The Omega Ratio | Balancing Omega-3 and Omega-6 intake
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Misbah Wasi

Functional Nutrition Specialist, Scientific & Regulatory Advisor for Health Supplements

Misbah Wasi is a seasoned professional in the field of Nutrition Science and Food Regulation for over 15 years. Currently, she is lendin her expertise in the area of Health Supplements and Nutraceuticals and is an active member of the Standards Review Group (SRG) - Nutraceuticals FSSAI Ms. Wasi is a post-graduate in Food and Nutrition. Certified Lead Food Safety Management Systems Auditor (FSMS, FSSC 22000) and a certified FoSTaC traine for Health Supplements and Nutraceuticals. She is also a Subject Matter Expert for ‘Food Regulations in India’ for IFLR (International Food Laws and Regulations) course at Michigan State University.

The Omega Ratio: How to balance Omega-3 and Omega-6 intake in your diet

The Omega ratio is the balance between Omega-3 and Omega-6. The ratio between them is important because an imbalance can have health implications. A healthy diet should aim for a balanced Omega Ratio, ideally with a higher intake of omega-3s compared to omega-6s. The imbalance has been associated with chronic inflammation, which is a contributing factor to various health issues, including cardiovascular diseases, arthritis, and other inflammatory conditions.

Polyunsaturated fats are a class of unsaturated fats and are characterized by two or more double bonds. They are primarily of two types: omega 6, and omega 3. They are termed as essential fatty acids (EFA’s) since the human body is unable to produce them indigenously, like vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients, therefore they must be supplied through diet. Both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are important components of cell membranes and act as precursors to other substances in the body. The distinction between omega-6s and omega-3s lies within their chemical structures, which leads to their unique functions in the body. While both are necessary, the key lies in the balance between them. Omega-3s, found in fatty fish, flaxseeds, and walnuts, are renowned for their anti-inflammatory properties and cardiovascular benefits. On the other hand, Omega-6s, prevalent in vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds, are essential but can promote inflammation when not balanced with Omega-3s.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fats that help to lower triglycerides, promote blood flow and cardiac, and vascular function, and control thrombosis and inflammation. These are represented by α-linolenic acid (ALA). Oils that are rich in Omega-3 are Mustard, Low erucic acid-Mustard, Flaxseed, Soybean Oil, and Fish Oil. Some of the types of omega-3 fats:

  1. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) functions to produce chemicals called eicosanoids, which help reduce inflammation and reduce symptoms of depression.

  2. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) contributes to brain development and function.

  3. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is beneficial for the heart, immune system, and nervous system.

Important functions of Omega-3 fats:

  • Helps in fighting inflammation
  • Improves mental health
  • Keeps our heart healthy.
  • Aid in reducing weight
  • Healthy brain development in foetus

Omega-6 Fatty Acids

Omega-6 fatty acids are essential fatty acids that provide energy. These are represented by linoleic acid (LA) and can be converted to longer omega-6 fats such as arachidonic acid (AA). Linoleic Acid (LA) is found primarily in vegetable oils, some nuts, and seeds. These act by lowering Low-density lipoprotein levels and are beneficial for heart health when consumed in moderation. Oils that are rich in Omega-6: Corn/ Maize Oil, Soybean Oil, Sunflower Oil, Groundnut Oil, and small amounts in dairy products.

Important functions of Omega-6 fats:

  • Contributes to the structural integrity and fluidity of cell membranes
  • Plays a role in neurotransmission and cognitive function.
  • Serve as precursors to pro-inflammatory signaling molecules
  • Involve in the synthesis of hormones
  • Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), an omega-6 fatty acid, helps maintain the integrity of the skin barrier

The recommended healthy ratio of Omega 3: Omega 6 ranges from 1:5 to 1:10. (FSSAI)

Importance of Omega-3 to Omega-6 Ratio

Mammalian cells cannot convert omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids because they lack the converting enzyme, omega-3 desaturase. Both, linoleic acid (LA) and α-linolenic acid (ALA) are important components of animal and plant cell membranes. These two classes of essential fatty acids are metabolically and functionally distinct and often have important opposing physiological functions. Their ideal ratio in the body is important and an imbalance of this polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) in the peripheral blood causes an overproduction of proinflammatory cytokines and results in the pathophysiology of major depression.

