Essential fatty acids are named as such because they are not produced by our body but are essential to our health and therefore must be consumed in our diet. There are two main types of essential fatty acids (also known as Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids or PUFA for short). They are the omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. Omega 3’s are found predominantly in cold water fish, certain meats and some vegetarian sources such as flax seeds. Omega 6 fatty acids are found predominantly in grain products such as cereals, whole grain breads, vegetable oils, eggs, poultry and other meats.
When we ingest omega 3 or omega 6 fatty acids they are transported to our cell membranes. Cell membranes serve as a storage depot that will release these fatty acids when the body needs building blocks to make other powerful biologic mediators. These mediators are collectively known as eicosanoids (E-cos-in-oids) and consist of two main types of compounds called prostaglandins and leukotrienes. Fatty acids have such a powerful impact on health because these eicosanoids have the potential to inflict major biological activity on parts of our bodies like the heart, blood vessels and the immune system.
Eicosanoids formed from certain omega 6 fatty acids are major contributors to the process of inflammation. Inflammation is associated with conditions such as; chronic pain, heart disease, cancer, allergies and autoimmune disease. Having too much omega 6 fatty acids in your diet will result in the increased production of these highly inflammatory eicosanoids and raise your risk of inflammatory related diseases. On the other hand, omega 3 fatty acids are converted by the body into anti-inflammatory eicosanoids that protect our cardio-vascular system and help prevent conditions like cancer, allergies and autoimmune disease.
What we consume in our diets can play a major role in determining our cellular levels of omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids. Eating a diet abundant in omega 6’s and deficient in omega 3’s will result in a body dominated by inflammatory processes. Unfortunately, the average American diet is just like this and provides very high levels of omega 6’s and very low levels of omega 3’s. This becomes very clear when we look at the most prevalent diseases that affect American’s such as heart disease and cancer. For our bodies to function optimally and be guarded from excessive inflammation the ratio of omega 6 fatty acids to omega 3 fatty acids should be about 3:1. The average American diet, consisting of processed foods, high meat intake, high carbohydrate and sugar intake and low consumption of nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables can have an omega 6 to omega 3 ratio of 20:1. This results in the overproduction of inflammatory substances and subsequent health related issues like heart disease, cancer, chronic pain, allergies and autoimmune disease.
To complicate the matter, high intake of hydrogenated/trans fats will inhibit omega 3 fatty acids from being absorbed and utilized by the body. Lately, much attention has been given to the negative effects of trans fats on health, particularly heart health, and this is a major reason why.
The good news is that there are many ways to increase your levels of omega 3 fatty acids and reduce the levels of omega 6’s. The first step is to cut all trans fats out of your diet. Most food products are now labeled if they contain trans fats, however you have to read your labels carefully. Anything that contains hydrogenated oil or partially hydrogenated oil is a trans fat. Margarine, vegetable shortening and most packaged baked goods will contain high levels of trans fats unless otherwise specified. The next step is to increase the amount of nuts, seeds, whole grain bread, fresh fruits, wild fish and vegetables you consume. At the same time reduce your intake of fried food, fast food and red meat.