Getting the right balance of omega fats in the diet is important because these essential nutrients can only be obtained through the food we eat- they are not produced in the body. The modern diet now includes more processed foods and fewer nuts and fish, and therefore many of us obtain much more omega-6 fats than omega-3s and omega-9s in our diet. This imbalance can be damaging because while omega-3 fatty acids are converted into substances that reduce inflammation, most omega-6 fats are converted into substances that promote inflammation and have been linked, for example, with conditions such as eczema and asthma.
Why We Need a Good Omega Balance
Our cells recognize the shape of fatty acids when they are eaten, so they are used directly by the tissues that need them. Although certain omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids are used by the same body cells, they have different, mostly opposite actions which means that we need to balance our intake of these fats.
Dietary fatty acids are used as building blocks to make cell membranes, reproductive hormones and to regulate inflammation throughout the body. All fats contain a mix of omega 3s, 6s and 9s, but some are richer in one type than another.
Omega-3 fats, especially the long-chain forms, EPA and DHA, are increasingly recognized as playing an important protective role against inflammatory diseases, heart disease and in the prevention of diabetes. The brain is also highly dependent on a type of omega-3 fat - low levels have been linked to depression, schizophrenia, memory loss, and a higher risk of developing Alzheimer's.
The fatty acid, GLA, is the one beneficial omega-6 fat. It has anti-inflammatory action and has been shown to reduce the need for anti-inflammatory medication in people with arthritis, reducing the number of joints that were tender or swollen.
GLA is found mainly in evening primrose, starflower (borage) and blackcurrant seed oils. Although the body can make some GLA, the metabolic reactions involved are not that efficient, and the enzymes involved are readily blocked by a number of factors associated with an unhealthy diet and lifestyle. These factors include high intakes of trans fats (e.g. found in hydrogenated margarines), sugar, and a dietary lack of vitamins and minerals. These same factors also block the production of the most beneficial long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA). So even if you obtain a balanced intake of essential fatty acids, an unhealthy diet and lifestyle can still mean that you have low, imbalanced levels of the most beneficial fatty acids.
Omega-9 fats play an important role in cholesterol balance in the body, helping to increase levels of beneficial cholesterol. They also help to lower blood pressure and offer some protection against coronary heart disease and diabetes. The main food sources of omega-9 oils are olive oil, avocado oil and rapeseed oil.
Improving Your Omega Balance
To obtain a healthy balance of omega fatty acids from your diet, consume more omega-3 fats, which are found in:
- Oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, herring, trout, sardines and fresh tuna
- Omega-3 enriched eggs
- Walnuts and walnut oil
- Omega-3 fish oil supplements
Reduce your intake of excess omega-6 fats by consuming less:
- Vegetable oils such as safflower oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, or grape seed oil.
- Margarines that are based on omega-6 oils such as sunflower oil
- Processed foods and fast food
- Manufactured, refined foods such as cakes, sweets and pastries
Another way to improve your intake of these fats is an omega 3, 6, 9 supplement. When buying fish oils, look for a good quality, pharmaceutical grade fish oil supplement which has been filtered to remove pollutants found in fresh fish such as such as heavy metals, dioxins and PCBs. The best supplements also supply the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, as opposed to ALA, which is a cheaper, less effective alternative.