Omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9 fatty acids are important dietary fats. Interestingly, each one has a number of health benefits for the body.
However, it is important to get the right balance of omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9 fatty acids in your regular diet. An imbalance in these fatty acids can contribute to a number of chronic diseases.
This article details the important aspects of omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids, answering the questions: What are they? Why are they necessary? And what foods can they be obtained from?
What are and what are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats, a type of fat that the body cannot make on its own.
The term “polyunsaturated” refers to the chemical structure of the fatty acid, since “poly” means many and “unsaturated” refers to double bonds. Both terms, together, mean that omega-3 fatty acids have many double bonds.
“Omega-3” refers to the fact that the double bond at the end of the chemical structure, or the tail end of the molecular chain, has three “omega” carbon atoms.
Since the human body cannot make omega-3s, these fats are known as “essential fats,” which means that people can only get them from food.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends eating at least two servings of fatty fish per week, which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA , E icosa Pentaenoic A cid ) and docosahexaenoic acid ( DHA ) .
There are many types of omega-3 fatty acids, differing in chemical form and size. Here are the three most common:
- Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA): The main function of this 20-carbon fatty acid is to produce chemicals called eicosanoids, which help reduce inflammation. EPA also helps reduce symptoms of depression.
- Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA): A 22-carbon fatty acid, DHA accounts for about 8% of the brain’s weight and is extremely important for normal brain development and function.
- Alpha – Linolenic Acid (ALA ) : This 18 – carbon fatty acid can be converted to EPA and DHA, although the process is not very efficient. ALA is used primarily by the body for energy.
Omega-3 fats are a crucial part of human cell membranes. They also have a number of other important functions, including:
- Improves heart health: Omega-3 fatty acids can increase HDL (high-density lipoprotein) or “good” cholesterol. They can also reduce triglycerides, blood pressure, and the formation of arterial plaques.
- Supports mental health: Taking omega-3s can reduce symptoms of depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. It can also reduce the risk of psychotic disorders for those who are at risk.
- Reduces weight and waist size: Omega-3 fats play an important role in weight control and can help reduce waist circumference.
- Decreases liver fat: Consuming omega-3s in the diet can help decrease the amount of fat in the liver.
- Supports infant brain development: Omega-3s are extremely important for brain development in babies.
- Fight inflammation: Omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory, which means they can reduce inflammation in the body, which can contribute to a number of chronic diseases.
- Dementia prevention: People who frequently eat fish, which are high in omega-3 fatty acids, tend to have a slower decline in brain function with old age. Omega-3s can also help improve memory in the elderly.
- Promotes bone health: People with higher omega-3 intakes tend to have better bone mineral density.
- Asthma prevention: Omega-3 intake can help reduce asthma symptoms, especially in babies.
Unfortunately, the western diet does not contain enough omega-3s. An omega-3 deficiency can contribute to chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
Summary: Omega-3 fats are essential fats that can only be obtained from food. They have important benefits for the heart, brain and metabolism.
Discover in more detail about the benefits of omega-3 in our article: 15 benefits of omega 3 that you cannot miss .
What are and what are Omega-6 Fatty Acids?
Like omega-3 fatty acids, omega-6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids.
The only difference is that the last double bond at the end of the omega fatty acid molecule is six carbons.
Omega-6 is also an essential fatty acid, so it can only be obtained through food.
These fats are used primarily for energy. The most common omega-6 fat is linoleic acid, which can be converted to longer omega-6 fats, such as arachidonic acid (AA).
Like EPA, AA is used to produce eicosanoids. However, the eicosanoids produced by AA are more pro-inflammatory, that is, they induce inflammation.
Pro-inflammatory eicosanoids are important chemicals in the immune system. However, when too many are produced, they can increase inflammation and inflammatory diseases.
Although omega-6 fats are essential, the modern Western diet contains far more than necessary of omega-6 fatty acids.
The recommended ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids in the diet is 4:1 or less. However, the Western diet has a ratio between 10:1 and 50:1.
Therefore, although omega-6 fats are essential in adequate amounts, most people in the developed world should try to reduce their omega-6 intake.
However, some omega-6 fatty acids have shown benefits in treating the symptoms of chronic diseases.
Gamma -linolenic acid (GLA ) is an omega – 6 fatty acid found in certain oils. When these oils are consumed, much of the GLA is converted to another fatty acid called dihomo – gamma – linolenic acid ( DGLA ) .
One study showed that taking a high dose of GLA supplements significantly reduced a number of rheumatoid arthritis symptoms.
Another interesting study found that taking GLA supplements along with a drug was more effective against breast cancer than the drug alone.
Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA ) is another form of omega -6 fat that has some health benefits . For example, one large study found that taking 3.2 grams of CLA supplements per day effectively reduced body fat mass in people.
Summary: Omega-6 fats are essential fats and an important source of energy for the body. However, the western diet contains too many.
To learn more about Conjugated Linoleic Acid, be sure to read our article: Everything you wanted to know about CLA as a supplement .
What are and what are Omega-9 Fatty Acids?
Omega-9 fatty acids are monounsaturated, which means they only have one double bond.
They are characterized by having nine carbons in the last double bond at the end of the omega fatty acid molecule.
Oleic acid is the most common omega-9 fatty acid and the most common monounsaturated fatty acid in the diet.
Omega-9 fatty acids are not strictly “essential,” meaning they can be produced by the body. In fact, omega-9 fats are the most abundant fat in most cells of the body.
However, eating foods rich in omega-9 fatty acids, instead of other types of fat, can have a number of beneficial health effects.
A large study found that diets high in monounsaturated fats could reduce plasma triglyceride levels by 19% and LDL (low-density lipoprotein) or “bad” cholesterol by 22% in patients with diabetes.
