The jury seems to be in on the benefits of adding polyunsaturated omega-3 oils to our diets, especially those high in the fatty acids EPA and DHA (as opposed to ALA fatty acids, which are not as easily converted to useful form by our bodies). The body of evidence supporting the benefits of taking fish oil capsules is greater than for any other vitamin or food supplement.
But recent studies are indicating that what is most important may be maintaining the proper balance in our diets of omega-3 fatty acids and the far more prevalent omega-6 fatty acids found in most vegetable oils. A recent study at the Korea University College of Medicine in Seoul discovered that by achieving a proper balance of omega-6 and omega-3 in the diets of subjects suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, they were able to reduce occurrence of the disease by 48%.
A proper balance of these two types of fatty acids is important because when the amount of omega-6 becomes too high, it begins to diminish the benefits of omega-3. High amounts of omega-6 in the body can actually have the effect of reducing of even eliminating the anti-inflammatory benefits of omega-3. In the Korean study, whenever this balance of fatty acids was upset, the subjects’ arthritis got out of control. By restoring the balance, researchers were able to prevent and even reverse the damage caused by the disease.
The ideal balance of omega-6 to omega-3 in our diets is 2 to 1
By comparison, the average American processed food diet contains a balance of closer to 20 to 1. Omega-6 is so prevalent in the vegetable oils used to cook foods and prepare processed foods that the overbalance of omega-6 can undercut and even eliminate the value of omega-3.
OK, I need to balance omega-6 and omega-3 oils in my diet. But how?
The Korean study and other research indicate that to keep our bodies healthy, we need to maintain a proper ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 oils in our diet. Increasing omega-3 consumption by taking fish oil capsules isn’t going to help if you don’t at the same time reduce your consumption of omega-6. This doesn’t mean that you need a calculator and a set of food charts of the omega-6/omega-3 content of the foods you eat handy during every meal, just that you follow a few simple guidelines.
Ways to reduce your intake of omega-6 oils include:
• Changing your cooking oil. Avoid oils that have high amounts of omega-6, like safflower oil, cottonseed oil, sunflower oil, and grape seed oil. Healthier alternatives are olive oil, avocado oil, macadamia oil, and coconut oil.
• Try to avoid processed foods. The manufacturers of processed foods tend to use oils high in omega-6 because they’re cheaper. Even “convenience” packaged nuts and snacks that you purchase in health food stores are often coated with a layer of vegetable oil to enhance their taste. Before buying any processed or packaged food, read its label carefully and put it back on the shelf if it contains any of the “oils to avoid” listed in the first bullet point above.
• Cut down on fried foods. This is especially important when eating out, because most restaurants and virtually all fast food establishments use vegetable oils for frying that are very high in omega-6.
Ways to increase your intake of omega-3 oils include:
• Eat fish and take omega-3 supplements. Eating two or more portions of fish each week will boost your omega-3 levels. But to be sure you should also take a fish oil supplement high in EPA and DHA. Researchers recommend a minimum intake of 500mg of EPA and DHA per day for healthy adults, and the American Heart Association recommends a minimum intake of 1 gram per day for those diagnosed with heart disease.
• Seek out foods high in EPA and DHA. Many foods are enriched with omega-3 these days, and if so they indicate that on their labels. Be sure that the label says EPA and DHA on it, and not just ALA, which is a less effective form of omega-3.
• Prefer free range or pasture fed meats. These meats have much higher amounts of DHA and EPA than those coming from animals that have been fed grains or commercial feeds.