Omega 3 and 6 Basics

Essential fatty acids or EFA’s seem to be one of those subjects that leave more people baffled and confused than any other.  Rightfully so, the information that’s out there is either for rocket scientists to decode or there are 1000 different opinions to sort through. Lately, most people have been asking me about omega 6 fatty acids and if they are “bad”.  Some of you know by now that I really use nature as a gauge.  For instance, the other day my daughter asked me why Fruit Loops aren’t good for you – so I, in turn, asked her if they grow on trees.  Omega 6 is found in the oils of safflower, corn, walnut, soy & sunflower, to name just a few – which are obviously found in nature.  So right there is the indicator that the fat itself is not “bad”.  The questions around omega 6’s should probably be more like:  how does omega 6 affect me, can it ever be harmful to my health and how does it relate to that other fat we hear even more about – omega 3?  Here are my thoughts:

In primitive diets, the ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 was about 1:1.  Today, due to the factory food industry using more omega 6 oils in processed foods, the ratio has become more like 20:1.  Here’s where things start to break down.  To simplify a VERY complex process, these EFAs are the catalysts for many functions within the body.  For instance, the movement of calcium in and out of cells, muscle contraction and relaxation, blood clotting, hormone regulation, fertility and inducing labor and cell division and growth.  There are two pathways into these functions – one that initiates with omega 6 fatty acid and a second with omega 3.  One way to shut down an entire functional pathway is to have a ratio of 20:1 in your diet.  When we consume 20 times the amount of omega 6’s, it robs the omega 3 pathway of its ability to function, which in turn begins a cascade of malfunction.  In addition, you may also have heard that omega 6’s are inflammatory and omega 3’s are anti-inflammatory.  There actually is validity to this… but the two work together.  It’s very much like estrogen and progesterone or calcium and magnesium.  There’s always one side that appears to be more of the bad guy, but it’s not really so.  They are complementary and one cannot exist without the other.  As always, balance is key, but when we’re heavily weighted on the inflammatory side, we set the stage for a whole host of issues.  Since awareness is very important in the healing process, the next time you grab a box or bag of food, check out the label.  Is it made with “healthy” sunflower or safflower oil?  Again, not necessarily “bad” oils, but notice how much you are consuming on a daily basis relative to the omega 3’s.  A perfect ratio always exists in nature, so no need to worry if 100% of your diet consists of whole foods.  But in the real world that’s rarely the case… so we have to do what we can with what is available.  Here are a few suggestions to regain some EFA balance:

  1. Remove ALL transfat (commercial vegetable oils & oils that say “partially hydrogenated”).
  2. Try reducing your intake of processed foods across the board.
  3. Start taking note of the amount of omega 6’s in your diet.
  4. Increase intake of omega 3 foods: seafood, flax oil, eggs, pasture-raised meats, nuts, dark leafy greens, cod-liver oil.


Enig, Mary and Fallon, Sally (January 2000).  Tripping Lightly Down Prostaglandin Pathways