Omega-3 vs Omega-6: The Differences And Which One You Need

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Omega-3 vs Omega-6 may not seem like a great comparison, but understanding the differences between these fatty acids and how they each play critical roles in our overall health is important.

Omega-3 and Omega-6 are a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid that provide the body with a number of health benefits. But an improper balance and too much omega-6 in our diet and too little omega-3 can cause health complications like excessive inflammation. This can damage our body cells and eventually lead to a stroke and even a heart attack.

Whether you consciously eat two servings of fatty fish a week, take nutritional supplements daily, or put nutrient-dense superfoods in a blender to make a smoothie, there are many ways to ensure that your body is getting the best of both worlds.

To help you weigh omega-3 vs. omega-6 and figure out which to focus on in order to get more of them into your diet, we spoke to the experts. You shared everything you need to know about these essential fatty acids, what their benefits are, and how to incorporate them into your diet.

What is omega-3?

Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid. There are three different types of omega-3s, each with a specific role in supporting your health. These are:

  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
    EPA has been linked to reduced inflammation in the body. Inflammation is our body’s defense mechanisms against infection and injury, but in excess can lead to long-term illnesses like cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. Symptoms of chronic inflammation include body pain, constant fatigue, and mood disorders such as anxiety.
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
    DHA helps in the formation of organs in the body, such as the eyes, skin, and brain. Low DHA levels in these areas can lead to impaired vision or altered brain function.
  • Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA)
    ALA is needed for digestion, to absorb nutrients from food and to convert those nutrients into energy for us.

“Omega-3 is often referred to as ‘essential’ because the body cannot make it itself and so it has to be ingested through food,” explains Rob Hobson, nutritionist at Healthspan. “You can get omega-3s naturally in your diet by eating oily fish like salmon, sardines, and mackerel.”

According to the cholesterol charity Heart UK, you should be eating two 140g servings of fish per week, one of which should be oily.

You can also get omega-3s from plant-based foods, such as the healthiest edible oils, which include flaxseed, walnut, soy, pumpkin, and seaweed oils. In addition, green leafy vegetables, nuts (especially walnuts) and seeds such as flax, pumpkin, chia and hemp seeds.

Omega-3 is also available as a supplement that you can take at any time of the day. When choosing a dietary supplement, you should consume 500 mg of EPA and DHA together daily. This is roughly equivalent to a 140g serving of fatty fish per week. Vegan or vegetarian? Look for a marine oil supplement made from seaweed.

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(Image credit: Getty)

What Are The Health Benefits Of Omega 3?

Omega-3 is known to reduce inflammation, which can lower the risk of heart attack symptoms in women and support your mental health.

  • Heart health
    “Omega-3s can help raise good HDL cholesterol and lower triglycerides in the blood,” says Rob. Triglycerides are a type of fat found in your blood, and high levels of which can increase your risk of developing various chronic health problems such as diabetes and heart disease.
  • Reduces joint pain
    If you have arthritis, a study published in the Mediterranean Journal of Rheumatology shows that omega-3s can help relieve stiff joints and tenderness.
  • Improves mood
    Studies have found that people who eat a diet high in fatty fish are less likely to get depression. However, omega-3 is not a treatment for depression. So, if you are struggling with your mental health, consult a doctor.

What is omega-6?

“Omega-6s are types of fats,” says Anna Hardman, an NHS registered nutritionist. There are four different types known as polyunsaturated fats. These include:

  • Linoleic acid (LA)
    Research has shown that linoleic acid can lower cholesterol levels. Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in your blood and too much can clog your blood vessels and increase your risk of heart disease and heart attacks.
  • Arachidonic acid
    Arachidonic acid is responsible for regulating muscle growth and tissue damage during strength training. Inflammation is part of the healing process.
  • Gamma Linoleic Acid (GLA)
    GLA plays an important role in maintaining brain, bone, and metabolism health.
  • Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA)
    CLA is found in the meat and milk of animals such as cows, goats and sheep. Some studies have shown that CLA can help weight loss and bodybuilding, but more research needs to be done in this area.

“Omega-6 fats come from some vegetable oils, including corn, evening primrose, safflower, and soybean oils,” says Anna. “Omega-6 fatty acids are also found in small amounts in meat (especially pork and dark turkey or chicken) as well as nuts and seeds such as pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and walnuts.”

Most people do not need to supplement omega-6 as the average diet contains more than enough. “However, GLA is an omega-6 fatty acid found in evening primrose oil, and many women use it to relieve breast tenderness,” says nutritionist Amanda Hamilton. “If you choose to supplement essential fats, choose a blend that also contains omega-3s.”

In many countries there is no recommendation for the amount of omega-6 that should be consumed on a daily basis.

“Omega-6s aren’t usually listed directly on food labels, so you probably don’t track your intake every day,” says Anna. “It’s important to understand that the most important factor is making sure we’re consuming enough omega-3s and keeping the ratio between the two low.” Anna advises that the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 in your diet should be 1: 0.25

“Western diets tend to have higher amounts consumed, which can increase cardiovascular health risks,” Anna adds.

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What Are The Health Benefits Of Omega 6?

The health benefits of omega-6 include many of the same health benefits of omega-3. “This includes helping to control cholesterol levels by lowering the” bad “cholesterol LDL and increasing the” good “cholesterol HDL,” says nutritionist Jenna Hope.

Omega-6 can also help prevent heart disease and possibly lower liver fat. “But it has other benefits too, like helping hormone production and brain function and growth,” adds Jenna.

Omega-6 fatty acids also help increase the functioning of our muscles, nerves and bones and send messages to and from the brain. If we don’t get enough omega-6s with our food, our cells won’t function properly. This can affect brain and bone health, as well as the functioning of our reproductive system.

Signs of omega-3 deficiency include eczema, poor memory, difficulty losing weight (especially in the middle), and fatigue.

Omega-3 vs Omega-6: What Are the Differences?

The difference between omega-3 and omega-6 is the inflammatory response it triggers in the body. “Too much omega-6 causes inflammation, while omega-3 reduces it,” says Anna.

Inflammation is our body’s natural protective response to injury and infection, but excessive inflammation can damage our body cells, which can eventually lead to strokes and even heart attacks.

Hence, it is the balance of these two fatty acids that helps us stay healthy, but today’s modern diet means that the balance is being tilted too much in favor of omega-6.

Omega-3 vs Omega-6 on a balance scale

(Image credit: Getty Images / Upper Ramirez)

Omega-3 vs Omega-6: Which is Better?

Neither of these essential fatty acids is better than the other. In fact, the most important thing for health is to find the right balance.

“Like many other nutrients, combinations of nutrients work best to promote health and prevent disease,” says nutritionist Nicola Guess. “The combination of omega-3 and omega-3 lowers the risk of many diseases more than either individually.”

The best plan of action is to make sure that your diet is high in omega-3 foods and that you are aware that you are consuming an excess of foods high in omega-6s.