Perhaps you have seen, heard, or even consumed the omega fatty acids, omega 3, omega 6, and omega 9. But how much do you know about the three? Probably not a lot unless you are a specialized nutritionist or a dietitian, the fact is—these are not just common knowledge. That’s why there is too much misinformation about omega fatty oils out there.
For that reason, this post seeks to uncover the actual truths about omega fatty acids from trusted sources. We will move from the very basics to their benefits, differences, ratios, side effects, and even having a balanced diet of the three. So, why not get ready to become an omega expert?
What Are Omega Fatty Acids?
To get the whole point right, it’s good first to understand what omega fatty acids are. True to their name, they are the building blocks of fat. The body breaks down fats into fatty acids so they can be useful in various body processes. Omega fatty acids are mainly animal or vegetable fats and are classified into three—omega 3, 6, 9.
Note that they also need to be consumed in the right quantities for you to reap the maximum benefits. Unfortunately, what is happening in western countries is the opposite. That’s why you need to read till the end—to understand how to get the most out of your omega fatty acids.
Basics of the Different Types of Omega Fatty Acids: Omega 3, 6, 9
Omega 3s are among the most fundamental fatty acids your body needs for different critical body functions because they have many health benefits. However, the body does not have a mechanism to produce them—you acquire them from the diet. And in case you don’t consume omega 3 rich foods frequently, you should take omega 3 supplements, for instance, fish oil or algal oil.
Note that omega 3 fatty acids exist in three main types. That is—Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA mainly comes from plants, while DHA and EPA mostly come from algae or animal foods. But there is more to that, so let us dive deep into it.
Types of omega 3
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
Food & Chemical Toxicology’s omega 3 evaluation records that ALA is the most common type of omega 3 you will find in any diet. Examples of ALA foods include chia seeds, walnuts, flax seeds, canola oil, soybeans, hemp seeds, and flaxseed oil.
Even though the body uses it mainly as a source of energy, it’s possible to convert it into other active forms of omega 3—EPA and DHA. The only challenge is inefficiency—only a small percentage, about 5 percent, is converted to the EPA, and 0.5% is converted to DHA.
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
EPA is one of the most critical nutrients that the body needs for physiological control. It produces eicosanoids, a signaling molecule that helps to minimize inflammation. Note that chronic inflammation is quite dangerous and can result in serious complications.
The primary sources of EPA are fish oil, seafood, and fatty fish—and for this reason, they are known as marine omega-3s. And to be specific, EPA is in high concentration in fish such as shrimp, herring, sturgeon, eel, and salmon.
Fish oil contains both EPA and DHA, which are critical in arresting mood-based conditions. However, research shows that EPA is more effective and works better than DHA in this case. Also, the nutrient helps in lowering hot flashes for middle-aged women, according to the journal Menopause.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
Last but not least is DHA—a quite essential type of omega 3 fatty acid in the body. It’s mostly found in oily fish, such as anchovies and salmon. As we have just pointed out, it significantly aids in reducing inflammation and associated conditions. However, it also has tons of other functions that affect the brain, heart, and eye.
Omega 6 is a polyunsaturated fatty acid whose last double bond is six carbon atoms away from the end of the omega fatty acid molecule. That’s where the number 6 in “omega 6” comes from, as we shall see later on. Like omega 3, these nutrients are critical to the body, even though the body does not have a mechanism to produce them.
Other common names that omega 6 is known by
- Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFA)
- N-6 Essential Fatty Acids
- Acides Gras Essentiels N-6
- Omega 6 Oils
Types of omega 6
Linoleic acid (LA)
Linoleic acid is one of the critical components of omega 6 fatty acids. That means it’s also polyunsaturated, with at least two double bonds within its structure. Also, it does not have some of the hydrogen atoms found in saturated fatty acids.
The primary function of Linoleic acid is maintaining the impermeability of skin to water. To cause other effects in the body, it must undergo specific processes to produce Arachidonic acid. The metabolism begins with the conversion of Linoleic acid to gamma-linolenic acid through a process known as delta-6-desaturation. It is subsequently broken down to dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid, and eventually, Arachidonic acid, which is also a type of omega 6.
