They're both essential fatty acids, meaning they cannot be manufactured in the body - you absolutely need to bring them in through diet. Skirting the chemistry, they are best known in the food industry by their ability to remain stable (or not). Omega-6’s are very stable, omega-3’s are not. Omega-6’s coagulate, 3’s tend to be very fluid. Omega-6’s are used in the body as part of the inflammatory process and Omega-3’s are called upon to halt the inflammatory process when the healing is finished. They work together and must be in balance for good health. When 6’s are too high, you get inflammation that will not stop – In the joints, arteries, anywhere in the body.
From the food industry standpoint, Omega-3 oils are difficult to process and expensive to market – but you can find them in health food stores in the refrigerated section in a very dark container with a very tightly sealed lid. They are highly reactive to the environment and go rancid quickly.
Both types of fatty acids are polyunsaturates, but because 6's are more stable in the environment (less affected, by heat, light, and oxygen) before going rancid, manufacturers dump truckloads of it into every packaged product in the form of preservatives to increase shelf life. If the omega-3s in the product are difficult or too costly to remove, more 6’s are dumped on in the hope of slowing the onset of rancidity. Omega-3 fatty acids are the bane of the industry and there is an ongoing search to extract them out of every product to our detriment.
Not only are they adding these 6’s, they pursue relentlessly new ways of removing 3’s from the source by genetically modifying or hybridizing the plants that go into our everyday products. This applies especially to the oils found on the shelf – a more favorable ratio of 6’s to 3’s found by testing five years ago will not be the same as what you’ll find in the same oil today – I wouldn’t depend on a study done as recently as six months ago!
So are 6’s bad? Certainly not! They’re just horribly out of proportion in our diet. They are both absolutely necessary, but we are getting PLENTY of 6’s and not near enough 3’s. Our ratio currently is probably close to 100:1 when it should be ideally 4:1. When it’s 4:1, our body does it’s magic and provides our cells with a perfect 1:1 ratio. See – I’m skipping chemistry class again!
Here’s an important fact about 6s and 3s: They don’t share, they compete. If you take in too high a ratio of 6’s, they win for a place in your body. You take in 3’s, they win. So you can’t take in six tablespoons of oil and expect the bowlful of salad that it is buried under to balance or counter the 6’s in the oil. It just doesn’t work that way in the body. You want more 3’s, leave the oil on the shelf at the store. No, not even those fancy salad spritzers. Read the label.
Now here’s a little background on nature’s use of 6’s and 3’s that will make the rest of the text easier to digest. Both acids are found abundantly in nature. You could safely say there are more 3’s than 6’s far a wide margin. Where are they most found in the food supply? You’ll find the most 3’s in green plants (they are required for photosynthesis) and the most 6’s in seeds (stored food supply for the plant).
Let’s take the cuddly marmots of Montana for example. When studying the diets of marmots and their hibernation triggers, researchers observed that these little varmints sought out the densest foods they could find – seeds and nuts. So they’re becoming loaded with proportionately high omega-6 fats (Now they’re ready for the winter – one can sleep REALLY well on the slow moving omega-6 fats). They awake in spring when the reserves are spent and if conditions are favorable, low and behold, what’s for dinner? All those high-6 seeds have miraculously sprouted into high-3 greens! Now they are loading up primarily on 3’s. Since 3’s are nice and slick, metabolism picks up, brain activity increases, fat burns faster and mating starts to sound pretty good…oh, and if one needs to compete for a mate and is loaded with 6’s and hasn’t been eating the greens like all the other studs, fuhgetaboutit! It’ll be another cold, lonely winter because you got handed your cute little tail on a platter!
So why is this important to us? There are a number of reasons why we should increase plant consumption while reducing meat and fat consumption, but let’s focus on these two fats.
As another example: Take the early Eskimos, eating nothing but cold water fish meat and whale products with all the delicious innards - heavy on the fat, please. High cholesterol - clear arteries, no disease. Cholesterol numbers meant nothing to their actual health. But please get yours checked, you don’t eat like this, I can bet. Why were they so healthy? The omega-3 fatty acids are incredibly abundant in cold-water fish and in the proper ratio to 6’s, so much so that nosebleeds once a week were common – that’s the nature of 3’s – keeps body fluids very, well, fluid.
