Both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in health. But, for most of us, supplementing our diets with both these fats isn’t a good idea.

Australians who follow a Western diet that contains poly- and monounsaturated margarine, as well as cooking and salad oils, generally get an overdose of omega-6 fatty acids.

If you use margarine and sunflower oil in your kitchen, the chances are fairly good that you're getting more than enough of the omega-6 fatty acids. In fact, you may be getting too much...

A complicated relationship


When it comes to the essential fatty acids, we not only have to make sure we include them in our diets; we also have to check that the two types are balanced.

Researchers have discovered that the so-called omega-3 to omega-6 ratio should be about 1:5 for optimal health. Therefore we must ensure that we consume 1g of omega-3 for every 5g of omega-6.

Because the intake of omega-6 in Western countries has increased dramatically with the introduction of margarine, salad dressings and cooking oils, most of us get more than enough omega-6. The general intake of omega-3, mainly found in fish and fish oils, has, however, decreased just as dramatically over the years, so that we hardly ever achieve the ideal ratio of 1:5. In many diets the ratio is 1:20, or even 1:40. It’s therefore important to make sure that we obtain more of the omega-3 fatty acids.

The reason why we need a 1:5 balance of omega-3 vs. omega-6 is that these essential fatty acids compete with each other for enzymes in the body. If we consume too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3, only omega-6 will be metabolized, and the body won’t be able to use the omega-3 fatty acids. Such an imbalance can cause all kinds of diseases.

Omega-3 and health


Research shows that, if we eat sufficient amounts of the omega-3 fatty acids, it could protect against a number of diseases. These include:

    • Heart disease: Research shows that omega-3 lowers the risk of developing heart disease. The fatty acid can furthermore reduce the risk of dying from a heart attack by 30%.

    • Blood clots: Omega-3 makes blood less sticky, thus helping to prevent blood clots.

    • High blood fat levels: The fatty acid reduces “bad” HDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood.

    • Breast cancer: High omega-6 and low omega-3 fatty acid levels may predispose women to developing breast cancer. Once again, balancing your intake to increase your omega-3 levels could have a protective effect.

    • Rheumatoid arthritis: Research results indicate that omega-3 fatty acids may help to prevent this common form of arthritis.

    • Crohn’s disease: There’s some indication that the omega-3 fatty acids may help to alleviate this form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).



Additionally, the omega-3s are important for the normal development of the brain, nervous system and vision in infants before and during the first year after birth. Omega-3 supplementation during pregnancy and breastfeeding is also encouraged.

Although research into the role of the omega-3 fatty acids in psychiatric conditions such as depression and schizophrenia is still in the early stages, some studies have shown promising results.

Sources of omega-3


The following foods and supplements are rich sources of the omega-3 fatty acids:

    • Fish and seafood: mackerel, herring, salmon, tuna, sardines, anchovies, trout, sturgeon and squid

    • Calamari oil: produced from the unused portion of the 2 million tons of squid caught each year

    • Fish oils: cod liver oil, salmon oil, tuna fish oil

    • Krill oil: small crustaceans similar to prawns which make up the largest biomass on earth

    • Plant sources: flaxseed, canola, walnut and soya oils

    • Omega-3 enriched foods: eggs, milk, bread and margarine



Which omega-3 supplement should I chose?


The supermarket shelves are brimming with options when it comes to omega-3 supplements - triple strength fish, super powerful krill or heart healthy canola – so which one is right for you?

To get the most bang for your omega buck, chose supplements that contain DHA and EPA.  Plant sources such as flaxseed only contain ALA which must be processed, rather inefficiently,  by the body into DHA and EPA.  The most DHA-rich source has now been shown to be calamari oil.  With almost four times the amount of DHA than regular fish oil, the brain, heart and eye health benefits of calamari oil are second to none.  Not only is calamari oil the most DHA rich, it is also the most ecologically sustainable, and has been given the tick of approval by Friends of the Sea.

If you suspect that you’re not getting enough of the omega-3s, make a plan to eat fish two to three times a week. But be sure to make a sustainable choice when selecting seafood – visit www.sustainableseafood.org.au for more information and pick fish from the “green” list.

Also switch to flaxseed, canola or soya oils and start using enriched foods, such as omega-3 enriched eggs, milk, bread and margarine.

If you’re at risk of any of the above-mentioned diseases, omega-3 supplementation is advised.

Image via Thinkstock