Arachidonic acid (AA)
As we have just mentioned, Arachidonic acid comes from a series of reactions from Linoleic acid. It further undergoes metabolism to form hormone-like lipids—thromboxanes and prostaglandins. These hormones aid in blood clotting, seamless muscle contraction, and lower inflammation in the body.
Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)
CLA may sound similar to Linoleic acid, but they are very different. The main difference comes in the structure—how the carbon bonds are arranged in their configuration. CLA occurs in 28 different forms, all of which differ in their structures.
GLA has been a popular remedy for pretty much everything in the Native American community. Initially, Americans obtained it from evening primrose seeds and used it to minimize swelling. It was eventually nicknamed “king’s cure-all” because of its ability to aid many complications. However, scientists have gone ahead to research and ascertain the credibility of the old claims.
Science shows that GLA may help treat blood sugar. This condition causes discomfort in the feet and legs of people suffering from high blood sugar levels. It also improves skeletal health, hair growth, brain activity, metabolic activities, skin sensitivity, and reproductive health.
Like omega 3 and omega 6, omega 9 is a member of the unsaturated fats family, mostly obtained from vegetable and animal fats. In this case, the double bond is in the ninth carbon atom from the omega fatty acid molecule. And as we have pointed out in the other types, the body produces very negligible omega fatty acids. Therefore, you must eat foods rich in omega 9, such as nut oils, sunflower, canola, and olive oils.
Types of omega 9
It’s a monounsaturated type of omega-9 fatty acid common in high-fat food, such as animal meat and vegetables. Note that omega 9 fats aren’t essential fatty acids. That’s because they can be obtained from unsaturated fatty acids in the body. For that reason, they are known as non-essential fatty acids.
However, “non-essential” does not necessarily imply they are unhealthy or unessential to the body. They are “non-essential” because they are synthesized in the body, so you don’t have to ingest them from foods. Research records that it aids in reducing inflammation and mitigates the growth of excessive tissue.
Erucic acid is also a monounsaturated type of omega 9 fat. It mainly comes from mustard, rapeseed, canola oil, and other oil-rich foods, especially from the Brassicaceae plant family. However, Erucic acid has not yet been proven healthy. For instance, research shows that 90% of rapeseed and canola oil are mainly from GMO foods, which may induce health complications.
It’s a naturally occurring monounsaturated fatty acid composed of four elements: sphingosine, phosphoric acid, choline, and omega fatty acids. The primary sources of this nutrient are flaxseed, salmon, sesame seeds, and macadamia nuts. It helps in maintaining good brain health.
Evidence-Based Health Benefits of Omega Fatty Acids
Benefits of Omega 3 Fatty Acids
1. Counters mood-based conditions
It is undeniable that mood-based conditions have caused individuals and families to go through extreme anguish. Some of the most common signs of dips in mood include nervousness, sadness, mood swings, and general loss of interest in essential things. But the good news is—science shows that people who take omega 3 or its supplements have lower chances of going through these conditions.
It’s also a standard natural treatment for certain mood-based symptoms—when somebody with these challenges consumes omega 3, their condition improves. According to European Neuropsychopharmacology, Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) is the most effective type of omega 3 for fighting mood-based conditions.
2. Boosting eye health
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) plays a critical role in maintaining good eyesight. As a structural compound of the retina, low DHA results in macular degeneration of the retina, which may cause blurred visions and eventually total loss of eyesight. Note that the macular is the central portion of the retina, which processes sharp and straight vision. However, taking enough DHA nutrients keeps your macular health in the right condition and promotes saving your eyesight from such risks.
3. Aids in brain development of children
Omega 3 nutrients support children’s brain development during pregnancy and even after birth—in their early life. 40 percent of the human brain’s polyunsaturated fatty acids come from DHA. That’s why scientists recommend that pregnant and lactating mothers take foods rich in omega 3, specifically DHA.
