Personal Health

Understanding Omega Fatty Acids

The media often draws our attention to the essential fatty acids, omega-3 and omega-6. But what are essential fatty acids, and why do we need to consume them? From what sources can you get them? Will overeating fatty acids lead to obesity? Let's investigate.

Omega Fatty Acids

Omega-3 and omega-6 are considered essential fatty acids because, unlike the other fatty acids, they cannot be synthesized or created by the body. This means that we need to include foods containing these fatty acids as part of a balanced diet.

There are a number of bodily functions to which omega-6 fatty acids contribute:

  • Growth
  • Skin integrity
  • Fertility
  • Maintenance of red blood cell structure
  • Normal brain development

Meanwhile, omega-3 fatty acids contribute to largely different biological processes:

  • Cell membrane structure
  • Normal brain development
  • Reducing inflammation throughout the body
  • Lowering elevated triglyceride blood levels

Sources of Omega Fats

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats that can found in both plant and animal sources.

Sources of omega-3 include

  • Flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts
  • Salmon, sardines, herring
  • Eggs, milk, yogurt
  • Brussels sprouts, kale, spinach, parsley
  • Canola oil, soybean oil

Omega-6 sources include

  • Vegetable oils such as safflower, sunflower, grape seed, and sesame
  • Walnuts, sunflower seeds, pine nuts, pumpkin seeds, almonds, pecans
  • Poultry, eggs, pork
  • Avocado
  • Whole-grain products

Can Overeating Omega Fats Lead to Obesity?

If eaten in moderation, omega fatty acids will not cause obesity. However, eating any food in excess, including foods containing omega fatty acids, will put you at risk for gaining weight. This can be combated through mindfulness, balanced eating, and portion control.

Omega-6 to Omega-3 Ratio

The ratio in which you eat omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids can affect your overall health. Omega-6 is a pro-inflammatory agent in the body, while omega-3 is anti-inflammatory. Inflammation is necessary within the body for proper immune response. However, excessive inflammation can lead to diseases such as diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer's, heart disease, and many kinds of cancer. Because many Americans consume processed and fast foods cooked in vegetable oils or produced with omega-6 rich fats, they are consuming too much of the inflammation-inducing fat.

The ideal omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is around 2.5:1; some even argue that 1:1 is optimal. The ratio in a typical American diet is between 16:1 and 20:1. The easiest, least stressful way to balance out your ratio is to include more omega-3 fatty acid-rich foods whenever possible.

While the big picture of an overall balanced diet is most important, focusing on specific areas of your diet, including essential fatty acid consumption, can be helpful when looking to combat chronic disease. By learning what essential omega fatty acids are, what they do, and where you can find them, you will be able to make better dietary fat choices for optimal health.

Posted in Personal Health

Christina Manian is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Originally from the Boston area, she attended Boston University where she majored in nutritional sciences with a concentration in dietetics. She recently completed her nutrition education at the Mayo Clinic with a focus on medical nutrition therapy. While her background has mostly been in the clinical setting, Christina embraces wellness nutrition as the backbone of optimum health. She is excited to be able to educate a larger audience about nutrition through the written word.

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*This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute health care advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor or physician before making health care decisions.