Here’s The Truth About Omega-6s

By Caroline Young Bearden, MS, RD, LD, RYT

 

From our social media feeds to morning news shows, there’s nutrition advice thrown at us everyday.  

The truth is, nutrition science is constantly evolving, which is why it is important to seek information backed by rigorous science.

Recently, diets like Whole30 caution about foods rich in omega-6 fatty acids, like peanuts, peanut butter, seeds and liquid vegetable oils (i.e. corn, sunflower and safflower oils). And greater emphasis is typically placed on benefits of eating omega-3 fatty acids.

Indeed, omega-3s, which are found in foods like fish, canola and soybean oils, and flax and chia seeds, are a dietary necessity. They are crucial for things like vision health, and brain health and development.[1]

However, we must remember omega-3s are one of the two essential fatty acids – the other one being omega-6s. We must consume both types through our diet (which makes them essential), since our bodies can’t make them on their own.

Here’s the Science-Based Truth

Omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids share similar traits:

  • They are both essential, meaning you must get them through your diet.
  • They are both polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are “good” fats.
  • They both have been shown to aid in heart health and reduction of disease.[2]
  • They are both found in everyday foods (i.e. peanuts, peanut butter, seeds, fish, vegetable oils).
  • They both provide energy for the body.
  • They both play a role in hormone health and regulation.[3]
  • They both help regulate inflammation.
  • They both support healthy skin.[4]
So Why Have Omega-6s Gotten the Bad Rap?

The reasons used to suggest omega-6s should be reduced or avoided is based on inconclusive science. Since Omega-6s promote inflammation and most diseases include inflammation as a risk factor, it has been speculated that reducing omega- 6 intake means reducing disease risk.

However, there is not scientific evidence to support omega-6s’ role in inflammation and chronic disease risk, to warrant avoiding them. In fact, there is research to support its role in disease prevention and overall health (after all, they are essential fatty acids!).[5]

In the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a few studies on heart disease risk emphasize the importance of eating foods rich in polyunsaturated fats (including both omega-6s and omega-3s), not the avoidance of omega-6s.

For example, one systematic review and meta-analysis of 13 studies with over 310,000 people and 12,000 total coronary heart disease (CHD) events found that linoleic acid (a type of omega-6 fatty acid found in foods like peanuts and vegetable oil) intake was linked to a 15 percent lower risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) and a 21 percent lower risk of death from CHD. In other words, omega-6 fatty acids were found to lower heart disease risk.[6]

Like all research, the meta-analysis had limitations, including potential issues in methodology of the studies included. There is always a chance of other dietary and lifestyle factors of studies’ participants that could impact results. And not all of the studies were randomized controlled trials – the gold standard in research.

What's the Very Latest?

Additionally, new research is showing beneficial relationships between omega-6 consumption and diseases beyond heart disease.  One new study of more than 2,400 participants who were followed for over 24 years, found an association of a higher intake of linoleic acid (a type of omega-6 fatty acids found in foods like peanuts and vegetable oils) with reduced risk of death from all causes of death, including multiple diseases. Of the participants, about half of them died from various diseases, including heart disease, dementia, Alzheimer disease, liver disease and respiratory-related diseases.

This study’s limitations include its use of a specific study population, of white men ages 42 to 60 living in Finland, which means the findings may not be generalizable to everyone. Additionally, this study was not a randomized controlled trial (RCT), the gold standard in research, so a cause-and-effect relationship between omega-6 consumption and reduced mortality from disease was not found.[7]

What About the Omega Ratio?

Some researchers propose that an imbalance of omega 6s and omega3s—the omega 6/omega 3 ratio—may play a part in chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer. But the optimal ratio—if any—has not been defined, and is therefore inconclusive.[8]

Long Story Short

Science continues to show that omega-3s and omega-6s should be placed on equal ground. If we eat a balanced, diverse diet of mostly nourishing foods -- including good fats like peanuts, seeds, fish and vegetable oils -- and our bodies will thank us.  

 

 

[1] Omega-3 Fatty Acids. National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/. Updated March 2, 2018. Accessed March 20, 2018. 

[2] Part D. Chapter 6: Cross-Cutting Topics of Public Health Importance. Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Committee. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion website.https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015-scientific-report/11-chapter-6/d6-2.asp. Published 2015. Accessed March 2018. 

[3] Omega-3 Fatty Acids. National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/. Updated March 2, 2018. Accessed March 20, 2018. 

[4] Omega-3 Fatty Acids. National Institutes of Health.  https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/. Updated November 2, 2016.

 

[5] Harris W, Mozaffarian D, Rimm E, et al. Omega-6 Fatty Acids and Risk for Cardiovascular Disease. Circulation. 2009;119:902-907. http://circ.ahajournals.org/node/62303.full.

 

[6] Part D. Chapter 6: Cross-Cutting Topics of Public Health Importance. Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Committee. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion website.https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015-scientific-report/11-chapter-6/d6-2.asp. Published 2015. Accessed March 2018. 

 

[7] Virtanen J, Wu J, Voutilainen S, Mursu J, Tuomainen TP. Serum n-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids and risk of death: the Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2018;107:427-435.

 

[8] Omega-3 Fatty Acids. National Institutes of Health.  https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/. Updated November 2, 2016.

 

You must be logged in to view this item.

This area is reserved for members of the news media. If you qualify, please update your user profile and check the box marked "Check here to register as an accredited member of the news media". Please include any notes in the "Supporting information for media credentials" box. We will notify you of your status via e-mail in one business day.