Some of the benefits of taking omega 3 to the brain include:
- Good communication skills
- Boosts the child’s intelligence
- Better behavioral and social skills
- A good growth curve
4. Reduces risks to compromised heart health
In 2018, poor heart health was a leading health problem, according to the WHO statistics. A couple of decades ago, research showed that people consuming fish had lower rates of health complications. Later on, science proved that it was because of the omega 3 nutrients in fish. Since the discovery, omega 3 has become a significant nutrient for maintaining good heart health.
What specifically do omega 3s address?
- Blood clotting issues: Omega 3s inhibit the clumping of blood platelets, which protects it from clotting.
- Blood pressure complications: People with high blood pressure may notice lower measurements should they take omega-3 fatty acids.
- Boosts “good” HDL cholesterol levels: Omega 3s keep “good” HDL cholesterol at optimal levels.
- Inflammation: Some omega 3 foods like fish oil counters the effect of some of the substances secreted during the body’s inflammatory response.
- Clogged vessels: Omega 3s keep blood vessels clear to avoid the formation of plaques that cause restriction and hardening of the arteries.
5. Protection against Metabolic Syndrome
Metabolic syndrome is not necessarily a single condition. It’s a collection of complications such as extreme weight, blood pressure, excessive belly fat, etc. With this condition, you become susceptible to other conditions such as high blood sugar and heart-related complications. Fortunately, omega 3 has become a great adjunct therapy due to its ability to minimize inflammation, improve insulin resistance, and arrest other heart-related conditions.
6. Mitigates Autoimmune Conditions
The autoimmune condition is hazardous to the body—instead of fighting foreign cells, the immune system fights the healthy cells. One perfect example is high blood sugar levels. The immune system fights insulin-producing cells instead of defending them against attack by foreign cells. However, omega 3 rich diets help combat the condition before it escalates. As we mentioned earlier, pregnant and lactating mothers are advised to take more omega-3 foods. In this case, it helps fight autoimmune conditions during the early stages of life. It’s also useful in adults.
7. Skin benefits
Of the many benefits of DHA we have discussed so far, there is still one that can never be left out. And that is its role in maintaining healthy cell membranes. Healthy cell membranes cause the skin to be supple, moistened, soft, and free of wrinkles.
Also, EPA plays several significant roles in the wellness of your skin. They include:
- Lower risk of exposure to painful red pimples on the skin
- Prevents your skin from aging prematurely
- Facilitates oil secretion and skin hydration
- Prevents formation of red bumps on hair follicles, a process known as hyperkeratinization
8. Helps mitigate malignant cell growth
According to the CDC, malignant cell growth conditions ranked second in 2018’s report on causes of mortality in the United States. However, it’s already proven that omega 3s can help combat some growths, such as those affecting the colon and rectum. A case study conducted on Chinese adults shows that those who consumed omega 3s are 55 percent safer from this growth compared to those who don’t.
9. A remedy for breathing difficulties in children
Breathing challenges means that you are experiencing wheezing, shortness of breath, and coughing. That happens when the airways to the lungs have some swelling, or you are experiencing inflammation.
The US has been recording an increase in the number of breathing difficulty cases over the last couple of years. Research shows that taking omega 3 reduces the risk of breathing problems—both in children and adults.
10. Helps boost your sleep
Having enough sleep is a very critical consideration for healthy living. Science associates insufficient sleep with many medical complications like excessive weight, cardiovascular malfunctioning, and high blood sugar. Note that low omega 3 levels result in sleeplessness in children, while adults sometimes experience temporary sleep loss.
The reduced levels of omega 3, especially DHA, deprives you of the hormone melatonin—responsible for inducing sleep.
Benefits of Omega 6 Fatty Acids
1. Relieving the skin/Keeps your skin hydrated
Healthy skin has a layer of fat (epidermal lipids) to protect the body from moisture loss. However, when the body has less fat or gets compromised, the body loses moisture and eventually results in dry skin.
However, consuming some foods like chia foods helps correct this condition. It has constituents like Linoleic acid, an omega 6 fatty acid, which helps restore the fat coating, especially for people experiencing atopic dermatitis.
2. Safeguards your skin from premature aging
As we have just seen, omega 6 nutrients aid in forming a protective membrane on the skin. Together with omega 3, they serve to protect the skin against aging. Consuming enough of these nutrients causes the body to form and maintain a healthy skin membrane.
