7 Ways To Optimize the Omega-6 to Omega-3 Ratio

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A Droplet of Omega-3 Fatty Acid.Omega-3 and omega-6 are both essential fatty acids.

In other words; our body cannot make them, so we need to obtain them from the food we eat.

However, both of these fats have very different effects on the body. Omega-6 is pro-inflammatory, but omega-3 is anti-inflammatory.

Many researchers believe that an imbalance of omega-6 to omega-3 can lead to inflammation and adverse health impacts.

Despite this, there has been a considerable influx of omega-6 into the typical diet over the past several decades.

As a result, the average Western diet leans heavily in favor of omega-6.

This article will discuss how to optimize the omega-6 and omega-3 ratio, alongside seven simple ways to do so.

Why is the Omega-6 to Omega-3 Ratio Important?

According to research, humans evolved on a diet that provided polyunsaturated omega-6 and omega-3 at an optimal ratio of around 1:1.

However, estimates based on current dietary trends place this ratio at anywhere between 15 to 1 and 20 to 1 (1).

The reason for much of this change was the controversial demonization of saturated fat as a healthful dietary fat since the mid 20th century.

As people moved away from saturated fats such as butter and coconut oil, they replaced them with omega-6-rich “vegetable” (seed) oils such as soybean oil.

In fact, the American intake of soybean oil has skyrocketed; in 1909, this fat provided 0.006% of calories in the average diet.

By 1999, soybean oil contributed more than 7% of total calories. Surprisingly, this represents a 1000-fold increase in consumption (2).

Chart Showing How Intake of Various Fat Sources Changed in the 20th Century - Soybean Oil Experienced Dramatic Increases.

Concerningly, such substantial increases in omega-6 have affected our tissue concentration of omega-3.

The reality is that omega-3 and omega-6 compete for cell uptake, and excessive amounts of dietary omega-6 can prevent the optimal absorption of dietary omega-3 (3, 4).

The graph below shows how the amount of omega-3 stored within our cells is believed to have fallen over the last century;

Chart Showing How Human Tissue Concentrations of Omega-3 Fell During the 20th Century.

Since omega-3 decreases inflammation and has strong links to reduced cardiovascular risk, this is, to put it mildly, far from ideal (5, 6).

Key Point: Our omega-6 intake is higher than any point in history, so much so that our omega-3 tissue concentrations have fallen.

The Harms of Excessive Omega-6

First of all, omega-6 is an essential fatty acid, and its pro-inflammatory effects can be beneficial for our health.

For instance, inflammation helps us to heal from wounds or stem the flow of blood when we cut ourselves.

However, something that is healthy in realistic amounts can become unhealthy when consumed in excess.

On that note, research demonstrates various detrimental effects from an excessive omega-6 intake.

Here is a summary of recent findings;

  • In non-alcoholic fatty liver disease patients, the severity of steatosis (buildup of fat) in the liver has a significant correlation with the omega-6 to 3 ratio (7).
  • A high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 increases the risk of obesity (8).
  • Compared to the average omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, a ratio of 4 to 1 is associated with a 70% decrease in cardiovascular mortality (9).
  • In a 7-year longitudinal study of patients with mood disorders, results found that a high intake of omega-6 and low omega-3 was a risk for depression. Clinical studies on depression back this up, with higher intake of omega-6 leading to higher levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines and depression (10, 11).
  • Maintaining a balanced intake of dietary omega-3 and omega-6 is important for overall health and reducing mortality risk (12).
Key Point: A wide variety of research suggests harm from a low intake of omega-3 and high consumption of omega-6.

How Can We Optimize Our Omega-6 To Omega-3 Ratio?

On the positive side, it can be reasonably easy to maintain a good balance of omega-3 and omega-6.

We will now examine seven ways by which we can normalize omega-6 intake and increase our consumption of omega-3.

A Clear Bottle of Omega-6 Rich Sunflower Oil.

