Are You Eating the Right Omegas? Most Americans Aren’t

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We hear a lot about the importance of getting enough Omega-3 fatty acids in our diets — and with good reason. They’re heart-healthy fats that help decrease inflammation, plus they’re important for brain development and function.

The other Omega fatty acids — the Omega-6 oils — are also considered “essential fatty acids” that are needed for several body processes. But some of them can also cause inflammation when eaten in excess. So while we do need adequate amounts of both in our diets, most of us are getting way too much Omega-6 and way too little Omega-3.

“In the standard American diet, people are getting about a 20-to-one ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3,” says Chris D’Adamo, Ph.D., assistant professor of epidemiology and public health, University of Maryland School of Medicine. “Ideally, that ratio should be more like three-to-one.”

The trouble is that Omega-6 fatty acids have become ubiquitous in our food supply in a way that they were not several decades ago. They are found in vegetable oils — like corn, sunflower, safflower and soybean — that are a staple ingredient in so many refined, processed and packaged foods. And when modern agricultural methods meant a shift from livestock that grazed on Omega-3-rich grasses to livestock that was fed Omega-6-packed grains, the balance in our diets shifted even more.

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A recent editorial in Open Heart, the journal of the British Cardiovascular Society, discussed the importance of a balanced ratio of Omega-3 fatty acids and Omega-6 fatty acids when it comes to prevention and management of obesity. The authors write: “High dietary intake of omega 6 fatty acids as occurs today leads to increases in white adipose tissue and chronic inflammation, which are the ‘hallmarks of obesity.’”

To improve the ratio of Omega-6s to Omega-3s in your diet, focus on:

Increasing consumption of Omega-3-rich foods — such as salmon, sardines, flax seeds and walnuts.

Opt for beef and dairy from grass-fed livestock whenever possible.

Limit your intake of processed foods in order to reduce the amount of vegetable oils in your diet.

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Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist who writes about nutrition, health and wellness.

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