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Get the balance right, and live longer better
The benefits of omega-3 fats from fatty fish and likely from plant sources like flaxseeds and walnuts are well known. After all, the media frequently talk about the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil, and sales of fish oil supplements are more than $1 billion per year in the United States.
Omega-3 is a polyunsaturated fatty acid, and our only source is from food. Omega-6 is omega-3's cousin, also derived from the food we eat.
The only difference between omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids is in the structure of their molecules. Both are essential. Our body cannot produce them, so we need to obtain them from our diet.
It is not a matter of one of them being "better" than the other. We need both, and generally, we all need to eat more of them, as long as we don't get the ratio out of balance.
An imbalance in our omega-3 to omega-6 ratio is associated with adverse health outcomes, potentially negating the overall benefits. For example, a high dietary intake of omega-6 induces a proinflammatory response (raising the level of chronic inflammation) whereas omega-3 has anti-inflammatory properties.
Omega-6 and chronic inflammation
This raised level of inflammation is very relevant to the coronavirus pandemic because the higher the total load of chronic inflammation a person carries, the more likely they are to succumb to COVID19.
Older people have a higher level of chronic inflammation simply because of aging - being less active, absorbing fewer bioactive nutrients, often suffering from obesity and Type 2 diabetes. These latter conditions all raise the background level of chronic inflammation.
Therefore, ensuring that our omega-3 to omega-6 balance remains in an optimum range is a significant health objective if you wish to not weaken your immune system, and to live longer better.
Eat more omega-3, not necessarily less omega-6
This does not mean that we should stop eating omega-6. Omega-6 fats were once criticised as unhealthy, but researchers for the American Heart Association (AHA) has now concluded that they are in fact beneficial to the heart.
So - as for omega-6 fats from vegetable oils- their cousin, the omega-3 fats from fish, are good for the heart. To improve the ratio of omega-3 fats to omega-6 fats, we should eat more omega-3s, not fewer omega-6s.
The main argument against omega-6 is that our body can convert the most common one (linolenic acid) into another fatty acid called arachidonic acid. Arachidonic acid is a building block for molecules that can promote inflammation, blood clotting, and the constriction of blood vessels. However, many studies have shown that the rates of heart diseases went down as consumption of omega-6 went up.
Research published online Aug. 17, 2016, by JAMA Cardiology found that high levels of omega-6s in the subcutaneous adipose tissue the layer of fat just beneath the skin correlated with lower death rates among older men.
It is optimum for our health to eat more omega-3 and more healthy omega-6 fats.
Get the omega-3 / omega-6 balance right
What is out of kilter is the balance between the two. Most Americans eat more omega-6 fats than omega-3, about 10 times more.
Beside excessive omega-6 aggravating inflammation, other adverse health outcomes have been established. These include:
Those all all things we want to avoid, and we certainly don’t want to precipitate them with an unbalanced diet.
Foods to eat to increase your omega-3
You'll never know your actual balance of omega-3 to omega-6, without a specialised test. But we know that the ratio has heavily shifted towards omega-6. Foods which will help bring the balance back include the following.
Fatty fish - fish with the highest omega-3 content are salmon, tuna steaks, mackerel, herring, trout, anchovies, and sardines. Interestingly, farm-raised salmon have a higher load of omega-3 because they are fed high-protein pellets which makes them larger and carrying more total fat than wild salmon, who have to fight for their food.
If you don't like fish - consider a high-quality omega-3 supplement. Please read the details carefully, there are many low-grade omega-3 supplements, and unless it is harvested (from fish) and stored very precisely, it oxidises and loses its value.
You can get omega-3s from ground flaxseed or flaxseed oil, chia seeds, walnuts, canola oil, and soy oil. One to two servings per day can help you avoid a deficiency of omega-3s.
However, the form of omega-3 in flaxseed (alpha-linolenic acid) has a low bioavailability of about 10 to 15%. So in terms of omega-3 "power," a tablespoon of flaxseed oil is worth about 700 milligrams (mg) of EPA and DHA.
The bottom line on flaxseed oil is that it will give your diet a nice little omega-3 boost in the form of alpha-linolenic acid. Still, it should be considered a backup, not a substitute for the omega-3s in fish and fish oil, because of the low bioavailability factor.
There isn't an official upper limit for omega-3 but for most people, Havard Health suggests a maximum intake of 1,000 milligrams (mg) of omega-3s from fish oil a day.
For other dietary sources, see National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements - Omega 3 Factsheet.
A healthy daily diet is your best protection, rather than supplements
In addition to achieving a better balance between omega-3 and omega-6 consumption, a more natural, less processed diet is the best way to improve your nutritional health. A healthy diet is beneficial not only for reducing the risk of chronic diseases but also for improving your mood and overall quality of life.
Therefore, consider a daily combination these types of foods: strawberries, blueberries, cherries, and oranges, fatty fish, spinach, nuts (like walnuts and pistachios), olive oil, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, brussels sprouts), and legumes. Add in grains such as rye, barley and oats.
Don't be shy to boost your olive oil intake - only cold-pressed virgin olive oil. Sure, it comes with extra calories, but in moderation (a couple of dessert spoons each day) it brings essential health benefits which help slow the rate of aging.
Olive oil is a good source of vitamin E, polyphenols, and monounsaturated fatty acids, all which help reduce the risk of heart disease. I add it into shakes and on my morning oats as well.
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