Omega-6s Have A Bad Reputation — Here's What You Should Know About Them
They're not the only omegas out there, though—and the next best-known essential fatty acids, omega-6s, don't have quite as sunny a reputation.
Honestly, if you had to sum up the situation with omega-6s in a couple of words, you might go with "it's complicated." You see, in recent years, omega-6 fats have been slapped with the scarlet letter of having "pro-inflammatory properties"—but, as with most things in health and nutrition, there's more to this story than meets the eye.
Omega-6s aren't inherently bad. In fact, your body needs some omega-6s (in fact, there's a daily nutritional requirement for omega-6 linoleic acid because our body can't synthesize it).
However, there's a very legitimate reason these other omegas have found themselves in the hot seat lately. Here's what to know about these somewhat confusing fats.
What are omega-6s?
Omega-6 fatty acids are a type of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid—PUFA, for short. What makes them unique is that the sixth carbon from the end of their string of carbons and hydrogens (which is what makes fats, well, fats) is missing a hydrogen (hence the name omega-6), explains dietitian Scott Keatley, R.D., of Keatley Medical Nutrition Therapy.
Because the body can't produce omega-6 fatty acids on its own, they're categorized as "essential," meaning we have to get them from food (more on which ones in a few).
The roles of omega-6s in the body
Though current dialogue might have you thinking that omega-6s are flat-out bad, they serve a number of very real purposes in the body.
For one, omega-6s are "generally considered beneficial for heart health" because they support healthy levels of LDL and HDL cholesterol, explains Dana Ellis Hunnes, Ph.D., MPH, R.D., adjunct assistant professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and author of the upcoming Recipe for Survival: What You Can Do To Live a Healthier and More Environmentally Friendly Life.
They also play a role in blood sugar regulation by promoting cells' sensitivity to insulin, which is important for metabolic health, Hunnes adds.
Omega-6s even serve an important purpose for our immune system. "They are critical for helping cells mount an immune response when needed, and they help keep your blood from clotting too fast or slow," highlights William S. Harris, Ph.D., president and founder of the Fatty Acid Research Institute.
Though it might sound bad that omega-6s are "the building blocks of inflammatory markers," Keatley says, "these pathways are an important defense mechanism that is used to help us regenerate and heal."
In addition to these functions, omega-6s are even involved with maintaining bone, reproductive, and brain health; hair growth; and overall growth and development, adds nutritionist Keri Gans, R.D., author of The Small Change Diet.
Where we get omega-6s
Remember, since they're considered essential, we rely on food for the appropriate supply of omega-6s our bodies need.
According to Gans, all sorts of foods—including corns, nuts, seeds, meat, and poultry—contain omega-6s. And though you'll find them in plenty of whole foods, omega-6s are most famously (or should we say infamously) found in vegetable oils.
The core issue is where (and how much of) those oils end up in our food supply. "Vegetable oil is used a lot in baking and can also be found in a lot of packaged goods," Gans says.
And because so much of the standard American dietary pattern sadly consists of packaged and processed foods, soybean oil (a common ingredient in them), in particular, is the "single largest source" of omega-6s for most people, notes Harris.
Corn, safflower, and canola oils are also major players in the unbalanced (in excess) consumption of omega-6s in our nation.
Why omega-6s get a bad rap
Clearly, omega-6s are important for a number of healthy body functions—but there are a couple of layers beneath their not-so-shiny reputation.
At the core is this: Research suggests that throughout human history, our diet consisted of a ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s somewhere around 2:1 or 1:1—and that maintaining the proper balance of these two types of omegas is necessary for health.*
Thing is, the average Western diet has strayed far (and we mean far) from that ratio, surpassing an alarming 15:1 or some estimates say 20:1. The reason for this extreme shift? The rise of highly processed foods and thus our intake of omega-6s.
Studies show that consumption of soybean oil in the United States increased by more than a thousand-fold throughout the last century. Talk about a clear trend.
"As with anything, too much of something good can become bad," Keatley notes. It's when we have too many omega-6s compared to omega-3s, he suggests, that it becomes a problem.
When this happens, omega-6s essentially get in the way of the wonderful anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3s. Bottom line: They're counterproductive.
Another layer of the issue here is that many of the omega-6s we consume are heated (the vast majority of fried foods are fried in oils rich in omega-6s). "When these oils are heated too high, they oxidize and may even be transformed into trans fats," explains Hunnes. Plus, consuming oxidized food compounds is a bad idea all around.
How to get your omegas in balance
Of course, minimizing your intake of fried and highly processed foods is a good move for your health for more reasons than just cutting back on omega-6s (i.e., maintaining gut health, blood sugar, and more).
As a general rule of thumb, Hunnes recommends sticking to a maximum of 1 to 2 tablespoons of foods containing omega-6s per day. "That might look like eating an ounce of sunflower seeds and cooking with a modest amount (i.e., tablespoon) of sunflower oil, for example," she says.
Other oils to limit include corn oil, soybean oil, canola oil, cottonseed oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, and grapeseed oil.
Harris, meanwhile, suggests that you "leave your omega-6 intake alone and increase your intake of 'fatty' or 'oily' fish sources, like anchovies, salmon, sardines, herring, and albacore (white) tuna" in order to tip the scales back into a better balance of omega-6s to omega-3s. (Salmon, for example, has a 1:11 ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s, while anchovies have a 1:15 ratio, Keatley points out.)
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends eating two 3.5-ounce servings of fish (preferably the fatty variety Harris mentioned) per week as a baseline recommendation for the general population.
By the way, that two-fish serving delivers about 500 milligrams of marine omega's EPA and DHA. That said, few people actually consume this much fish. Over 90% of Americans aren't consuming this baseline recommendation, so we're looking at a national opportunity for improvement here.
It's important to mention that the AHA recommends higher amounts (1 gram-plus of EPA and DHA daily) for focused heart-health support.*
That's the equivalent of consuming about an omega-3-rich fish a day, which is why a high-quality omega-3 supplement that delivers a potent and pure source of EPA plus DHA may be helpful for many.*
Try this: mindbodygreen's omega-3 potency+
The issue with omega-6s that much of the Western world faces is that we consume far too many of them, primarily through processed foods.
So, making diet and supplement routine adjustments to achieve a more balanced ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s is an important and worthwhile move.
With that in mind, don't throw the baby out with the bathwater here; when consumed in healthy amounts (and from whole-food sources), omega-6s serve a variety of important purposes throughout the body.
Korin Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general wellness, relationships, and lifestyle trends with a master’s degree from American University. Her work has appeared in Women’s Health, Prevention, Self, Glamour, and more. She lives by the beach, and hopes to own a taco truck one day.