Sunday, 10 June 2012

Why You Should Balance your Omega 3/6 Ratio

Omega-3 and omega-6 are essential fatty acids.  Both types of fats are necessary for good health. They cannot be manufactured by the human body and must be obtained from foods. 

Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation, while many omega-6 fatty acids promote inflammation.  Inflammation is necessary for the healing of injuries and infections.  However, chronic inflammation can lead to a wide range of diseases including  allergies, asthma, eczema, rheumatoid arthritis, hypertension, atherosclerosis, Alzheimer’s, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.   To stay healthy, the body must have the necessary nutrients to keep inflammation levels under control.

Nuts, seeds and grains tend to be good sources of Omega-6, whereas wild game, grass-fed meat and oily fish are good sources of omega-3.  Our hunter-gatherer ancestors probably acquired equal amounts of essential fatty acids from animal and vegetable sources.  Researches estimate that humans evolved to eat an omega 3/6 ratio of approximately 1:1. 

Industrial methods of food production have led to a dramatic imbalance in most people's intake of essential fatty acids.  In modern Western diets, the typical ratio of  omega-6 to omega-3 is about 16:1.  This is partly due to the fact that a large portion of our diet is based on omega-6 rich cereal grains like wheat, rice, oats and corn.  But the real story is far more complex.

The process for chemically extracting oils from nuts, seeds and grains was developed in the early 20th century.  Since then, high omega-6 corn oil, safflower oil, cottonseed oil, peanut oil and soybean oil have made their way into a wide variety of processed foods.  They are also commonly used for home baking and frying. 

Beef was once high in omega-3, but is now contains far more omega-6.  This is because cattle used to freely roam fields eating nothing but grass.  These days, they are fattened for market on feeds produced from high omega-6 grains.  Chickens are also primarily fed on grains instead of their natural diet of grasses and insects. As a result, their meat and eggs are high in omega-6.

Most people in the UK and other industrialized nations now eat what could be characterized as an inflammatory diet.  Diseases that are virtually unknown in tribes that still hunt and gather their food or practice ancient forms of agriculture are rising to epidemic levels in the most wealthy nations on earth.

So how can you rebalance your omega 3/6 levels?

  • Use lard or butter rather than vegetable oil or margarine
  • Avoid processed foods, especially those which are baked or fried
  • Eat fewer cereal and grain products and more green leafy vegetables
  • Make oily fish a major part of your diet

A basic guide to the omega-3 and omega-6 content of fats and oils:  
Omega-3 and Omega-6 Food Sources

A couple of references for people who want to review the scientific evidence:

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