Omega 3 and Omega 6 are essential to health and it is important that they are consumed in our diets. This blog will explain what the difference between Omega 3 and Omega 6 is and explore different food sources to consider including in your diet. It is quite common to believe that Omega 3 is only available in oily fish however, there are ways for vegetarian and vegans to get these essential fatty acids into their diet.
Omega 3 and Omega 6 are essential fatty acids and must be obtained through food. The reason they are ‘essential’ is due to them being biologically active, unlike other fats that can be used for energy they are important for contributing to growth and development, brain function and inflammation. Inflammation is vital for us as it helps to fight against infection. However, it can also cause damage to the body but there will be more on this later.
Omega 3 and Omega 6 are very different and ideally should be consumed to a ratio where Omega 3 is dominant. Omega 3 is found in plant oils and oily fish.
Omega 6 is found in processed oils such as sunflower oil and due to the Western world increasingly using processed oil (whether that be in the food industry or in your kitchen) it is causing a large difference in the Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratio some believing it is currently a 16:1 ratio (Omega6:Omega3)
What is Omega 3?
Omega 3 comes in different forms; ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) , EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). ALA must be included in our diet as it has a range of important functions and it compulsory for making Omega 3 fats but unfortunately our bodies cannot make it on its own. You can find ALA in rapeseed oil, nuts and green leafy vegetables. Once we have ALA in our bodies it then starts to produce long-chain fats, EPA and DHA. EPA and DHA are seen to have the most health benefits, however are only made in small amounts and it is not the fastest process from ALA. To ensure you are getting enough of these fats it is important to consume foods rich in them. Oily fish is a great source of EPA and DHA, white fish does contain them however at much lower levels. Government guidance is to aim to consume fish twice a week with one being oily fish (preferably MSC certified products) it is important to note that when consuming a lot of different fish to be aware of pollutants such as mercury levels. The health benefits of oily fish do outweigh the risks from the pollutants and consuming two to four portions of oily fish a week is usually safe. However, for women who are pregnant and children under 16 it is important to seek advice on fish to avoid or limit the consumption of.
Omega 3 for Vegetarians and Vegans
The BDA (British Dietetic Association) advise those who cannot get their Omega 3 EPA and DHA from fish sources to maximise conversion by avoiding high in saturated fat foods, focusing on plant foods that contains ALA (as mentioned above, we can convert ALA into EPA and DHA but this is not very efficient) and consider a supplement from algae derived DHA as well as including sea vegetables into your diet. However, it is important to speak to a Registered Nutritionist or Dietitian before adding supplements into your diet.
Other vegetarian sources of Omega 3 are flaxseeds, walnuts, soy and green leafy vegetables. There are now Omega 3 enriched foods such as milks, yogurts and breads this may contribute to your Omega 3 intake but it is important to note that this is usually just small amounts.
How is Omega 6 different to Omega 3?
Omega 6 is largely found in processed foods within the Western world and although it has its benefits in small amounts when coming from plant foods such as soya, if we consume too much from vegetables oils such as sunflower and corn oils it can contribute to health risks. It is thought today that our Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio has considerable increased over the past few decades and diets are now too high in Omega 6. Diets that are high in Omega 6 compared to Omega 3 are more likely to produce inflammation which can contribute to heart disease and obesity. Therefore, it is important to bring the Essential Fatty Acids into a better proportion to help reduce the risk of health problems.
Top Tips for balancing Omega 3 and Omega 6:
- Increase Omega 3 intake by consuming foods such as salmon, mackerel, walnuts, flaxseeds, soya, green leafy vegetables
- Reduce Omega 6 consumption. This can be through opting for extra virgin olive oil instead of sunflower oil and reducing the amount of fast food consumed.
BDA, NHS, BNF