Good Fats and Bad Fats: Where Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fit
If you grew up when I did, fats are bad. Sugar is no big deal. Let's drink some soda! Or let's not and say we did.
While it may at first escape us, there is a point to everything that exists in nature. None of it seems terribly accidental, in the end. Fats may, in fact, be one of the most purposeful gifts of all!
Why Fats Are Good
Fat is essential for cellular construction, nerve function, digestion, and the formation of the hormones that regulate everything from metabolism to circulation. The membranes of every cell in your body are composed of fat molecules. 1 Your brain is composed of more than 60% fat and cholesterol. 2
Did you know fats are even necessary for the absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K? This makes them the gatekeeper to the many essential functions of these vitamins, some of which are delineated below: 3
- Vitamin A is a critical for the health of your eyes, skin and immune system.
- Vitamin D boosts bone health and regulates calcium metabolism.
- Vitamin E protects lipids and proteins from oxidative damage.
- Vitamin K enhances blood clotting and promotes facial symmetry.
Additionally, all of these vitamins interact synergistically to support immune health, provide for adequate growth, support a strong skeleton, and protect soft tissues from calcification.
And none of this could happen without fats. Who knew?
Different Types of Fat
Excluding the villainous, and now accordingly banned, Trans fat, there are three. We've broken them down by structure, function, and where you can get them. 1
- Structure: Saturated fats have no double bonds between carbon atoms, resulting in a straight chain that allows molecules to pack together very tightly. Fats like coconut oil, butter and lard are solid at room temperature because of this phenomenon.
- Functions: Necessary for hormone production, manufacturing cellular membranes, organ padding, signaling processes and immune support; they are our primary storage form of energy.
- Found in: High-fat animal foods, palm oil, coconut oil, breast milk.
- Structure: Monounsaturated fats have a single double bond in their structure, inducing a kink in their chain that prevents them from packing together tightly. They are liquid at room temperature.
- Functions: Help lower risk of cardiovascular disease (e.g., reducing LDL and triglycerides, increasing HDL, decreasing oxidized LDL) and hypertension.
- Found in: Nuts (especially almonds, cashews, pecans and macadamias), olives, avocados.
Polyunsaturated fat (omega-3 and omega-6)
- Structure: Polyunsaturated fats have multiple double bonds in their structure, unsaturated at many carbons along their chain. They have several kinks in their structure and are especially susceptible to oxidative damage from heat and light since many of their carbon atoms are not protected by hydrogen atoms. They are liquid at room temperature.
- Functions: Assist in the formation of cell membranes and regulation of gene expression.
- Found in (for omega-3s): Walnuts, flax seeds, and fatty fish (e.g., salmon, mackerel, herring sardines, anchovies) and shellfish (e.g., oysters and mussels).
- Found in (for omega-6s): Industrially processed and refined oils (e.g., soybean, cottonseed, corn, safflower, and sunflower), nuts, poultry.
Got all that? You can always bookmark for quick reference!
The importance of the Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio
This is important, so pay close attention!
Both groups of polyunsaturated fatty acids have their place. After consumption, omega-6s and omega-3s are metabolized (i.e., desaturated and elongated) into important signaling molecules that regulate a variety of functions, including clotting, vascular function and health, pain signaling, cell growth, kidney function, and stomach acid secretion. 4
This is not to say, however, that they are the same thing.
Omega-6s and omega-3s compete for many of the same enzymes in the body. When omega-3s come from a plant source (e.g., walnuts, flax seeds and the seeds we use in our plant-based creamer), the amount of omega-6s in the diet will directly affect the metabolism of these omega-3s into the longer, more active forms that protect you from disease. In addition, omega-6s stimulate inflammatory responses, while omega-3s suppress them. So, consuming too many omega-6s and too few omega-3s can spell trouble for both your immune system and inflammatory response. 5,6
This leads us to the ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3, which is 1:1 (though 3:1 is a more realistic goal for modern times). 6
- Historical data suggests that our ancestors consumed omega-6 and omega-3 fats in a 1:1 ratio. 7 Today, it is estimated that we consume these fats in a ratio, ranging from 10:1 to 25:1. 8
- The infiltration of excessive omega-6s in our diets occurred at the dawn of the industrial revolution, as chemists conceived how to extract oils from cottonseeds, sunflower seeds and soybeans (and the like). In addition, farmers began feeding cereal grains to their livestock (high in omega-6s) in order to fatten them fast. 9,10
- Elevated intakes of omega-6 fatty acids have been linked to all inflammatory diseases, including asthma, autoimmunity, cognition problems, heart disease, obesity, and osteoarthritis. 11
- Supplementing your diet with omega-3 fatty acids has been shown to displace the omega-6 fatty acids present in cellular membranes, effectively decreasing the risk of degenerative diseases. 8 One study showed that replacing corn oil with olive oil and canola oil to reach a ratio of 4:1 led to a 70% decrease in total mortality. 12
The best way to correct an unfavorable ratio is simply to consume more foods rich in omega-3s! Seeds from a certain plant are one of the few plant-based sources that contain a high amount of omega-3s, harboring a 3:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3. In fact, an ounce (28 grams) of these seeds contains approximately 6,000mg of ALA omega-3. 13
What are the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids?
