With omega-3-rich fish oil supplements and omega-3 enriched eggs crowding the shelves of our favourite supermarkets and high street health food stores, you'd be forgiven for thinking that upping your intake of omega fatty acids = improved health, guaranteed. But not so fast. Did you know that doctors, nutritionists and scientists believe that omega-6 fatty acids could actually be damaging our health, increasing the risk of everything from heart disease to depression, via cancer and water retention? Find out whether you're consuming too much, and what you can do about it...
What are omega-3 and omega-6 and why do I need them?
Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are both essential to human health. We can't make them ourselves, so we have to get them from food.Omega-3 fatty acidshave anti-inflammatory properties and have been linked with reductions in heart disease and cancer risk and improvements in the symptoms of arthritis, IBS, psoriasis and asthma. Omega-6 fatty acids play a crucial role in regulating metabolic function and maintaining healthy skin, hair and bones. Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), found in evening primrose oil, borage oil and blackcurrant seed oil, is an omega-6 fatty acid with anti-inflammatory properties. There is some evidence that GLA can help to reduce blood pressure, increase bone density and alleviate the symptoms of arthritis.
Why is too much omega-6 bad?
A diet too rich in omega-6, however, can prevent the body from metabolising omega-3, negating its anti-inflammatory superpowers. In an ideal world, we'd consume equal amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. However, this isn't an ideal world, and most of us are consuming at least 6 times as much omega-6 as omega-3. In the US, the figure is more like 20:1. To make matters worse, some kinds of omega-6 fatty acid appear to promote inflammation. The prime culprits? The refined vegetable oils found in processed foods ranging from mayonnaise to crisps, via confectionery, peanut butter, vegetable spread, mayonnaise and cereals. Sunflower, corn and soybean oils are all naturally high in omega-6 fatty acids, but genetic modification, crop spraying, processing and heating can strip all kinds of vegetable oils of their omega-3 content.
An imbalance in omega-3 and 6 intake could hasten the growth of cancer cells, raise blood pressure, increase the risk of obesity, heart attack, stroke and depression, encourage water retention and even promote violent tendencies, according to scientists. Feeling listless? "Individuals who are omega-3-rich end up with neurones that run very fast, like Pentium-III microprocessors," Tom Sanders of King's College London's nutrition department toldThe Guardian. "Those with too much omega-6 are slow and sluggish, like a 20-year-old silicon chip."
What can I do?
Eat more omega-3-rich foods. Assuming you can't manage a 1:1 balance between omega-3 and 6, you're aiming for a ratio of 2:1 to 4:1 in favour of omega-6. Tip the balance by eating more oily fish, fish oil, leafy green vegetables, flaxseeds, walnuts and organic milk and cheese.
Choose a cooking oil with an omega-3 to omega-6 ratio of 1:1 and a medium-high "smoke point".This means that heating the oil won't destroy its omega-3 content. Good options include avocado oil, coconut oil, olive oil and ghee.
Opt for cold-pressed, extra virgin, organic oils. Remember, refined oils have been subjected to omega-3 blitzing pesticides, processing and heat treatments.
Cut down on processed foods.
Swap vegetable spreads for butter.
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