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Nutrition Column

The balance of fats in your diet plays a role in your physical and mental health

The ratio of dietary omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids can impact cellular, organ, and body function.

Most people are aware of the negative impact saturated fats and hydrogenated oils have on heart health and bodily function. They’ve also heard of the benefits of fish oil, flax and other sources of omega-3 fatty acids. The latest research on fats suggests that the ratio of omega-3 / omega-6 fats in your diet can impact your mood, energy level, and health starting at the cellular level.

Most dietary fats come in the form of triglycerides. Triglycerides are molecules that contain three fatty acids that are categorized as saturated, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated based on their chemical structure. While every triglyceride contains a mixture of fatty acids, one generally predominates. Unsaturated fatty acids contain connections between atoms termed double bonds and can also be named based on the location or structure of the double bond. Trans fatty acids, those formed by the process of partial hydrogenation and found in stick margarines and processed foods, have double bonds with a structure different from the cis double bonds found naturally in foods and have been implicated in increasing disease risk.

Another term used with naming unsaturated fatty acids is omega-3, -6, or -9 fatty acids. The omega designation simply refers to the end of the fatty acid the double bond is found. Most omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated and are considered essential nutrients since we need to obtain them in our diet and cannot manufacturer adequate amounts within our bodies.

Both essential fatty acids (EFA), like all fats, provide calories to the body but they impart health benefits as well. Since each dietary fat has a blend of fatty acids getting an optimal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids is sometimes hard. With current dietary patterns the average U.S. has a ratio of 10:1, while intake ratios of 2:1 or even 1:1 appear to be most beneficial for overall health. A common omega-6 fatty acid is linoleic acid found primarily in vegetable oils (safflower, soy, corn, sunflower, and peanut). Linolenic acid is a common omega-3 fatty acid found in fish, leafy green vegetables, soy products, nuts, seeds, and canola oil.

Vascular endothelial cells which line blood vessels use omega-3 fatty acids to produce localized hormones called eicosanoids that cause dilation of blood vessels and reduce inflammation and blood clotting. On the other hand, eicosanoids formed from omega-6 fatty acids tend to do the opposite; promoting inflammation and the inflammatory process, increasing blood clotting and causing vasoconstriction - all processes essential for wound repair but not necessary in undamaged blood vessels.

Both forms of EFA are important for health and well being. While omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and help prevent heart disease, omega-6 fatty acids lower blood cholesterol levels and help the skin. The ratio of the two appears to be the factor that determines cellular function and health.

Several recent studies have found low levels of omega-3 fatty acids to be linked to chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, and mood. In one, recently published study, Maes et al. found a direct link between low levels of plasma omega-3 fatty acids and the severity of illness. They and other groups have shown improved mood, energy, and well being with an increase in the omega-3 / omega-6 ratio. In fact, in another study, Maes and colleagues found an exaggerated negative response to psychological stress when the omega-3/omega-6 ratio was low. Their work suggests that increasing dietary omega-3 fatty acid intake may help to attenuate some of the negative consequences of psychological stress.

More research is indeed necessary to determine the optimal ratio of essential fatty acids in the diet and whether the ratio varies between individuals and for different disease states. At present it appears a more balanced ratio than currently found in most American’s diet is warranted.

Written by Dr. Sternlicht for on 01.09.06