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Nutrition Column

Omega-3 to Omega-6 Ratio

A previous post on omega-3 fatty acids presented foods high is omega-3s and their potential health benefits, yet in order to take that knowledge a step further you must understand the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio.

Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated acids.  Their different names are derived from their distinct chemical configurations.  It was discovered that the configuration of the two fatty acids causes them to play contradictory roles in the body.  This became a hot topic of research due to the Eskimo Paradox.  Males from Greenland, Alaska, and Northern Canada had a much lower rate of cardiovascular mortality than predicted despite their high fat intake (40% of calories).  The Eskimo's diets where high in fish fats (omega-3) and low in other animal fats which are high in saturated and omega-6 fats.

Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to be anti-thrombotic (anti clotting) and anti-inflammatory, therefore reducing the risk for blood clots.  Omega-6 fatty acids, on the other hand were found to be pro-thrombotic (clotting) and pro-inflammatory.  Some clotting is necessary in the blood to decrease bleeding time, yet too much clotting can results in a major cardiac event.  Therefore, it is important to keep a proper omega-3 to omega-6 ratio.

Currently, in the United States the average ratio is 1:10 1:15.  Likewise, England averages a high ratio of 1:20 1:30.  In contrast, Japan's average ratio is 1:1 1:3, which happens to be directly aligned with the desirable ratio.  In general, the incidence rates of chronic disease in Western populations are higher when compared to Eastern populations.  It is no secret that Japan's low omega-3 to omega-6 ratio plays a role in their better health due to the major dietary differences between Japanese men and other groups.

Here is a list of omega-3 to omega-6 ratios for some foods.

Omega-3 : Omega-6

Flax           4:1

Salmon      3:1

Herring      2.5:1

Canola Oil  2:1

Soybeans   1:8

Walnuts     1:10

Chicken      1:13

These ratios can help you discern what a better omega-3 choice is the next time you are at the grocery store.  For example, flax seed and walnuts are both high in omega-3 fatty acids. However flax seed has a better omega-3 to omega-6 ratio therefore is probably a better choice to sprinkle on your next salad or to mix in with your favorite cereal.

Written by Aaron Losey, B.A. Kinesiology, Occidental College, Los Angeles, CA