1. Cut Out Omega-6 “Vegetable” (Seed) Oils

Deep-fried fast food is unhealthy for many reasons, but the massive amounts of vegetable oil it requires is the biggest factor.

Whether we consume these oils from a restaurant, a street truck, or in our own home does not make a significant difference.

Therefore, it is essential to select the right oil for home-cooking.

To reduce our consumption of omega-6, we should look for cooking oil that only supplies minimal amounts of the fatty acid.

Here are the respective omega-6 contents of common fats and cooking oils (13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24).

Type of Fat% Omega-6
Avocado Oil12 %
Butter3 %
Canola Oil19 %
Coconut Oil2 %
Corn Oil54 %
Grapeseed Oil70 %
Lard10 %
Olive Oil10 %
Rice Bran Oil33 %
Soybean Oil50 %
Sunflower Oil66 %
Tallow3 %

As shown above, the five options that contain 10% or less omega-6 fatty acids are butter, coconut oil, lard, olive oil, and tallow.

Bear in mind that a serving of salmon contains about 2-3 grams of omega-3.

For example, this shows that it is almost impossible to balance omega-6 and omega-3 intake if we have a tablespoon or two of soybean or sunflower oil each day.

Even if we are eating oily fish.

Key Point: The easiest way to lower omega-6 intake is by cutting out seed/vegetable oils such as sunflower oil and soybean oil.

2. Eat Oily Fish and Seafood Often

Eating oily fish and other seafood is beneficial for overall health, and not just for its omega-3 content.

For one thing, marine food tends to be incredibly nutrient-dense, and it provides a wealth of key vitamins and minerals for our body.

On the fatty acid side, here are some of the best choices of fish and seafood per 100 grams (25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31);

Type of SeafoodOmega-3Omega-6
Fish Roe2424 mg29 mg
Herring1729 mg130 mg
Mackerel2670 mg219 mg
Oysters1480 mg64 mg
Salmon (Wild)2018 mg172 mg
Sardines1693 mg123 mg
Trout (Wild)1175 mg288 mg

Including some of these seafood options several times per week is an excellent way to increase omega-3 intake.

Additionally, species like swordfish and tuna are incredibly high in omega-3 fatty acids.

However, the fish listed in the table above do not have mercury or heavy metal contamination concerns, so they are probably the healthiest regular option.

Key Point: Regular servings of fish and other seafood is the best way to consume highly bioavailable omega-3.

3. Choose Meat Lower in Omega-6

A Bone-In Lamb Chop On a White Background.

Bacon is delicious, and so is crispy pork belly and pieces of chicken with fatty skin.

That said, these options are all substantial sources of omega-6 fat.

First of all, just because these meats contain significant amounts of omega-6 fatty acids does not mean they are unhealthy.

However, it may be better leaving them for an occasional meal rather than having them as a regular, daily staple food. Among the common meat varieties, beef is an excellent choice since it is low in polyunsaturated fat (PUFA).

Since all cuts of beef are typically less than 1% PUFA, it does not matter if this beef is grain-fed or grass-fed (but the latter does contain slightly more omega-3).

Since lamb graze on pasture all day, lamb meat is also a great option.

The table below (roughly) shows how various cuts of meat compare per 100 grams (32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39);

Bacon213 mg4497 mg
Ground Beef46 mg401 mg
Ground Lamb420 mg1360 mg
Ground Pork70 mg1670 mg
Lamb Chop179 mg377 mg
Pork Chop51 mg1195 mg
Top Sirloin152 mg311 mg
Venison104 mg225 mg
Key Point: Depending on the specific cut of meat, it can either be supportive or against a good omega-6 to 3 ratio.

4. Avoid (Or Limit) Ultra-Processed Foods

Statistics make for negative reading; 60% of the food in American diets is ultra-processed (40).

Among these ultra-processed food options, three ingredients dominate; flour, sugar and vegetable oils.