Another study found that feeding mice diets high in monounsaturated fats improved insulin sensitivity and decreased inflammation.
The same study found that people who ate diets high in monounsaturated fat had lower levels of inflammation and better insulin sensitivity than those who ate diets high in saturated fat.
Summary: Omega-9 fatty acids are non-essential fats, as they can be produced by the body. Diets that replace some saturated fats with omega-9 fats may have benefits for metabolic health.
What foods contain these fats?
You can easily get omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9 fatty acids from food.
However, it is important to get the right balance of each. The Western diet contains far more omega-6 fatty acids than are actually needed, plus it lacks omega-3 fatty acids.
Here we present the main foods that are high in omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids.
Foods High in Omega-3 Fats
The best source of omega-3 EPA and DHA is fatty fish.
However, you can also get these omega-3s from other foods that come from the sea, such as algae oils. ALA, on the other hand, is obtained primarily from nuts and seeds.
There are no official standards for daily intake of omega-3s, but several organizations offer guidelines.
According to the Food and Nutrition Board of the US Institute of Medicine, the adequate intake of omega-3s per day for adults age 19 and older is 1.6 grams for men and 1.1 grams for women. .
Listed below are the amounts and types of omega-3s in one serving of the following foods:
- Salmon: 4.0 grams of EPA and DHA.
- Mackerel: 3.0 grams of EPA and DHA.
- Sardines: 2.2 grams of EPA and DHA.
- Anchovies: 1.0 grams of EPA and DHA.
- Chia Seeds :4.9 grams of ALA.
- Walnuts :2.5 grams of ALA.
- Flaxseed: 2.3 grams of ALA.
Does the list fall short? Don’t worry, you can supplement with these 12 delicious and healthy foods with omega 3 that scientists recommend eating every day .
Foods High in Omega-6 Fats
Omega-6 fats are found in large amounts in refined vegetable oils and in fried foods that have been cooked in refined vegetable oils.
Nuts also contain significant amounts of omega-6 fatty acids.
According to the Food and Nutrition Board of the US Institute of Medicine, the adequate daily intake of omega-6s for adults age 19 and older is 17 grams for men and 12 grams for women.
Approximate amounts of omega-6 in 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of some foods are:
- Soybean oil: 50 grams.
- Corn oil: 49 grams.
- Mayonnaise: 39 grams.
- Walnuts : 37 grams.
- Sunflower seeds: 34 grams.
- Almonds :12 grams.
- Anacards: 8 grams.
As you can see, it is very easy to exceed the recommended intake of omega-6 through a regular diet.
Find out about harmful oils in our article: What types of vegetable oil are the most harmful?
Foods High in Omega-9 Fats
Omega-9 fats are also common in vegetable and seed oils, as well as nuts and seeds.
There are no adequate recommendations for the intake of omega-9 fats, since they are not essential.
The amounts of omega-9 in 100 grams of the following foods are detailed:
- Olive oil :83 grams.
- Cashew oil: 73 grams.
- Almond oil: 70 grams.
- Avocado oil: 60 grams.
- Peanut oil: 47 grams.
- Almonds: 30 grams.
- Anacards: 24 grams.
- Walnuts: 9 grams.
In addition, we also have the 9 Healthiest Dried Fruits for you . Discover them!
Summary: The best sources of omega-3 are fatty fish, while sources of omega-6 and omega-9 are found in vegetable oils, nuts and seeds.
Is it advisable to take an omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 supplement?
Combination omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9 supplements typically provide each of these fatty acids in appropriate ratios, such as 2:1:1 for omega-3, omega-6, omega-9.
Such oils can help increase your intake of omega-3 fats, which is lacking in the Western diet.
Additionally, these oils provide a healthy balance of fatty acids so that the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is less than 4:1.
However, since most people consume too many omega-6s, and omega-9s are produced by the body, there is no general need to supplement with these particular fats.
Therefore, it is best to follow the diet in order to achieve a good balance of omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids. This should involve eating at least two servings of oily fish per week and preferably using olive oil for cooking, or as a dressing on salads.
It is also advisable to limit the intake of omega-6, reducing the consumption of other vegetable oils and fried foods that have been cooked in refined vegetable oils.
If you don’t get enough omega-3 through your diet, it’s best to take an omega-3-only supplement rather than a combined omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9 supplement.
Summary: Combined omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9 supplements provide optimal fatty acid ratios, but probably no additional benefits compared to omega-3-only supplements .
How to choose an omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 supplement?
Like other oils, polyunsaturated fatty acids are easily oxidized when exposed to heat and light.
Therefore, if you decide to buy an omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 supplement, you should choose one that is cold-pressed. This means that the oil has been extracted with as little heat as possible, thus minimizing oxidation, which can damage fatty acid molecules.
To make sure you’re taking a supplement that isn’t oxidized, choose one that contains an antioxidant like vitamin E.
You can even select a supplement with a higher omega-3 content – ideally more than 0.3 grams per serving.
Also, since EPA and DHA have more health benefits than ALA, choose a supplement that uses fish oil or algae oil, rather than flaxseed oil.
Summary: Choose an omega-3 supplement over a combined omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9 supplement. If you are buying a combination supplement, choose one with a high concentration of EPA and DHA.
Although combined omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9 supplements have become very popular, they generally do not provide any additional benefit than omega-3-only supplements.
Omega-6s are essential in certain amounts, but they are in many foods and people on a Western diet already consume far too much.
Additionally, omega-9 fats can be produced by the body and are easily obtained in the diet, so taking them in supplement form is not necessary.
Therefore, although combination supplements contain optimal ratios of omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9, taking supplements that contain only omega-3 will provide greater health benefits.