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).
Concerningly, such substantial increases in omega-6 have affected our tissue concentration of omega-3.
The graph below shows how the amount of omega-3 stored within our cells is believed to have fallen over the last century;
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).
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.
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.
|Type of Fat||% Omega-6|
|Avocado Oil||12 %|
|Canola Oil||19 %|
|Coconut Oil||2 %|
|Corn Oil||54 %|
|Grapeseed Oil||70 %|
|Olive Oil||10 %|
|Rice Bran Oil||33 %|
|Soybean Oil||50 %|
|Sunflower Oil||66 %|
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.
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.
|Type of Seafood||Omega-3||Omega-6|
|Fish Roe||2424 mg||29 mg|
|Herring||1729 mg||130 mg|
|Mackerel||2670 mg||219 mg|
|Oysters||1480 mg||64 mg|
|Salmon (Wild)||2018 mg||172 mg|
|Sardines||1693 mg||123 mg|
|Trout (Wild)||1175 mg||288 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.
3. Choose Meat Lower in Omega-6
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.
|Bacon||213 mg||4497 mg|
|Ground Beef||46 mg||401 mg|
|Ground Lamb||420 mg||1360 mg|
|Ground Pork||70 mg||1670 mg|
|Lamb Chop||179 mg||377 mg|
|Pork Chop||51 mg||1195 mg|
|Top Sirloin||152 mg||311 mg|
|Venison||104 mg||225 mg|
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.
5. Go Easy on the 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.
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 Nut||Omega-6||6:3 Ratio|
|Brazil Nuts||5578 mg||1116:1|
|Cashew Nuts||179 mg||10:1|
|Pine Nuts||9410 mg||300:1|
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).
7. Consider An Omega-3 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.
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.