If you are buying packaged snacks or meals, eating in a fast-food style restaurant, or even purchasing sauces for home-cooking, they are all likely to contain vegetable oils.

To cut down on vegetable oil intake, limit these processed foods as much as possible.

Key Point: The majority of processed foods contain some sort of vegetable oil – whole foods are a better choice.

5. Go Easy on the Nuts

A Female Hand Holding a Handful of Pistachios Nuts.

Nuts are some of the healthiest foods around; they are rich in protein, healthy fats, and contain numerous essential micronutrients.

However, nuts and seeds can also be very high in omega-6.

Providing we stick with sensible portion sizes (a handful is enough) and vary our intake, then we should not worry too much about these kinds of food.

For instance, studies consistently show that nut consumption has strong links to lower all-cause mortality. Whether nuts are high in omega-6 or not may, therefore, be a moot point (41, 42).

That said, for those who want to watch their omega-6 intake, the following table shows the amount of omega-6 in different nut varieties per ounce (28 grams) (43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53).

Type of NutOmega-66:3 Ratio
Almonds3378 mg1987:1
Brazil Nuts5578 mg1116:1
Cashew Nuts179 mg10:1
Chestnuts217 mg8:1
Hazelnuts2193 mg90:1
Macadamia363 mg6:1
Peanuts4111 mg776:1
Pecans5777 mg21:1
Pine Nuts9410 mg300:1
Pistachio3696 mg52:1
Walnut10666 mg4:1
Key Point: Nuts are a healthy and nutrient-dense food, but excessive portion sizes are not the best idea.

6. Choose Omega-3 Eggs or Eggs From Chickens Raised on Pasture

Eggs are a delicious and nutrient-dense food that contain almost every essential nutrient there is.

There is also nothing nutritionally wrong with any variety of egg.

That being said, if we wish to gain a little bit of extra omega-3, then opting for eggs from hens raised on pasture is an easy way to do this.

Another option is omega-3-enriched eggs; these eggs are from chickens which have their diet supplemented with sources of omega-3.

The exact amount of omega-3 in each egg will depend on how the producers fed their hens.

However, commercially available omega-3 eggs tend to advertise that each egg contains between 110 mg and 660 mg of omega-3.

In contrast, a large conventional egg provides 37 mg omega-3 and 574 mg omega-6 (54).

Key Point: Opting for enriched eggs or eggs from pasture-raised hens is an easy way to get a little extra omega-3.

7. Consider An Omega-3 Supplement

A Bottle of Dr. Tobias Omega-3 Fish Oil Supplement.

Getting nutrients from real food is always preferable to supplementation.

However, in the case that we feel we are not getting enough omega-3, then supplements could be beneficial.

On the negative side, omega-3 supplements (especially capsules) suffer from a range of issues relating to oxidation and purity issues.

For instance, a recent study found that among 171 commercially available omega-3 supplements, more than 50% failed safety standards because they contained too many oxidative products (55).

Cod liver oil is a reasonably healthy option, and Consumer Labs provide independent testing results for many commercial omega-3 supplements, so it may be a good idea to choose something that passes their oxidation and purity tests.

Key Point: Getting omega-3 from food is the best option, but supplementation can be a way to increase our intake.

Final Thoughts

Most of us could do with increasing our omega-3 intake and getting a little bit less omega-6.

While these two essential fatty acids are both crucial for optimal health, it’s likely that maintaining a healthily balanced ratio of each can have significant health benefits.

Fortunately, optimizing the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is not overly complicated.

The easiest way to do this is by limiting our intake of vegetable oils and aiming for three or four servings of oily seafood each week.

For more on fatty acids, see this guide to monounsaturated fat and its benefits.

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1 year ago

Good one. But no mention of chia seeds, supposed to be the richest plant source of omega 3…?

1 year ago

Once again an incredibly informative and balanced article. Love your inclusion of links to the articles on which you base your conclusions. Bravo. And thank you.