What is the difference between Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids?

When it comes to our omegas – 3 and 6 – few people know the difference. In fact, most people think that if they eat some fish and nuts or seeds they should be covered. Omega-3 and Omega-6 are referred to as “essential fatty acids”. Not only are they essential to the health of your brain, heart, skin, and hormones, but they must be consumed through food (or supplements) because your body isn’t capable of producing them on its own.

Many people are scared of including fats in their diet, particularly if they are watching their weight. But the truth is we need some dietary fat in order to burn body fat. Extreme low-fat diets are actually associated with increased risk of depression, suicide and neurodegenerative diseases.

So what are the main differences between omega-3 and omega-6 and which foods are sources?

OMEGA-3

Omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fats are necessary for optimal health. They help our heart, brain, and body function well; and protect us from disease. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is the most common omega3 fatty acid in diets in the Western world, while eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are omega-3s, which mainly come from fish. Most cooking oils don’t contain Omega-3s— salmon, chia seeds, nuts (particularly walnuts), flax seeds, and leafy green vegetables are the best sources.

Research shows that Omega-3 fatty acids can significantly reduce the risk for sudden death caused by cardiac arrhythmias and all-cause mortality in people with coronary heart disease.

OMEGA-6

These fats are also necessary but can be harmful when eaten in excess, so they are good and bad. They are found in most vegetable oils (soybean, sunflower, safflower, corn, and canola), as well as many fried foods, cereals, and whole-grain bread. Omega-6 fats contribute to muscle health and increase inflammation in the body. Inflammation is a good thing in small doses (you need it to heal from a cut or other acute injuries), but long-term, chronic inflammation can trigger chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, which in effect cancels out the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.

The omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid arachidonic acid (ARA) has been shown to significantly contribute to the fatty acids that are present in the membrane phospholipids of cells involved in inflammation. In the vast majority of our diets, Omega-6 fatty acids are grossly over-represented.

Want to learn more about good fats and essential fatty acids, and how to incorporate them into your diet? Join our Feel Fabulous by Friday program here