You’ve probably heard omega-3 and omega-6 fats referred to as "essential fats." This is because our bodies cannot make them; they must be obtained from food. Both of these polyunsaturated fatty acids are necessary for health, but maintaining a healthy balance of the two is extremely important. Let’s talk about why.
Omega-6s are considered to increase inflammation in the body, whereas omega-3s help to decrease inflammation. Having too many omega-6s and too few omega-3s in the diet has been linked to heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes; improving your ratio of these fats may also help you to balance your hormones and boost the functioning of your immune system.
I ate too little fat overall when I was a teenager and definitely ate too few omega-3s. For me this manifested as unhealthy healthy hair, skin, and nails; it also contributed to depression and adversely affected my metabolism.
Getting omega-6s in the diet is very easy: most people are probably getting way more omega-6s than they need.
Omega-6s are found in nuts, seeds, beans, and grains; they’re also in the vegetable oils that go into a vast array of processed snack foods. Commercial eggs, poultry, and meats are all high in omega-6s, too, because commercial animals are fed grains.
Omega-3 fats are much harder to get through food. This is too bad, because so many of us really need to eat more of them in order to promote a favorable ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s.
Here are the foods that contain omega-3s, so you can work on adding more of them to your diet:
- They're plentiful in fatty fish that live in cold water (such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, anchovies, and bluefish).
- They're also found in sardines (small oily fish related to herring).
- They're found in egg yolks of pastured chickens and the beef of grass-fed cows. I’m concerned that people avoid egg yolks and beef because they’ve been led to believe these are bad for you; these can truly be health promoting foods when they're from high quality sources.
What if you don’t eat animal foods? Can you get omega-3s in that case?
Yes…and no. Let me explain.
There are actually three fatty acids in the omega-3 family:·
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- Docosa- hexaenoic acid (DHA)
ALA is found in a variety of foods, and decent amounts can be sourced from plant-based ingredients such as flaxseeds, walnuts, and hemp seeds and their oils; chia seeds; and certain green leafy vegetables, including the “weed” purslane. This seems like good news, but unfortunately, on its own, ALA appears to be of limited value for your health. (The body is able to convert some of the ALA into EPA and DHA, but this conversion is not very efficient.)
EPA and DHA really appear to be much more beneficial; these are the fatty acids that are found in fish such as salmon, pastured eggs, and grass-fed beef. So if you enjoy these foods, be sure to eat them!
If you avoid animal foods that contain omega-3s (or if your diet is simply lacking in omega-3 foods), consider taking an omega-3 supplement, so you don’t become deficient in this important fat. If you are vegetarian or vegan, you can look into algae oil; otherwise, you can take fish or krill oil.
Note that fish oil and fish liver oil are not the same thing. Unlike fish oil, fish liver oil—generally made from cod and sometimes from skate—does not generally have high amounts of EPA and DHA, as fish oil does (though fish liver oil does contain vitamin D).
Good luck with your health journey and keep me posted!
Adapted with permission from One Simple Change: Surprisingly Easy Ways to Transform Your Life by Winnie Abramson.
Winnie Abramson is the author of One Simple Change, available for pre-order now. She grew up in a restaurant family and is passionate about the connection between good food and good health. She has a graduate degree in naturopathic medicine and you can find more of her delicious recipes at HealthyGreenKitchen.com.