Optimising your omega 6:3 ratio for maximum health

Thanks to an increased preference for convenience foods, such as ready made meals and takeaways, and a number of other lifestyle factors, those of us living in the West often receive excessive amounts of omega-6 fatty acids, as well as insufficient quantities of omega-3 fatty acids from our daily diet. And although both of these essential fatty acids offer a number of health benefits when consumed in the right ratio, there may be some disturbing consequences for our health if that ratio is out of balance.

omega 6:3 ratio

What are essential fatty acids?

Fats are organic compounds made from triglycerides, which are stored by our body for later use as energy. We obtain most of them from our food, although our body can convert excess protein and sugars into fat too. Fats are divided into saturated and unsaturated fats depending on the type of fatty acids that they contain.

Saturated fatty acids are predominantly found in animal fats and oils (such as butter, cheese, milk, cream and fatty meat). Whilst past research has broadly focused on the harmful effects of saturated fats, it’s now widely accepted that it is trans fats in particular, that are damaging to our health. In fact, extravagant amounts of trans fats, (which are typically found in processed food and junk food) have been directly linked to an increased risk of heart disease, obesity, weakened immunity, reduced female fertility, depression, liver disorders, Alzheimer’s and certain types of cancer, including breast cancer.

Unsaturated fatty acids are largely found in plant oils and fats (such as olive oil, hemp seed oil and sesame oil). Unsaturated fatty acids can be further categorised as monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats contain both omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids, which are explored in more detail below.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in abundance in a number of powerful superfoods, including walnuts, linseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, seaweed and algae (such as chlorella and spirulina), as well as beans and oily fish. Omega-3 fatty acids improve our cell response to insulin and neurotransmitters, support the repair process of cells and, when eaten in the correct omega 6:3 ratio, can:

  • Reduce our risk of heart disease (Delgado-Lista et al., 2012; Von Schacky, 2003; Morris et al., 1993)
  • Reduce our risk of certain types of cancer, including breast cancer and prostate cancer (Heinze et al., 2012; Zheng et al., 2013; Chua et al., 2013)
  • Combat rheumatoid arthritis (Miles & Calder, 2012)
  • Reduce the symptoms of ADHD and autism in children (Levy & Hyman, 2005; Richardson, 2006)
  • Help those suffering from depression or manic depression (Perica & Delas, 2011)
  • Help those suffering from memory disorders (Mazereeuw et al., 2012)

Omega-6 fatty acids

Omega-6 fatty acids are found in optimal amounts in cold-pressed vegetable oils, such as olive oil, pumpkin seed oil and hemp seed oil. When present in the correct omega 6:3 ratio, omega-6 fatty acids help to support our cardiovascular system, strengthen immunity, promote healthy cell structure, support our brain, eyes and musculoskeletal system, and protect our gastrointestinal tract.

In addition, moderate amounts of omega-6 fatty acids can:

  • Lower blood pressure (Margolin et al., 1991)
  • Relieve the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and diabetic neuropathy (Kast, 2001; Little & Parsons, 2001)
  • Reduce allergies (Anandan et al., 2009)
  • Reduce the symptoms of ADHD and autism in children (Levy & Hyman, 2005; Richardson, 2006)
  • Provide support to breast cancer patients being treated with tamoxifen (Kenny et al., 2000; Menendez et al., 2001)
  • Reduce the symptoms of eczema (De Spirt et al., 2009)
  • Combat weight gain and obesity (Schirmer & Phinney, 2007)
  • Relieve the symptoms of PMS and / or cyclic breast pain (mastalgia) (Srivastava et al., 2007)
  • Reduce the risk of osteoporosis (Simopoulos, 2008)

However, highly processed vegetable oils, such as sunflower, corn and soybean oil, and the convenience foods that contain them, comprise of excessive amounts of omega-6 fatty acids, and consuming large quantities of these will throw our omega 6:3 ratio out of balance.

What is the optimal omega 6:3 ratio?

