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The Omega-6 Problem

Many food products proudly advertise their omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid content.

I partially understand why.  Unlike other fats (like omega-9 fatty acids), we must get these two polyunsaturated ones from our diets.  That is precisely why they are known as essential fatty acids.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, our present omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is completely off-balance, largely in part to highly processed diets that contain significant amounts of plant oils high in omega-6 fatty acids.  Since soy is a subsidized crop, soybean oil is an inexpensive by-product commonly used in low-nutrition, low-cost snack foods.  Corn and cottonseed oils are also very high in omega-6, while offering negligible amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.

While saturated and trans fats are constantly mentioned in the realm of degenerative diseases (especially cardiovascular ones), dietary advice should also recommend limiting omega-6 fatty acids.

While I do not think saturated fats are absolutely harmless, I certainly do not consider all of them (remember, there are many different saturated fats) to be horrible fats we must avoid like the plague.

What is most interesting, though, is a simple look at consumption patterns over the past forty years.

Among 18 – 44 year olds in the United States, saturated fat consumption clocked in at 30 grams per day in 1970, and 27.8 grams per day in 2005.

Omega-6 fatty acid intake, however, was at 9 grams per day in 1970, and almost doubled to 17 grams by 2005.

High intakes of omega-6 fatty acids have been linked to cellular inflammation — one of the main factors behind a substantial number of degenerative diseases.

This is why I think everyone should prioritize omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fats, then consider healthier saturated fats (like coconut and cacao), and leave omega-6 fatty acids and less healthy saturated fats (like that in cheese, pork, and chicken skin) last.

Although omega-6 fatty acids are essential, they are so prevalent in so many foods that you would have to try extremely hard (and eat a significantly and dangerously limited diet) to not meet your daily requirement.

I want to finish by making sure the main points of this post are understood:

  • Omega-6 fatty acids are NOT intrinsically unhealthy.  We need to consume a certain amount every day for optimal health.
  • Very healthy foods are good sources of omega-6 fatty acids.  I am not advocating total avoidance of foods that contain omega-6 fatty acids.
  • However, our consistently higher intakes of this particular fat need to be curbed, since more is certainly NOT better.

FYI: in reference to this post’s accompanying photograph, there is no reason to ever supplement omega-6 in pill form.

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2 Comments

  1. Meal Makeover Mom Janice said on February 18th, 2010

    Andy, this is a great summary of the different fats and which we should be eating more of. I try to get as many omega-3s as possible in my diet via things like seafood, walnuts, canola oil and ground flaxseeds. Hard to believe that they sell omega-6 supplements since the typical American diet contains so much!

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