The imbalance between omega-6s and omega-3s is largely the result of the traditional reliance on vegetable oils such as corn, soybean, safflower, and sunflower. These oils are enriched in omega-6 fatty acids (linoleic acid), which can be metabolized in animals and humans to form longer-chain fatty acids such as di-homo-gamma-linolenic acid (DGLA), docosapentaenoic acid (omega-6 DPA), and arachidonic acid (AA). At the same time, diets lacking in leafy green vegetables, which are enriched in omega-3 fatty acids such (as alpha-linolenic acid), and in oily fish, contain the longer-chain omega-3 fatty acids such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Diets high in linoleic acid can increase the susceptibility of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) to oxidation, which can promote vascular inflammation. Therefore, oxidized LDL may play some role in the etiology of heart diseases.

The balanced ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 during pregnancy and breastfeeding contributes to the optimal neurological and visual development of the baby. One intervention study showed that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation reduced body weight and obesity in lean, overweight, and obese individuals. Omega-3 fatty acids are long-term metabolic fuel partitioners with greater partitioning towards β-oxidation in men than in women. Omega-3 fatty acids, (particularly EPA and DHA) play critical roles in brain function and development, they have a protective effect against mental health disorders by reducing inflammation and influencing neurotransmitter function.

Research indicates that the unbalanced ratio of omega-3/omega-6 is highly prothrombotic and proinflammatory, which contributes to the prevalence of atherosclerosis, obesity, and diabetes. Also, high Omega-6 levels in the body are linked with an increased risk of mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety. Their high intake during the perinatal period is associated with increased adiposity in the offspring. Omega-6 fatty acids tend to promote inflammation, which is an essential part of the immune response to injury and pathogens. Omega-3 fatty acids, on the other hand, have anti-inflammatory properties. Maintaining a balance between these fatty acids in the diet helps to regulate inflammation in the body and promote overall health.

How to achieve the balance?

  1. Increase the omega-3-rich foods: Add fatty fish to your diet. Plant-based sources like flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts are excellent alternatives for those following a vegetarian.

  2. Replacing vegetable oils high in omega-6 fatty acids (corn oil, sunflower, safflower, cottonseed, and soybean oils) with oils high in omega-3s (flax, canola, chia, rapeseed), and high in monounsaturated oils such as olive oil, hazelnut oil, etc.

  3. Increasing fish intake to 2–3 times per week, while reducing the meat intake.

  4. Include the correct nuts and seeds, While nuts and seeds are nutritious, be mindful of their Omega-6 content. Include a variety of seeds. Sunflower seeds, pine nuts, and pumpkin seeds are high in Omega-6.

  5. Choose cooking methods like baking, steaming, and grilling instead of frying as this can degrade some of the beneficial properties of omega-3 fatty acids.

  6. Limit processed and fried foods: Processed and fried foods often use oils high in Omega-6. Minimize your intake of such foods and focus on whole and unprocessed options.

  7. Consider high-quality supplements and add omega-3 supplements.

An imbalance in the omega-3 and omega-6 ratio may promote the pathogenesis of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, and interfere with normal brain development. Lower intake of omega 3 fatty acids in comparison to omega 6 fatty acids contributes to inflammation and chronic diseases. Thus, incorporating more omega-3-rich foods and limiting omega-6 intake while making mindful food choices can support optimal health and reduce inflammation in the body. The best way to promote health and overall well-being is to get adequate levels of omega-3, either through fish and seafood consumption or supplementation. Supplements can be of great help in balancing the ratio, especially for those who do not consume fish or seafood. Omega-3 supplements, such as fish oil or algae oil, help to increase its intake.

 

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