Omega-3 vs. Omega-6: The Key Differences Between These Fatty Acids
It turns out balance truly is the key to health, even when it comes to individual nutritional elements. Many people know about the importance of omega-3s, but these aren't the only fats that deserve a seat at the table. When it comes to fatty acids, we simply can't forget about omega-6s.
A perfect balance of omega-3s and omega-6s promotes optimal cardiovascular health, cognitive well-being, and other vital physiological functions.* So what's the difference between these fatty acids, and what exactly does a balanced ratio of omega-3s and omega-6s look like?
Here's what you need to know to effectively achieve sufficient levels of these famous fats, plus what it takes to reap their benefits.
What are fatty acids?
Fatty acids are compounds that consist of long chains of carbon atoms attached to two hydrogens with a carboxylic acid (-COOH) at the end. There are various categories of fatty acids and different ways to categorize them.
Sometimes, in the sequence of hydrogen and carbon molecules, a hydrogen molecule is absent, and the carbon is forced to double bond to the next carbon. This distinction in structure leads to the three main types of fats: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. Saturated fatty acids (like palmitic and stearic acid) contain no carbon double bonds, monounsaturated (e.g., omega-9 fatty acids) have one, and polyunsaturated (aka PUFAs like omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids) have more than one.
So what's with the numbers? Simply put, it's a fancy, scientific way to identify the location of the first double bond in the sequence. This double bond placement gives the fatty acids their unique, magic touch (and names). There are various types—including omega-3, -6, and -9—classified by the spot that first double bond occurs.
Beyond this categorization, even more specificity exists. To get really into it, the main and most heavily researched types of omega-3s are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The main omega-6s are linoleic acid (LA) and gamma-linolenic acid (GLA).
Of these five, by definition ALA and LA are the only "essential" fatty acids, meaning the body can't produce them endogenously and we must consume them regularly. However, the body can synthesize longer-chain fatty acids (i.e., EPA, DHA, and GLA) from ALA and LA—but we'll get to this process and its effectiveness (hint, it's lacking) in a bit.
Omega-3 key benefits.
Omega-3s are famously heart healthy, but if we look at the research, these fats do more than just support your ticker, also supporting your brain, mood, eyes, immune system, and bones—talk about a full-body boost!* The benefits omega-3s provide to your heart and brain are especially impactful, putting them on the radar of most health and wellness lovers.*
When it comes to cardiovascular health, omega-3s seem to do it all: These fatty acids promote proper circulation, help regulate heart rate1, improve endothelial function2, and support healthy levels of triglycerides.* What's more, consuming at least 800 milligrams of EPA and DHA (e.g., combined in a high-quality fish oil supplement) may reduce blood pressure and reduce the risk of hypertension, which is a major risk factor for coronary heart disease (aka CHD).†
And the exceptional benefits don't stop there—omega-3s bolster cognitive function and overall brain health on a number of levels as well.* Marine omega-3s (especially DHA) have been shown to help support working memory, mental acuity, our ability to learn3, and even longevity4.* Translation? The friendship between the brain and omega-3s is loyal, steadfast, and true.
Omega-6 key benefits.
Omega-6s are essential fatty acids (reminder: that means the body can't make them on its own) with various purposes throughout the body. "These fatty acids (primarily linoleic acid) help modulate cholesterol levels (relative to saturated fatty acids) and have some anti-inflammatory properties,"* says William Harris, Ph.D., FASN, FAHA, co-creator of the omega-3 index5.
According to Harris, one type of omega-6 (arachidonic acid) is even the obligatory precursor for hundreds of important biological molecules that regulate many metabolic processes.* Omega-6s support heart health by bolstering healthy cholesterol levels, helping to regulate blood sugar, and playing a critical role in our immune system as they fuel pathways vital to healing.*
The main differences between the two.
Despite omega-3s and omega-6s both being polyunsaturated fatty acids and crucial for myriad physiological functions, these two fats differ in their structures, sources, and properties. We've already addressed the differences in the precise biochemical makeup of omega-3 and omega-6, but according to cardiologist Carl Lavie, M.D., those minor structural differences lead to markedly different effects in the body.
It has been thought that omega-3s are largely anti-inflammatory (in terms of their properties and actions), while omega-6s are more pro-inflammatory, but we simply can't pit these two big players against each other like that. Yes, some forms of omega-6s promote pro-inflammatory pathways, but to be honest, that's not always a bad thing.
For example, omega-6s act as the building blocks of pro-inflammatory protein compounds, which are an important defense mechanism used to help us heal and rejuvenate, dietitian Scott Keatley, R.D., of Keatley Medical Nutrition Therapy previously told mbg.