In turn, that helps protect the body against ultraviolet radiation, hydrates the skin better, and minimizes fine lines’ appearance. Continued use of omega 6 keeps your skin supple and youthful.
3. A remedy for your body if it’s susceptible to certain conditions
Some types of omega 6 fatty acids, such as GLA, have always been resourceful remedies for some allergic conditions, especially for children and infants. Research shows that women experiencing these conditions have low levels of omega 6, particularly GLA. Note that the sensitivity results from inflammation. Fortunately, omega 6 helps address the inflammation, and consequently, the weird sensitivity.
4. Treatment of high blood sugar
High blood sugar may result in severe pain and numbness in the legs and feet. It mostly affects patients who have cases of peripheral nerve dysfunction. It may even interfere with the heart rate, digestion, and bladder. Luckily, research shows that omega-6 fatty acids—especially GLA, play a critical role in addressing the condition.
5. Lowers the risk of prostate and breast malignant cell growths
Observational studies show that men who consume omega 6 foods or its supplements, especially those rich in conjugated linoleic acid, experience a lower risk of prostate complications. Similarly, the risk of breast complications lower in women with higher levels of CLA. However, it’s always recommended that before taking any supplements, you get approval from a registered healthcare provider.
6. May help regulate some hormone levels
These conditions cause behavioral, emotional, and physical changes during their menstrual cycle. The US Women’s Health research shows that this condition affects about 90 percent of women during menstruation. These changes emanate from fluctuations in some hormone levels, such as estrogen and progesterone. However, taking some omega 3 foods like evening primrose oil or other supplements can help keep the hormones within the desired levels, hence mitigating the changes.
7. It’s a remedy for weak or brittle bones
The primary cause of weak bones is low calcium levels in the body. Studies show that people with low levels of omega 6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, especially EPA, experience muscle and bone weakness. Therefore, taking EPA-rich foods helps boost their strength and reduce the risk of bone fractures.
8. Lowers the risk of mental health issues
Low omega 6 levels may result in mental health problems in children and may even last until adulthood. It affects an individual’s attention abilities and lowers their self-esteem. If not addressed early, low self-esteem may result in relationship challenges and low school performance due to insufficient class attention. However, research shows that a combination of omega 6 and omega 3 helps to combat this issue.
9. Linoleic Acid (LA) is a remedy for malfunctioning immune systems
Sometimes low omega 6 levels in the body cause the immune system to destroy the protective layer of nerves exposing it to severe complications. For instance, it may tamper with communication from the brain to other parts of the body, loss of vision and poor coordination.
Fortunately, studies show there is a relationship between linoleic acid and immune function.
Benefits of Omega 9 Fatty Acids
1. Boosting brain performance
Science shows that a low intake of monounsaturated fats results in cognitive decline in children and the elderly. Individuals who consumed more oleic acid-rich foods and supplements were more secure from cognitive decline. Furthermore, the study showed that these nutrients played a critical role in mitigating memory loss and other mental conditions.
2. Maintaining good heart health
As we pointed out earlier, heart complications are the leading cause of mortality in the US. An excellent example of such complications is high blood pressure. Fortunately, multiple research studies show that olive oil, one of the core sources of oleic acid, helps keep blood pressure at optimum levels. Note that 80 percent of olive oil is oleic acid—that’s what makes it so ideal for heart health.
3. Aids in weight loss
The Journal of Women’s Health conducted a study on women by administering three tablespoons of olive oil every day. At the end of the study, they found out that 80 percent recorded a 5 percent weight loss. Besides, the olive oil cut down triglyceride levels and boosted cholesterol levels. And as we have just seen, oleic acid, an omega 9 nutrient, is the most effective olive oil constituent.
What are the differences between Omega 3, 6, 9?
What’s the very first question that crossed your mind when you first saw these three types of omega acids? Most likely, you wondered what the three numbers mean, right? Well, if you’ve been following, you remember we mentioned something to do with their structures. So, the primary difference zeroes in on their structure.
