Food and Nutrition

Omega-6 Fatty Acids Are Integral to Heart Health, but There’s a Catch

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Photo: Stocksy/Nataša Mandić
Contrary to what snack food companies in the fat-free craze of the ’90s led consumers to believe, fat is an essential part of our diets. It is a major source of energy for our body, and we need it to survive. The building blocks of fat are called essential fatty acids, and you get them by eating foods like salmon, nuts, oils, and avocados. Chances are you already know about omega-3s. But equally as important are omega-6 fatty acids, another type of healthy fat that comes with a little bit of controversy. Here’s what you need to know.

What are omega-6 fatty acids?

Pamela Kelle, RD, LDN, CEDRD, a registered dietitian and licensed nutritionist based in Chattanooga, Tenn., describes fatty acids as chains of carbon atoms with hydrogen atoms attached and a distinctive acidic chemical group at one end. They are classified by their length and whether the available carbon bonds are occupied—this is what separates saturated fats from those that are unsaturated.

An easy way to remember the difference between saturated and unsaturated fats is that unsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature. This is because they have either one unsaturated carbon bond in the molecule (known as monounsaturated fat) or more than one (polyunsaturated fat). Omega-6 fatty acids fall into the latter category and are so named because the last double bond is six carbons from the end of the molecule. Saturated fats, on the other hand, are usually solid at room temperature because the molecules are saturated with hydrogen molecules.

Health benefits and implications of omega-6 fatty acids

You already know consuming foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids have myriad health benefits, like boosting brain function, improving blood flow, and even extending your lifespan. Both omega-6 fatty and omega-3 fatty acids produce signaling molecules in the body that are necessary for immunity, blood pressure regulation, inflammation, blood sugar control, and central nervous system functioning, says Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Problems creep in when the ratio of these acids is skewed, however.

“Omega-6 fatty acids differ from omega-3s as they are typically considered to be proinflammatory when the ratio of their intake exceeds omega-3 fatty acid intake,” Feller explains. And for many Americans, it does. Research shows that humans evolved on a diet that included a 1:1 ratio of omega-6 fatty to omega-3 fatty acids; now, the Western diet is more like 15:1 or higher. One reason for this is that polyunsaturated fats such as corn, soy, sesame, and safflower oils are often used to fry foods and used in processed foods that require fat, says Kelle.

Consuming too many omega-6s can be a problem because they are known to convert linoleic acid into arachidonic acid, a molecule that’s a precursor to inflammation, says Feller. However, she notes that it’s important to remember that inflammation is necessary for survival and not always bad. “We need [acute] inflammation in small amounts as it heals our bodies from damage,” Feller says. “However, chronic inflammation can be the beginning of other chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular or metabolic disease.”

Some recent research has shown that eating higher amounts of omega-6 fats didn’t contribute to increased harmful inflammation in the body. But, there are conflicting studies around intake of omega-6 health benefits and risks, so more research is needed, says Feller.

What is the recommended intake of omega-6 fatty acids?

The recommended intake of omega-6 fatty acids for adults is 17 grams per day for males and 12 grams per day for females, according to the National Academy of Medicine. For reference, three-and-a-half ounces of walnuts contains about 12 grams of omega-6s, says Feller.

Omega-6 fatty acids are found in plant-based oils, like high-quality sunflower, safflower, and soybean oil, as well as walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and tofu, says Feller. You may be thinking: Wait, isn’t soybean oil bad for you? “No one food in and of itself is necessarily ‘bad’ or ‘good’ for us; the importance lies in the serving size and frequency of [consumption],” says Feller.

Rather than completely limiting or exclusively using oils that are high in omega-6s, Feller recommends diversifying your oils and alternating between options like soybean oil, safflower oil, avocado oil and olive oil.

The bottom line on omega-6s

Feller says consumers should be less focused on reducing their intake of omega-6s and more focused on increasing intake of omega-3s. “All food sources that contain omega-6s will also contain omega-3s, and vice versa,” she adds.

Since most oils are a mix of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, the key is to focus on oils from plant-based sources and to vary them so you can reap the benefits, says Feller. “As with any oil, moderation is also key. Just because something is good does not always mean more is better.”

The point? Rather than fretting over tracking your consumption of omega-6s, try to eat more omega-3s to boost your ratio—a great reason to have salmon for dinner tonight.

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