Where did the fish get all the omega-3s? They either ate the sea plants that are incredibly high in 3’s or they ate the creatures that ate the sea plants. This all changed, of course, once Wallyworld moved north and introduced them to the typical products that kill the rest of us. Now they die for the same reasons and at the same rate as we do – they’re still eating the fish and whale, but they’re dying from all the rest.
So let’s look at the ratios of 6’s to 3’s in common oils. Bear in mind, I don’t know when these ratios were established, but you can bet they are going to favor the 6’s more as time goes on as better science removes more of the 3s. Also remember, all oils and fats are saturated to varying degrees. Saturated fats and trans fats are no good for the body. ALSO keep in mind - if you cook with them, all bets are off (all fats are affected by heat, light, and oxygen), you’re dealing with poison at the point. Last but not least, fat has 9 calories per gram, and the body only needs 3% of that energy to transfer this fat directly to storage. Anyone plan to be hibernating this winter?
Flaxseed or linseed 0.2:1
Canola (for light frying) 3:1
Wheat germ 8:1
Hydrogenated soybean 13:1
High oleic sunflower 19:1
Less than 60% linoleic sunflower 200:1
And the winner is (drum roll please):
Safflower oil infinity:1 (there are no 3’s)
Read the labels and you’ll see ‘heart-healthy’ everywhere. Don’t believe it. Wild animals don’t need it, our animals don’t need it and we don’t need it. My brother and stepdad hunt and I bet they’ve never seen a fat-choked heart in any wild animal they’ve ever taken. Leave the oil on the shelf and stir-fry with vegetable broth. Tastes just as good, maybe just not as slick, it takes 30 seconds of the first meal to get over that.
I realize I’ve just made enemies with every Mediterranean diet lover on the planet. Want a little history on how this diet was determined to be so healthy? A study was done in 1950 (post-WWII) on the island of Crete (maybe because researchers noticed they looked so darned healthy and lived a long time compared to the rest of the region), after years of nazi-blockade in WWII. The researchers focused entirely on the diet. Now, nothing was imported or exported. So the locals worked with what they had to survive. They walked for miles up hills every day tending livestock, growing produce the old fashioned way and scraping by. Life was hard. So the diet was very simple, and it included a small amount of olive oil - all out of caloric necessity.
So someone decided this was the greatest diet on earth, completing forsaking the lifestyle as equally important, and started writing cookbooks to make a fast buck and thus began the mania to tout olive oil as the life-saving panacea that it never was. This caught on the world over. The fact is, the people from this island were healthy, not because of the omega-6’s in the oil or the oil itself, but because they ate sparingly of a diet of vegetables and a small amount of meat and were compelled by necessity to hump hills rain or shine, and had no access to the dietary sins of the world. They were healthy in spite of the omega-6 oil, not because of it.
Go there now and find the landscape in stark contrast. My, how it has changed – they are suffering just like the rest of us and taking in more oil than ever, just like the rest of us, convinced by the media that the oil is a dietary salvation that will remedy and counter their sedentary lifestyle and nutritionally bankrupt food choices. And this is not just happening in Crete, but in all countries. We rave about it here, and make a loose adaptation of it once a month, merely adding it to the rest of the month’s junk thinking it should cancel out last night’s six-pack while we reach for the meds on the nightstand after dinner. That’s no way to live.
So what should we do about this dilemma? One sentence – slam the greens at every opportunity and dump the oil. Eat the greens raw, steam them, put them in soup, casseroles, and use every variety you can find. Try something new and eat all kinds of vegetables.
If you’re already a vegan, you can try these steps:
- Back off on the nuts, eat some rice or potatoes or some quinoa instead as your filler. Remember, as an unsprouted nut or seed, omega-6 is loaded in the seed to protect the building blocks of life until conditions are right, which could be years – even centuries for some seeds. It has a purpose, but not as a major food source for people who don’t hibernate and never get enough omega-3’s. Here’s a thought: It seems reasonable to me to assume that you could sprout the seeds and change the ratio. Maybe not to the level of the plant itself, but the ratio should be greatly improved. I’d love to see a study on this.