Saturated and Unsaturated Fatty Acids
Saturated fatty acids do not have any double bond. All their carbon atoms have the maximum number of hydrogen atoms. However, none of these three has saturated structures. On the other hand, unsaturated fatty acids have double bonds within their structure, which means they can take in more hydrogen atoms. Therefore, all these three are unsaturated.
Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids
Monounsaturated fatty acids have a double bond at their ninth double bond. And that’s how they earn the name omega 9. On the contrary, polyunsaturated fats get theirs based on their first double bond from the backbone of the fatty acid molecule. Therefore, omega 3 has the first double bond at the third carbon atom, while omega 6 has its first double bond at the sixth carbon atom. That’s why omega 3 and omega 6 have so much in common.
Essential and Non-Essential Fatty Acids
“Essential” fatty acids play different critical roles in human health, but our bodies cannot produce them. That means we need to consume them as food. Omega 3 and omega 6 are both Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs).
“Non-essential” fatty acids are those that we don’t have to take as food. Our bodies can produce them by themselves—from other unsaturated fatty acids. Omega 9 fatty acids fall under this category.
Omega 3, 6 – What is the right ratio?
Even as we emphasize the essence of these EFAs in the body, it’s good to note that excessive consumption can also take a toll on your health. In the last century—when industrialization had not yet taken over the food industry, scientists found out that the ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 ranged between 1:1 and 4:1.2. Hunter-gatherers consumed very native foods with balanced omega levels—the ideal ratio that humans should be consuming.
Unfortunately, industrialization brought a whole new shift and affected the ratio ultimately. Research shows that individuals who use the typical western diet are at great risk because the ratios range between 15:1 and 17:1. The western diet substituted foods such as animal fats with processed foods like salad, margarine, etc. Since most of these foods are loaded with omega 6, consuming results in nothing but a spike in omega 6 (PUFA) consumption.
The foods are not tasty. What should I do?
Some foods and products like fish may not be appetizing to all—or produce as pleasant a smell as you’d want. That can be a huge turn-off, especially for kids. Luckily, you can mask the flavor and still enjoy all the omega 3 fatty acids’ benefits by adopting the following quick steps.
- When buying fish oil, choose one that is fruit-flavored.
- If you are not using it immediately, keep it in a refrigerator to suppress the smell.
- When applying to a sandwich, always be sure to put it inside the sandwich so that no one notices it.
- When giving the oil to your child, always mix it with their favorite meal.
- Prepare a smoothie and add the fish oil, then stir to the point it cannot be noticed.
So, What’s the Way Forward to More Balanced Omega Fatty Acids?
- Avoid consuming tons of foods/vegetable oils with high omega 6 levels.
But how do you distinguish the good from the bad? Well, keep away from processed foods such as soybean, cottonseed oils, corn, and sunflower. Instead, capitalize on natural foods and oils like coconut oil, olive oil, palm oil, lard, and butter.
However, to achieve significant results, that calls for a change in your lifestyle because it’s a long-term process. And that’s also because omega 6 gets stored in the body and can last for a long duration.
- Consume foods rich in omega 3.
Today, one of the best sources of omega 3 is animal foods. The only challenge is that most animals feed on omega 6-rich diets such as corn and soy. That means reducing omega 3 levels in the animal products, which translates to more omega 6 in the animal’s products.
Provided it’s not processed, conventionally raised animal products are still okay for consumption. To ensure you avoid omega 6, consider meat from the animal’s lean parts. Overall, the best alternative is taking strictly grass-fed meat, which is also unprocessed.
Note that animal foods are not the only option. Plant sources such as chia seeds and flax are still viable solutions. The only challenge is they mostly contain ALA, a type of omega 3. And that means a limitation because human bodies are not very efficient in converting it into the active omega 3 types—EPA and DHA.
That’s why grass-fed animal products and fish become the foods to go for. In case they are not readily available, you can still use available supplements.
Sources Of Omega Fatty Acids
Omega 3 Fatty Acids Foods
This fish is a blend of many nutrients. It contains 4,123 mg of omega 3 and other nutrients such as vitamin D, vitamin B, and selenium. Research associates salmon with promoting heart health.
