Omega 3 vs Omega 6 Fatty Acids and the Paleo Diet

Omega Fatty AcidsMuch ado has been made about fats in the areas of diet and nutrition.  Recently, trans-fats and saturated fats have come under attack by the medical and nutritional communities, citing research that links these types of fats to serious and often fatal health conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes.  More recently, other fats, such as polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats, have been in the limelight for their ability to decrease bad cholesterol and increase good cholesterol.  Most notably, the balance between omega 3 fatty acids and omega 6 fatty acids has been researched and investigated by physicians and enthusiasts of the Paleolithic diet.

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In recent medical literature, the necessity of omega 3 fatty acids in the form of DHA and EPA has been proven.  Long-chain omega 3 fatty acids are needed for adequate brain function and development.  Not only do omega 3 fatty acids help the body function at the cellular level, they have also been shown to decrease cardiovascular disease and events such as stroke and heart attack while decreasing risk for blood clots and high blood pressure, inflammatory disease, arthritis, diabetes, irritable bowel disease, periodontal disease, asthma, acne, and other chronic illnesses.  The need for dietary DHA in pregnant women increases drastically in the third trimester, when the baby’s brain develops most.

Most Americans, on average, are significantly deprived of needed omega 3’s, but have an abundance of omega 6 fatty acids.  While omega 6 fatty acids are also beneficial and may even help reduce risk of cardiovascular disease, proponents of the paleo diet believe that the imbalance between the two poses significant health risks.  According to Loren Cordain, paleo diet expert and researcher, “The current ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids in the U.S. diet is about 10:1 whereas in hunter-gatherer diets it is closer to 2:1.”  This sizeable imbalance is caused by current western diets high in fat, grains, and processed sugars and other foods, and may leave the body in a constant state of inflammation.  In turn, chronic illnesses arise.

Most of the dietary omega 6 fatty acids that Americans ingest come from seeds, nuts, and oil.  Most dietary omega 6 is in the form of processed foods, such as fast food, cookies, crackers, sweets, and other snack foods, according to Dr. Andrew Weil.  These omega 6 fatty acids actually create hormones in the body that increase inflammation, while omega 3 fatty acids create hormones that decrease inflammation.  The optimal diet will yield a balance in the two fatty acids, rather than a significant imbalance as is found in the average American.

Eating a paleo diet that reduces processed and fast foods will significantly and naturally decrease consumption of omega 6 fatty acids and restore the body to better harmony.  Certainly, meat that is not grass-fed has a especially high rate of omega 6 fatty acids over omega 3’s, so buying grass-fed, organic, and local can make a drastic difference in your body’s fatty acid balance.  Similarly, fish, walnuts, olive oil, garlic, and most fruits and vegetables contain ample amounts of omega 3 fatty acids, which will help your body find the balance it needs to thrive.

While a diet rich in omega 6 fatty acids is essential and beneficial, the amounts consumed on the average American diet are excessive.  The dangers of this overabundance are compounded when the intake of omega 3’s is proportionally low.  On a Paleolithic diet, that balance between these two important fatty acids is restored, decreasing risk for serious and chronic diseases and increasing overall mental and physical health.

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