Updated: Feb 20, 2018
There's a lot to be said about omega fatty acids these days. Everyone has their own opinion, but let's get to the facts.
A common myth is that omega-6 fatty acids are bad for you, while omega-3 fatty acids are good for you. The truth is that both omega-6 and omega-3 are essential fatty acids, and your body needs about a 2:1 ratio of the two in order to function optimally. The issue is that the standard American diet promotes a ratio of about 16:1, which creates inflammation and opens up your body to a long list of disease.
Let's get down to basics and backtrack for a second. Both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids fall under the category of polyunsaturated fats, which are the least stable fats and are more prone to oxidation (meaning they should not be heavily processed or exposed to high heat). They also both are not naturally made by the body and therefore must be consumed from food or supplements. So what is the difference between omega-6 and omega-3?
Omega-6 fatty acids are found in corn oil, soybean oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil... ring a bell? These are many crops that are subsidized by the U.S. government and therefore are commonly found in our country's processed food. They can be found in anything ranging from granola bars and trail mix to frozen dinners and boxed crackers. The main issue is that when these fatty acids are processed & exposed to high heat, they become oxidized and create free radicals in the body, which foster disease and inflammation. But omega-6 in its purest form (raw pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, etc.) actually promotes muscle growth and brain function. So omega-6 really just gets all the bad rep because it is often processed and thrown into the majority of our meals (and in this case, it is bad).
Omega-3 fatty acids are also not great for you when processed or exposed to high heat, but it is more rare to find them altered in that way. Rich omega-3 sources would be salmon, mackerel, spinach, kale and swordfish. Omega-3s are beneficial because they help your cells talk to each other, encourage healthy blood circulation and help to regulate hormones in your body. Unlike omega-6 fatty acids, omega-3's are anti-inflammatory.
Although I rarely consume processed foods or packaged goods, I also find myself with an unbalanced ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 due to my plant-based diet. A common misconception is that nuts and seeds like walnuts or flaxseeds are high in omega-3s, but the omega-3 fatty acid found in these plants are actually difficult for humans to consume.
Me circa 2012 — clearly thrilled about the omega-3s I thought I'd get from this walnut grove I stumbled upon in Northern California. Oh well.
No matter your dietary preference, it's important to keep your omega-6 & omega-3 ratio in check. If you're a strict plant eater, consider taking a omega-3 algae supplement to help balance your omega-6 ratio. If you're a meat eater, consider adding fish more frequently in your diet (3x a week) and stay away from packaged or processed foods. If we can easily ward off disease and illness by making small changes to our diet, why not?