Research shows that our hunter-gatherer ancestors consumed omega-6 and omega-3 fats in a ratio of 1:1. Their diets were abundant in seafood and other sources of omega-3 long chain fatty acids (EPA & DHA). Research also suggests that these hunter-gatherers were free of modern inflammatory diseases like heart disease, and diabetes, to name a few, that are some of our primary causes of death today1
When the industrial revolution began, there was actually a shift in the ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in peoples’ diets. Consumption of omega-6 fatty acids increased at the expense of omega-3 fatty acids. This change was due to the rise of the modern vegetable oil industry and the increased use of cereal grains as feed for livestock2 (which in turn changed the fatty acid profile of meat that humans ate). As vegetable oil consumption rose pretty dramatically, it had a major effect on the ratio of omega-6s and omega-3s in the American diet. This was so dramatic, in fact, that between 1935 and 1939, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids was reported to be 8.4:1. Today, estimates of this ratio range from an overage of 10:1 to 20:1.
When it comes to these fatty acids, your body does not have the enzyme to produce them, so you must get them from your diet. If you do not get omega-6 and omega-3 fats from your diet, you will develop a deficiency and may become sick. That is why many refer to these fats as “essential” fatty acids. However, these fatty acids are different than most other fats. They are not just used for energy or stored, they are biologically active and have important roles in processes like blood clotting and inflammation. Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids have different effects on the body. Scientists believe that omega-6s are pro-inflammatory, while omega-3s are anti-inflammatory3. Of course, inflammation is key to our survival. It helps protect our body from infection and injury, which is why Omega-6s are necessary, but it can also cause severe damage and contribute to disease when it is chronic or excessive. In fact, chronic inflammation may be one of the leading causes of some of the most serious modern diseases. It is hypothesized by some scientists that a diet high in omega-6s but low in omega-3s increases inflammation, while a diet that includes balanced amounts of each reduces inflammation4 (Russo, 2009). Those who follow a Western diet (high intake of red meat, processed meat, pre-packaged foods, butter, fried foods…etc.) are typically eating too many omega-6s relative to omega-3s.
Avoid Omega-3 Deficiencies
The bottom line is that we need to get more omega-3s in our diet. This fatty acid is key to having a healthy heart and well-functioning cells throughout the body. Most Americans do not get the recommended amount of omega-3s, which is about 1-3 grams per day, according to the American Heart Association5 (Schiff, 2018). A deficiency in omega-3 can manifest in the following ways:
- Rough, dry skin
- Dry, brittle hair and dandruff
- Soft, peeling nails
- Excessive thirst
- Difficulty sleeping
- Difficulty paying attention
- Excessive mood swings, depression, and anxiety
We normally think of seafood when it comes to getting our omega-3s in, which is completely accurate, since fish (salmon, mackerel, seabass, oysters, shrimp, sardines…etc.) have a very high concentration of omega-3s, but certain meats are also great sources of the preformed omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. One problem today though, is that animals are usually fed grain-based feeds containing soy and corn, which reduces their omega-3 content, so the polyunsaturated fats in these meats are mostly omega-6s6. So if you can afford it, grass-fed meat is definitely the better choice. In that vein, it is also a good idea to buy pasteurized or omega-3 enriched eggs, which are higher in omega-3s, compared to eggs from hens raised on grain-based feeds7.
Apart from your diet, another great way to up your omega-3 intake is with a quality supplement. Look for one that contains omega-3 fish oil with EPA and DHA, and vitamin E, which not only supports cholesterol, triglycerides and circulation, but also supports the body’s natural anti-inflammatory response.