regulating blood pressure and inflammatory responses.
Omega-3 fatty acids are known for their anti-inflammatory benefits including protecting against heart diseases, reducing blood clotting in the arteries, protecting arteries from hardening, and reducing the level of triglycerides in the blood. Along with omega-3 fatty acids, omega-6 fatty acids play a crucial role in brain function, and normal growth and development. Omega-6s help stimulate skin and hair growth, maintain bone health, regulate metabolism, and maintain the reproductive system.
The Modern Danger of An Omega-3 to Omega-6 Imbalance
A healthy diet contains a balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, ideally in an optimal ratio of 1 to 4 (Omega-3 to Omega-6). Unfortunately, today’s modern diets are often deficient in Omega-3 fatty acids and have way too much Omega-6 fatty acids. The typical American diet, for example, tends to contain 14 to 25 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids. Most of the refined vegetable oils used in our daily cooking such as sunflower, soybean, corn, cottonseed and safflower are high in Omega-6s and low in Omega-3s. This imbalance (with excessive Omega-6s and too little Omega-3s) tends to promote inflammation and has been shown to increase the risks of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, autoimmune diseases, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, psoriasis, eczema etc. In an observational study conducted on a large group of Singapore Chinese adults in 2015, higher intakes of marine (EPA/DHA) and plant (ALA) omega-3 fatty acids were both associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular mortality.
To correct this Omega 3-to-Omega 6 imbalance in our modern diet, one should try to consume more Omega-3 fatty acids from the daily diet and lessen the consumption and use of vegetable oils that are high in Omega-6s and low in Omega-3s. If you need to cook, use cooking oils that are lower in Omega-6s such as olive oil, avocado oil and coconut oil.
The recommended adequate daily intake of Omega-3s as indicated by the National Institutes of Health is 1.6g (for male adults) and 1.1g (for female adults).
Good Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Oily fishes such as Salmon, 1 cooked portion (122g, 1.3g of omega-3s), anchovies, sardines, mackerel.
Walnuts, about 14 halves (28g, 2.5g of omega-3s)
Nature’s Superfoods black Chia Seeds 2 tbsp (15g, 3g of omega-3s)
Nature’s Superfoods Sacha Inchi seeds about 12 pieces, 3.4g of omega-3s
Nature’s Superfoods Cold-Pressed Sacha Inchi Oil 1 tsp, 3 g of omega-3s
On average, you can either have slightly more than 1 portion of cooked salmon, or about 5-6 Sacha Inchi seeds or 1 tsp of Sacha Inchi Oil to meet the recommended daily omega-3 fatty acids intake.
Dos and don’ts for Omega-3s
Omega-3 fatty acids can be optimally obtained from natural food sources (particularly superfoods high in Omega-3s) rather than via supplementation/pills. Natural Omega-3 food sources have other good nutrients as well, such as protein, vitamins and minerals. As shown from the earlier list of good Omega-3 sources, it is not difficult to meet the recommended daily intake of this nutrient; supplementation through pills is not necessary. Eating fish 2-3 times a week is recommended by most nutrition guidelines, and if you are a vegan, include good sources of plant-based Omega-3s (chia seeds, flax seeds, walnuts, sacha inchi seeds, seaweed & algae, etc) in your daily diet.
Excessive consumption of omega-3 fatty acids could lead to low blood pressure, thinning of blood, excessive bleeding if an injury were to occur. Although there is no upper limit intake of Omega-3s, consumption of more than 3g a day is not necessary, according to FDA in the USA.
Omega-3 supplements may interact with blood thinners, e.g. aspirin, warfarin to cause excessive bleeding. If you are taking any medications, discuss with your pharmacist before starting on omega-3 health supplements. However, as pointed out earlier, it is not necessary to take Omega-3 supplements if you can get adequate Omega-3 fatty acids from just food sources.