Omega fatty acids only work efficiently (and offer the health benefits listed above) when they are present in the correct ratio. And, the better the balance, the less risk there is of developing an illness or disease. Whilst the optimal omega-6/3 ratio is widely considered to lie somewhere between 2:1 and 1:1 (Yehuda, 2003; Simopoulous, 2006), many of us are consuming far too little omega-3 and way too much omega-6 fatty acids, resulting in an omega-6:3 ratio that can be as high as 20:1 or even 50:1 (source: University of Gent, 2003).

The common symptoms of an omega-6:3 imbalance include:

  • Fatigue
  • Lethargy
  • Lack of concentration
  • Brittle nails
  • Dry hair
  • Dry skin
  • Insomnia
  • Allergies
  • Weight gain
  • Arthritis,
  • Memory loss
  • Depression

It’s worth mentioning that a correct omega-9 ratio is also important – indeed, in the right balance, omega-9 fatty acids help to regulate our cholesterol levels, stimulate a healthy inflammatory response and contribute to the production of prostaglandins, which promote healthy cell function, blood chemistry and hormone production. However, as our body is able produce this unessential, third type of fatty acid (which can be additionally obtained from olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds), our omega-9 ratio is heavily influenced by our omega 6:3 ratio. In fact, our body will compensate for a lack of omega-3 or omega-6 by manufacturing more omega-9 fatty acid in its place. In other words, if our omega 6/3 ratio is out of balance, then so too is our omega-9 ratio.

How to optimise your omega 6/3 ratio for maximum health 

Fortunately, you can bring your omega 6/3 ratio quickly back into balance and enjoy maximum health, by making two small, yet highly effective adjustments to your daily diet.

1) Incorporate plenty of omega 3-rich foods into your daily diet 

The first and easiest way to bring your omega 6/3 ratio back into balance, is by consuming foods and superfoods that contain more omega-3 in comparison to omega-6 fatty acids. This means enjoying plenty of beans (such as kidney beans, mung beans and French beans), nuts (especially walnuts) and seeds (including linseeds, chia seeds and hemp seeds), and / or lots of oily fish (such as herring, mackerel, salmon, trout and tuna fish), as well as seaweed and algae (such as chlorella and spirulina).

2) Cut out processed foods and oils

If you don’t simultaneously reduce your omega-6 fatty acid intake, then your omega 6/3 ratio will still remain out of kilter, and you won’t benefit from the extra addition of all those omega-3 rich foods listed above. You can dramatically lower your consumption of omega-6 fatty acids by ditching your usual vegetable oil in favour of extra virgin olive oil or coconut oil, which contain demonstrably less omega-6 fatty acids than say, sunflower, corn and soybean oil. You can also radically reduce your omega-6 intake simply by avoiding highly processed convenience foods, such as ready-made meals and takeaways, as these are swimming in vegetable oils that are loaded with omega-6 fatty acids. And the good news is, that by cutting out processed foods and oils, you’ll simultaneously limit your intake of unhealthy trans fats, providing even more benefits for your long-term health and wellbeing.

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5 Responses to “Optimising your omega 6:3 ratio for maximum health”

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    March 20, 2015 at 4:57 am Reply
  2. Maximilian #

    Personally I prefer chia seeds for my source of Omega 3, but being a vegan I realize that I may not get as much of my daily recommended amount as say omnivores for example. Still, even with my chia recipes which I make twice a week I still supplement with vegan derivative DHA + EPA about 375 mg of DHA and 187 mg of EPA supplements from nuique.com

    May 26, 2015 at 10:10 am Reply
  3. RD #

    This article mistakenly states “mung” beans but should state “mungo” beans. They are two different types of beans and the “o” type are the ones with a high omega3:6 (about 14:1) ratio whereas the regular green “mung” bean has more omega 6 than 3 (3:6 is about 1:14, the reciprocal of mungo beans).
    The mungo bean is sold in Indian groceries as “urad dal” or “urad whole”. These are black beans. The dal is shelled and halved. I’m not sure how the shelled compares to the whole.
    Hope this helps.

    January 15, 2017 at 9:04 pm Reply
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    February 26, 2017 at 4:57 pm Reply
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    March 10, 2017 at 4:21 am Reply

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