How to get the perfect balance of omegas.
Marine omega-3s are found in fatty fish (like the recommended list of SMASH fish from functional medicine doctor Mark Hyman, M.D.) but also can be found in seaweed, shellfish, and algae. While the omega-3 content is higher in fatty fish, all of these sources provide EPA and DHA.
Other sources of omega-3s are nuts and seeds like hemp seeds and flaxseeds, which provide ALA. Similarly, omega-6s are most commonly found in vegetable oils.
Based on the sources of these fats, it's no surprise that Americans are more likely to obtain more omega-6s than omega-3s in their diet. Vegetable oils like canola and soybean fill many Americans' diets and can result in a wildly unbalanced omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. While the 6perfect balance is a two-to-one ratio6, Americans tend to consume 10 or even 20 times6 the amount of omega-6s.
This lack of balance is the main reason omega-6s get a bad rap. After all, anything out of balance isn't a good thing! Experts like Harris suggest focusing on upping omega-3s instead of cutting down on your omega-6s (and here at mbg, we're all about adding rather than restricting).
Choosing an omega-3 supplement.
The truth is, Americans aren't eating their baseline needs of two servings of fatty fish7 per week, as recommended by the American Heart Association. The recommended intake of omega-3s per day is 250 to 500 milligrams (which equals that baseline input of one to two servings of oily fish a week); most U.S. adults are only getting 86 milligrams per day7.
Unless you're consistently incorporating salmon, anchovies, tuna, mackerel, and other fatty fish into your weekly meal plan, a fish oil supplement can help take your omega-3 levels from "blah" to "heck yeah!" And this omega-3 endeavor isn't just about filling "gaps" since the cardioprotective benefits of omega-3s (specifically EPA and DHA) are known to hover around 1,000 milligrams daily and up8.* That amount requires daily intention.
That's why one of the most important things to look for when choosing an omega-3 supplement is potency. A targeted, efficacious dose of omega-3s like mbg's omega-3 potency+, which includes 1,500 milligrams of EPA and DHA in each serving, is the best way to achieve health-promoting levels of omega-3s for today and your future.*
Another consideration is freshness and, well, fishy burps. The quality of your supplement affects whether or not you taste your morning supplement later in the day. With a high-quality supplement specifically designed to minimize contaminants and rancidity, the fish oil is appropriately produced, transported, encapsulated, and stored.
As a result, oxidation is limited, which is key to preventing those nasty burps and promoting fresh oil. Premium omega-3 supplements may also up their freshness and sensory experience by utilizing botanicals. You'll find organic lemon oil and rosemary extract in mbg's omega-3 supplement, for example.
Supplementing with EPA and DHA instead of just ALA is ideal, due to the low conversion rate of ALA to EPA and DHA within the body. This conversion rate (affected by estrogen levels9, age, genetic variability, and more) is so inefficient that EPA and DHA are often considered to be "conditionally essential."
And don't worry, vegans, you can find plant-based DHA supplements that derive their omega-3 from algae—after all, that's where fish get their omega-3s in the first place.
For more product recommendations, check out our top omega-3 supplement picks.
The bottom line.
When it comes to the omega cousins, we can't forget about the less famous of the two: omega-6. Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are key to a healthy lifestyle.
A diet high in omega-3s is prudent, but striking that omega-6-to-3 balance is easiest when elevating our omega-3 game with a high-potency, ultrapure supplement and consuming modest and healthful sources of omega-6s (think walnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds, and more).
It's easy to let omega-3 myths guide your understanding of health, but realizing the true nature of fatty acids will help our bodies function the best they can.
Working toward balance inside and out—your work schedule and personal time, streaming binges and time spent in nature, your omega-6s and your omega-3s—is key to not only optimizing your physical and mental well-being but also feeling more aligned in your daily life.
†Consuming EPA and DHA combined may reduce blood pressure and reduce the risk of hypertension, a risk factor for CHD (coronary heart disease). However, FDA has concluded that the evidence is inconsistent and inconclusive. One serving of omega-3 potency+ provides 1.5 grams of EPA and DHA.
Josey Murray is a freelance writer focused on inclusive wellness, joyful movement, mental health, and the like. A graduate of Wellesley College, where she studied English and Creative Writing, her work appears in Women’s Health, Cook & Culture, and more. By expressing her own vulnerability, she writes with warmth and empathy to help readers find self-compassion and true wellness that’s sustainable for body, mind, and planet.