What exactly are Omega 6 fatty acids, and why do some experts say they’re bad for us? How does Omega 6 differ from Omega 3 or 9? If you find all the information about the omega family confusing, this article should help to clear things up.
First, the basics. Fatty acids are the building blocks that make up the mono-unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and oils in our diets. Our bodies require them in the same way they require other nutrients, e.g. amino acids, vitamins and minerals.
Fatty acids are divided into three major groups according to their chemical structure: Omega 3, 6 and 9. Omega 6 fatty acids can help to maintain heart1, skin and hormonal health, IF they’re in balance with the other omegas in your diet. Omega 6 fatty acids also play a role in forming hormone-like compounds called prostaglandins, which can affect our health and wellbeing in various ways. They also make up a significant proportion of our cell membranes.
Research suggests that we need an Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio of around 2-4:1 to support optimal wellbeing and health. Unfortunately, the balance of these fatty acids in our Western diet is often closer to 14-25:12.
In these ratios, the prostaglandins that we produce can actually create inflammation in our various systems, rather than countering it. The result is that instead of supporting our health, Omega 6 fatty acids may make certain inflammatory conditions worse.
Of course, this isn’t to say that we should avoid Omega 6 fatty acids completely. However, it does mean that we need to ensure our intake is in balance with our intake of other omega fatty acids.
Many wholegrain and plant foods contain Omega 6 fatty acids. However, none of them contain Omega 6 in a more naturally balanced ratio with other omegas than flaxseed oil.
Flaxseed oil is extracted from the seeds of the flax (Linum usitatissimum) bush. Omega ratios can vary somewhat between individual flaxseed oils, but an Omega 3 content of anything up to 65% is not unusual. Because the remaining fatty acids include both Omega 6 and 9, flaxseed oil is an ideal choice to provide a balanced omega intake.
Omega 6 oils are particularly heat-sensitive, so ensure that any supplement you choose is cold-pressed. They also oxidise easily, so it’s important to store liquid flaxseed oil in a completely airtight bottle in the fridge. Or, alternatively, choose a capsule – not only do many people find capsules more convenient to take, but encapsulating the oil helps to prevent oxidation.
Finally, try to find an organic product. If the flaxseeds have been grown organically, they’re certified as being free of toxic residues from pesticides or fertilizers. And the fewer of those you take in, the better!
1William S. Harris, Dariush Mozaffarian,; Eric Rimm, Penny Kris-Etherton, Lawrence L. Rudel, Lawrence J. Appel, Marguerite M. Engler, Mary B. Engler, Frank Sacks. Omega-6 Fatty Acids and Risk for Cardiovascular Disease. Circulation. 2009;119:902-907