Inside Our Food

Omega-3 and 6 | The Fatty Acids You Need

We have all heard of omega-3 and 6, but what are they? We might think of them as vitamins, but actually they are fats! Both omega-3 and omega-6 are biologically active fats and have important roles in processes like clotting and inflammation.

What does  the word “fat” make you think of? Some of us have a taboo on the word “fat”,  but in reality fat is an essential macronutrient that we must all get enough of to remain healthy. Omega-3 and omega-6 are two common fats that play important roles in our bodies - and they can bring health benefits too!1

What are Omega-3 and Omega-6?

Omega-3s are polyunsaturated fatty acids and they come in three main forms: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is the most common omega-3 fatty acid in your diet, as it’s found in plant foods like flaxseed, spinach, kale, or canola oil,2 while EPA and DHA are most commonly found in fish oils.

Omega-6s are also polyunsaturated fatty acids but have a different chemical structure. The four types of omega-6 fats include arachidonic acid (ARA), linoleic acid (LA), gamma linoleic acid (GLA), and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).  Of these, the most common omega-6 fat is linoleic acid (LA), which is then converted to arachidonic acid (ARA) in the body. Omega-6 fats are primarily found in vegetable oils, such as soy, corn, and canola oil.  

Omega-3 and 6 Benefits

Both omega-3s and omega-6s are used in the body for energy, but they also play other important physiological roles. Together, both omega-3 and omega-6 fats are an essential part of the cell membrane that surrounds every cell in the body, but individual forms also play more specific roles: for example, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an important component of skin and the retinas in your eye, and also plays a role in brain development. 

Another important role of both omega-3 and omega-6 fats is in our immune system.3 Though these two forms of fat are very similar, they appear to have very different roles when it comes to helping protect us from infection and disease.

Benefits of Omega-3 in the Immune System 

Omega-3s support processes in our body that regulate the immune system. For example, the presence of omega-3 fatty acids promotes the release of anti-inflammatory prostaglandins and helps regulate blood clotting. This anti-inflammatory effect is one of the main reasons why people believe omega-3s can help with rheumatoid arthritis, cancer prevention, and cardiovascular disease:4,5 there have been numerous of studies that indicate that people who ate fatty fish like salmon or tuna at least once a week were less likely to die of heart disease than those who do not eat seafood.6 A deficiency in omega-3s can also cause rough, scaly skin, and red rashes, and might even disrupt your rest and increase allergy symptoms.7

Looking to get more omega-3 from plants without eating fish? Find out more about other plant-based sources of omega-3.

Benefits and Potential Harms of Omega-6

Though the impact of omega-6 on health remains controversial, studies do show that omega-6 stimulates the immune system to be more active. Arachidonic acid (ARA) is used as a building block for molecules that promote inflammation, blood clotting and the constriction of blood vessels. Because of this link between omega-6 and inflammation, critics once viewed omega-6s as unhealthy. 

However, omega-6s are important for our general health, helping stimulate skin and hair growth, maintain bone health, regulate metabolism, and maintain the reproductive system. Some research has also suggested that omega-6 may bring benefits to treating chronic diseases, such as using a high dose of gamma linoleic acid (GLA) to help reduce the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.8

While current research has not been conclusive in regards to the harms or benefits of omega-6s in the body, researchers have found that most modern Western diets contain more omega-6 fatty acids than necessary. Therefore, some experts recommend that individuals reduce their omega-6 intake by reducing consumption of vegetable oils (sunflower oil, canola oil, and corn oil) and processed foods, which are generally rich in omega-6.9 

Sources of Omega-3 and 6

Created by Paulina Cerna-Fraga

Sources of Omega-3 in your Diet

The European Food Safety Authority recommends eating 2g of ALA and 250-300 mg of EPA and DHA for a healthy adult per day - which is slightly more than the average European adult generally consumes each day.9 

ALA is often found in plant oils such as flaxseed, soybean, and canola oils, making it the most common form of omega-3. DHA and EPA are less common, though oily fish and other seafoods are rich in both of these forms of omega-3, as are eggs. 

In 100g of the following you’ll get:
     - Chia seeds: 4.9 g of ALA Flax seeds: 2.3g of ALA 
     - Salmon: 4.0g EPA and DHA
     - Sardines: 2.2g of EPA and DHA10

Though the evidence is clear that eating more omega-3 in our diets brings health benefits, it’s less clear whether we can get those same benefits from taking omega-3 supplements.

Sources of Omega-6 in your Diet

Meanwhile the European Food Safety Authority recommends that a healthy individual should intake 10 g/day of omega-6 fats, primarily made up of linoleic acid (LA) and, to a lesser extent, arachidonic acid (ARA). This is generally less than the average European adult eats in a day.9

Omega-6 is primarily found in vegetable oil, so there are loads of good sources of omega-6s. This ranges from safflower oil, sunflower oil, to walnuts, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds.   It’s very easy to reach this daily recommendation of omega-6, which is why studies have suggested focusing on decreasing our intake of omega-6 fats. 

In 100g of the following you’ll get:
     - Sunflower seeds: 34g of omega-6 
     - Walnuts: 37g of omega-6 
     - Soybean oil: 50g of omega-610

Do you eat enough omega-3 and 6? Let us know in the comments below!

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