Mackerel is a type of fish in the western countries that contain high levels of omega 3 (4,107 mg per piece). They are delicious, best when smoked, and need very little preparation.
3. Cod liver oil
True to its name, cod liver oil is a product of codfish, and it contains 2,682 mg of omega 3 per tablespoon. Other nutrients found in the food include vitamin D and vitamin A.
Herring is a type of fish that is cold-smoked sold as canned food. Most western countries like England consider it an ordinary breakfast known as kippers and is mainly served with eggs. It contains about 2,366 mg in every 100 grams of kippers.
Oysters are among the most nutritious types of shellfish you can ever find. Research shows it is the best source of zinc. It also has nutrients such as copper and vitamin B12 and can be consumed as snacks, appetizers, or even a whole meal. On average, the omega 3 levels are 435 mg per 100 grams.
They are a common type of oily fish, mostly consumed as a starter food, snack, or with other meal items as a delicacy. People also take it as a whole meal because of the high levels of other nutrients, like vitamin B12, selenium, and vitamin D. It contains about 1,480mg of omega 3 in every 100g, which makes it extra healthy for many conditions.
Anchovies contain about 2,113 mg of omega 3 in every 100g of the meal. Besides the high levels of nutrients, anchovies have a strong flavor, making them ideal for flavoring sauces or dishes, for instance, remoulade and Worcestershire sauce. Other critical nutrients include niacin, selenium, and calcium.
Caviar mainly consists of roe (fish eggs). It has incredibly high levels of omega 3 fatty acids—6,786 mg per 100g. As a result, people mostly consider caviar luxurious food. Therefore, it’s primarily used in small amounts—as a taster or a starter meal. It’s also a reliable source of choline.
9. Flax seeds
Flax seeds are the richest sources of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an active form of omega 3. The grains are either milled or ground to prepare the oil, making excellent omega 3 supplements. They also induce fiber and magnesium nutrients in the body. Their omega 6 to omega 3 ratio is way better than the others.
10. Chia seeds
With about 5,060 mg of omega 3 fatty acids per serving, you can be sure chia seeds are exceptionally nutritious. They are also excellent sources of nutrients like magnesium, selenium, manganese, and other nutrients. A typical 28-gram serving (1-ounce) of chia seeds contains about 5-grams of proteins consisting of all eight EFAs.
Walnuts contain high levels of fiber and other nutrients like manganese, copper, vitamin E, etc. Its skin contains phenol antioxidants that have proven health benefits. It has very high levels of omega 3—2,570mg per ounce.
Soybeans contain about 1,443 mg omega 3 fatty acids in every 100g. But apart from omega 3, it supplies other significant nutrients to the body, such as potassium, magnesium, riboflavin, vitamin K, and folate. The only challenge is that research shows they contain some omega 6—which may raise the omega 6 to omega 3 ratio in the body.
Omega 6 Fatty Acids Foods
Much of omega 6 fatty acids come from cooked and refined food containing vegetable oils. However, seeds and nuts are also excellent sources of omega 6. Therefore, for every 3.5 ounces (100g), the following are the quantities you will find in the foods.
- Soybean Oil: 50g
- Corn Oil: 49g
- Mayonnaise: 39g
- Walnuts: 37g
- Sunflower Seeds: 34g
- Almonds: 12g
- Cashew Nuts: 8g
Omega 9 Fatty Acids Foods
Below is a list of omega 9 fatty acids, with quantities in descending order, for each 100g. They mainly come from seeds and vegetable oils.
- Olive Oil: 83g
- Cashew Nut Oil: 73g
- Almond Oil: 70g
- Avocado Oil: 60g
- Peanut Oil: 47g
- Almonds: 30g
- Cashews: 24g
- Walnuts: 9g
The Bottom Line on Omega Fatty Acids
As we have seen in the previous sections, foods with omega fatty acids are critical to the body. However, when taken in the wrong quantities, they can result in detrimental effects. That’s mostly for omega 6. Also, taking excessive omega 3 may result in health complications, especially for those who engage in active sports activities. The bottom line is that you need to take care of the ratios and up that omega 3 intake to balance things out.
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