The Oil Myth: Why Healthy Omega-6 Fatty Acids Get a Bad Rap

The Oil Myth: Why Healthy Omega-6 Fatty Acids Get a Bad Rap

I have a confession. Years ago, when I started on the band wagon of a grain free lifestyle, I ‘learned’ that omega-6 fats caused inflammation and that Americans ate way too much of this fat. So, I did what anyone would do when trying to improve their health, I cut this 'bad fat' from my diet and instead focused on other fats, like olive oil and fish oils. 

Fast forward 10 years and many functional medicine health tests later and what did I find? I was severely out of balance on my omega 3, 6, and 9 fatty acids, among other nutritional issues. 

The Battle Around Omega 6

The issue with omega-6 started around the fact that Americans eat more omega-6 fats than omega-3 fats, on average about 10-15 times more. Since a low intake of omega-3 fats is not good for cardiovascular health, critics recommended cutting omega-6 fats like sunflower and safflower oils altogether, especially since many processed baked and fried foods contain vegetable oils and therefore higher amounts of omega-6 fats. 

The second 'strike' against omega-6 fats is that the body converts the most common one, linolenic acid, into another fatty acid called arachidonic acid, and arachidonic acid is a building block for molecules that can promote inflammation, blood clotting, and the constriction of blood vessels.

But the body also converts arachidonic acid into molecules that calm inflammation and fight blood clots as well, just one of the positives from omega-6 fatty acids. 

The Evidence for Omega 6

In a science advisory that was two years in the making, nine independent researchers from around the country, including three from Harvard, say that data from dozens of studies support the cardiovascular benefits of eating omega-6 fats (Circulation, Feb. 17, 2009). "Omega-6 fats are not only safe but they are also beneficial for the heart and circulation," says advisory coauthor Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital (6).

It turns out that the body converts very little linolenic acid into arachidonic acid, even when linolenic acid is abundant in the diet. The AHA reviewers found that eating more omega-6 fats didn't rev up inflammation. Instead, eating more omega-6 fats either reduced markers of inflammation or left them unchanged (5).

Many studies showed that rates of heart disease went down as consumption of omega-6 fats went up. And a meta-analysis of six randomized trials found that replacing saturated fat with omega-6 fats reduced the risk of heart attacks and other coronary events by 24%.

A separate report published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that pooled the results of 11 large cohorts showed that replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats (including omega-6 and omega-3 fats) reduced heart disease rates more than did replacing them with monounsaturated fats or carbohydrates (7).

The Takeaway:

Don't cut omega-6 fats from your diet, instead, add more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and choose more natural, unprocessed forms of omega-6 fatty acids.

Here is a list of the sources and benefits of Omega's 3-6-9:

1. Omega-3 fatty acids: 

These are polyunsaturated fats and since the human body can’t produce them, these fats are referred to as “essential fats,” meaning that you have to get them from your diet. These fats are a crucial part of human cell membranes. They also have other important functions, including:

  • Improving heart health, supporting mental health, reducing weight and waist size, buoying the immune system, supporting the nervous system, decreasing liver fat, supporting infant brain development, and fighting inflammation (9). 

There are many types of omega-3 fats but the three most common are Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).Oily fish is the best source of omega-3's with EPA and DHA. Other marine sources include algal oils. ALA mainly comes from nuts and seeds.

Here are great sources of omega-3’s:

  • salmon: EPA and DHA
  • mackerel: EPA and DHA
  • sardines: EPA and DHA
  • anchovies: EPA and DHA
  • chia seeds: ALA
  • walnuts: ALA
  • flaxseeds: ALA

Can’t seem to get more salmon or other fish into your weekly diet? A good omega fatty acid supplement can also be beneficial to ensure enough of these healthy fats. 

2. Omega-6 Fatty Acids:

Like omega-3s, omega-6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated and are also essential, so you need to obtain them from your diet. They mainly provide energy. The most common omega-6 fat is linoleic acid, which the body can convert to longer omega-6 fats such as arachidonic acid (AA).

Research suggests that GLA and DGLA from omega-6 fatty acids have some health benefits like reducing symptoms of inflammatory conditions, possibly reducing fat mass in humans, and protection against heart disease (4).

Omega 6's also lower harmful LDL cholesterol and boost protective HDL. They help keep blood sugar in check by improving the body's sensitivity to insulin (2).

Try to obtain your omega-6 sources from more natural, raw sources versus in processed baked and fried foods.  Use the following oils in your own baking and in dressings, versus frying, to avoid reactions with high heat and oxygen which can form harmful free radicals (3).

  • soybean oil
  • grapeseed oil
  • safflower oil
  • sunflower oil
  • walnut oil
  • mayonnaise
  • walnuts
  • sunflower seeds
  • almonds

3. Omega-9 fatty acids:

Omega-9 fatty acids are monounsaturated and aren’t considered essential as the body can produce them. Oleic acid is the most common omega-9 fatty acid and the most common monounsaturated fatty acid in the diet.

Consuming foods rich in omega-9 fatty acids instead of other types of fat (like saturated and trans fats) may have health benefits.

A 2015 study found that feeding mice diets high in monounsaturated fat improved insulin sensitivity and decreased inflammation (8). The same study found that humans who ate high monounsaturated fat diets had less inflammation and better insulin sensitivity than those who ate diets high in saturated fat.

Omega-9 fats are common in:

  • olive oil
  • cashew nut oil
  • almond oil
  • avocado oil
  • peanut oil
  • almonds
  • cashews
  • walnuts

The Bottom Line: 

Getting a healthy balance of omega 3, 6, and 9 fatty acids helps keep the body functioning at its best. If you are struggling to do that through diet alone, a good omega fatty acid supplement can help.

Lastly, eliminating foods from your diet without advice from a medical professional can not only be unnecessary but potentially harmful. If you are unsure about your own nutritional choices, possible food intolerances, or have other health concerns, consider seeking out a functional medicine practitioner who can help support your health and diet using a systems-oriented approach that addresses the whole person, not isolated symptoms.