- Add some ground flax seed twice a day to your meals. I doubt you’ll get so much your nose will bleed like the Eskimos of a generation ago, but it sounds like a good idea. I understand, however, that increasing flax to a high level can inhibit the absorption of some vitamin B6, and I don’t know if eating lots and lots of greens like we do makes this a moot point or not. It’s something to look into, but the 3’s are definitely there in flax.
If you like your meats and can’t give them up, you can still make healthful changes that won’t hurt a bit.
- First and foremost, cut back on your portion size. Meat is meat, and will always be top heavy in omega-6s. It is proven we don’t need as much protein as the FDA used to say we do. The amount posted is dropping steadily with time, and someday we’ll see amounts closer to the actual number proven over 50 years ago, only to discover we were getting plenty in the plants we were eating.
- Eat wild game. They eat right from the earth and as a result, their meat is naturally higher in omega-3s. And this applies to all meats - don’t fry, bake. Doctor it up a bit if you have to, but bake it.
- Eat grass-fed beef, no steroids, no antibiotics. But don’t they eat corn and oats in the feedlots? Yes, and what are these two products? Seeds! Very high is omega-6s. It quickly fattens up the meat just like 6’s are designed to do (along with all the other things added to it) for a higher market sale and meat marbleizing. Problem is, it marbleizes your muscle tissue and arteries exactly the same way. You feed a cow too long on this diet and their meat will be rancid on the hoof and you’ll know it upon your first bite. You’ll think the butcher switched cows on you!
- Eat cold-water fish. Baked wild salmon is a good choice. Sardines are a good choice and are even lower on the food chain. If you can’t get fresh, then packed in water or tomato sauce is far better than oil-packed. Of course, the start of all food chains on earth is always the plant, so why not skip the middleman and go to the source as often as you can? And avoid tuna, it can contain high levels of mercury, and that toxin tends to build up in the tissues.
- Eggs can actually be ok, if the chickens are free range on your neighbor’s farm and can scratch around for grasses and bugs every day and are rarely fed scratch, which is primarily corn. It changes the ratio of 6’s to 3’s in the yolk dramatically. Cholesterol in your body is not an issue when the ratio is right, but it must be right in your entire diet, not just for breakfast, otherwise all bets are off. The store shelves are looking promising as now, for a little more money, you can buy eggs with a higher omega-3 content - but they must clearly say this on the package. Otherwise, it will just be a plain old egg with a fancy label. Saying organic means nothing in this case. The question I have is, how much is it improved and how are they doing it??
- Chicken can be improved the same way, it’s all in the feed.
- Fish oil can be helpful. Just be sure it’s purified from a cold-water fish and contains no omega-6 fillers designed to keep the product stable or any other oils in it whatsoever. And if you take it in the form of gel-caps, open the first one you pull out and smell it, if it smells rancid, it is – take it back to the store, get your money back and try a different brand.
You can find all this information and more in a great book titled, “The Queen of Fats”, by Susan Allport. Fascinating read.
Much of the concepts are substantiated by Anthony Coppolo in his book, “The Great Cholesterol Con”. But even after reading it, I'd certainly not stop all medical treatment for a condition I already have and continue to pay close attention to the numbers if I were eating the typical American diet. Then I would take dietary steps to reduce the numbers - adhering closely to a plant-based diet. From personal experience I know this approach works. Be diligent and patient and you'll see the same results.
Having high cholesterol numbers and clear arteries is not possible in this country except in the case of great, great Uncle Silas who lived off bear tallow and hominy grits back in the Ozarks and lived to be 110. It would preposterous and presumptous to assume even for a second that we can depend on any perceived genetic predisposition in the hope that it will carry us into a ripe old age in good health with the foods we’re eating and the lifestyles we are leading. Our supermarket food sources just aren’t that great and just flat out ouf shape. Our supermarket choices are designed to taste good, not necessarily to be good for you. If it is good for you, it’s a happy accident.
Remember, though - all sales are market driven and most sellers want to fill the needs of the marketplace. If we demand changes in our food supply and honesty from our suppliers (that's a tall order), the marketplace can change to meet this demand.