It's never easy, is it? Why can't it just be omega-3. Period.
Instead we are looking at three specific omega-3 fatty acids in two categories – still more branches in the tree! 14
- Long-chain (EPA, DHA). These are found primarily in cold-water fatty fish. DHA helps maintain normal brain function, mood disorders, and may reduce the risk of heart disease (or improve outcomes for people who already have it). EPA regulates anti-inflammatory processes and the health of cell membranes.
- Short-chain (ALA). Alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) is the shortest omega-3 fatty acid. It is considered essential because it cannot be produced by the body and must be obtained from the diet. ALA is found in plant foods such as walnuts and flax.
The body is able to convert Omega-3 ALA – as found in the source ingredient of our creamers – to long-chain EPA and DHA, thus unlocking their benefits. This makes plant-based sources a very good option if you are following a vegan diet.
Now to the age-old question. In another time, the ancients would lounge on their porticoes under the moon, wondering, between questions on the nature of knowledge: Can't I just get my omega-3 from a fish oil supplement?
Sorry Socrates. It's actually better to get them straight from food (especially given fish oil’s “yuck” factor). These polyunsaturated fats are easily oxidized in response to heat or light and are not very shelf-stable, especially once isolated. Consuming oxidized omega-3 fats contributes to inflammation as opposed to reducing it. 15
Why Choose Elmhurst®
Now that fat is back in style, we can boast that the entire Elmhurst 1925 product line delivers the fats intrinsic to the source grains, nuts, seeds – plus some of the micronutrient vitamins they help absorb.
Several Elmhurst products excel in the omega-3 arena. Milked Walnuts™, available original and unsweetened, has 1400mg omega-3 ALA per serving. Also available is a particularly unique line of plant-based coffee creamers providing:
- 350mg omega-3 ALA per serving (22% daily value in a 2 tbsp splash of creamer)
- Potential benefits for brain health, inflammatory reactions, cardiovascular health, and more (by virtue of omega-3)
Also joining the coffee set is a unique seed-based Barista Edition. This highly concentrated plant milk foams and steams professionally, delivering lush lattes and cappuccinos with 650mg omega-3 ALA per cup.
- Liu AG, Ford NA, Hu FB, Zelman KM, Mozaffarian D, Kris-Etherton PM. A healthy approach to dietary fats: understanding the science and taking action to reduce consumer confusion. Nutrition journal. 2017;16(1):53-53.
- Chang CY, Ke DS, Chen JY. Essential fatty acids and human brain. Acta neurologica Taiwanica. 2009;18(4):231-241.
- Albahrani AA, Greaves RF. Fat-Soluble Vitamins: Clinical Indications and Current Challenges for Chromatographic Measurement. Clin Biochem Rev. 2016;37(1):27-47.
- Saini RK, Keum YS. Omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids: Dietary sources, metabolism, and significance - A review. Life sciences. 2018;203:255-267.
- Simopoulos AP. The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Biomedicine & pharmacotherapy = Biomedecine & pharmacotherapie. 2002;56(8):365-379.
- Simopoulos AP. An Increase in the Omega-6/Omega-3 Fatty Acid Ratio Increases the Risk for Obesity. Nutrients. 2016;8(3):128-128.
- Kris-Etherton P, Taylor DS, Yu-Poth S, et al. Polyunsaturated fatty acids in the food chain in the United States. The American journal of clinical nutrition. 2000;71(1):179S-188S.
- Russo GL. Dietary n-6 and n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids: from biochemistry to clinical implications in cardiovascular prevention. Biochemical pharmacology. 2009;77(6):937-946.
- Kumar A, Sharma A, Upadhyaya KC. Vegetable Oil: Nutritional and Industrial Perspective. Current genomics. 2016;17(3):230-240.
- Wallinga D. Today's Food System: How Healthy Is It? J Hunger Environ Nutr. 2009;4(3-4):251-281.
- DiNicolantonio JJ, O'Keefe JH. Omega-6 vegetable oils as a driver of coronary heart disease: the oxidized linoleic acid hypothesis. Open Heart. 2018;5(2):e000898-e000898.
- Smith SC, Allen J, Blair SN, et al. AHA/ACC Guidelines for Secondary Prevention for Patients With Coronary and Other Atherosclerotic Vascular Disease: 2006 Update. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 2006;47(10):2130.
- Rodriguez-Leyva D, Pierce GN. The cardiac and haemostatic effects of dietary hempseed. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2010;7:32-32.
- Supplements NIoH-OoD. Omega-3 Fatty Acids. 2019; https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/. Accessed July 15, 2019, 2019.
- Cameron-Smith D, Albert BB, Cutfield WS. Fishing for answers: is oxidation of fish oil supplements a problem? J Nutr Sci. 2015;4:e36-e36.