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Omegas 3 and 6 – getting the correct ratio

February 15th, 2010 · 2 Comments · Diet

As promised last week, this week I will be doing a series of three posts to provide some more in depth information about three key nutrition areas that I have tried to target in the improvements to Chris’s diet:

  • Omega 3 and 6 ratio
  • Acid-base balance
  • Different carbohydrate sources

I’ll be explaining why these are areas to look at when planning your diet and why, in particular, they matter to Chris with his muscle and strength gaining goals.

I’ll kick off today with the omega 3 to 6 ratio.

What are omegas 3 and 6?

These are polyunsaturated fats that are essential to maintaining good health.  To briefly delve into the chemistry, the key difference between each of the fatty acids is the position in the chain of the first double bond from the methyl (or omega) end – omega 3 has this located at the 3rd bond and omega 6 has it at the 6th bond.

A really good summary of the different components of the omega fatty acids as well as a bit more of the technical detail (written in an easy to read style) can be found on the Mind 1st website.  Omegas 3 and 6 are both essential fatty acids as they cannot be created by our bodies and we therefore have to find ways to introduce them to our bodies from an external source.

Numerous sources suggest that the original evolutionary ratio of omega 3 to 6 was believed to be 1:2, whereas the common omega 3 to 6 ratio in the UK today is believed to be 1:8.  The most common source of omega 3 is fish though other good sources include liver, walnuts, macadamia nuts and leafy green vegetables.  In comparison omega 6 can be found in most meat and nuts, dairy, eggs and seeds.

Sardines - an excellent source of omega 3

Sardines - an excellent source of omega 3

Why are omega 6 fatty acids a problem?

Excess omega 6 fatty acids interfere with omega 3 fatty acids, partly because they are competing for the same rate-limiting enzymes.  This means that you won’t get the same level of anti-inflammatory benefits from the omega 3.  Research by Simopoulos has suggested that if the omega 3 to 6 ratio is too high then the physiological state in tissues will be pushed towards prothrombotic, proinflammatory and proconstrictive diseases

None of that sounds good for someone who is working hard in the gym, stressing and tearing down muscles and stressing the cardiovascular and nervous system in order to build muscle.

How to improve the omega 3 to 6 ratio

Part of the problem for our modern omega ratio is that our cattle are often fed on corn and wheat, rather than grass, so the omega ratio within the meat we are eating is skewed towards omega 6.  Changing the meat source from grain-fed to grass-fed will improve the omega 3 to 6 ratio by a noticeable amount immediately.

Unfortunately grass-fed meat is prohibitively expensive for many people.  If this is the case for you, as it is for us, then an alternative way to start to improve the omega fatty acids profile is to take a two-stage approach: reduce the omega 6 intake where possible and simultaneously increase the omega 3 intake.

Reducing omega 6 intake

A key source of omega 6 for a lot of people is the fatty acids in meat.  An easy way to reduce this is to choose leaner cuts of meat, whether this is lean beef mince or even leaner meats such as pork loins.

Often this means that an alternative fat source needs to be consumed so it is important to find fat sources that are lower in omega 6, such as plant oils like olive and avocado, or even to use fat sources that are, themselves, good omega 3 sources (see later).

When I was putting together Chris’s new diet I was also trying to increase the amount of fruit and vegetables in his diet so I decided to try using avocados as a fat source.  On checking the profile of avocados on FitDay I was stunned by the amount of fat they contain, so this really does become a viable option for many people (a little avocado can go a long way).

Increasing omega 3

Good sources of omega 3 include fish oils, organ meats and leafy green vegetables.  While organ meats contain both omega 3 and omega 6, they are significantly higher in omega 3 and therefore get you closer to the ratio you are trying to reach.

Liver - another source of omega 3 and a filling dinner

Liver - another source of omega 3 and a filling dinner

If you are looking to find alternative fat sources to lighten the omega 6 load then using macadamia nuts and walnuts is also a good option since these are the two nuts that are high in omega 3 rather than omega 6 fatty acids.

Increasing omega-3 levels can also be a good idea since there seems to be support through various studies that there is a decreased risk of heart problems if you have an omega-3 index (levels of omega-3 levels in the red blood cells) in excess of 10%.

Summary

So to put it all together, we should be aiming to increase our omega 3 intake and decrease our omega 6 intake from the ratio found in a standard Western diet.  That way our bodies can store more of the beneficial omega 3 fatty acids, with their anti-inflammatory properties.

Easy ways to do this include:

  • swapping to grass-fed meat from grain-fed meat;
  • consuming leaner cuts of meat;
  • finding fat sources that contain less omega 6 than fatty cuts of grain-fed meat, such as avocados and olives; and
  • increasing omega 3 intake by consuming more oily fish, organ meats and leafy green vegetables.

I think our biggest constraint in trying to make these improvements is our budget.  Do you have other cost-effective ways to improve your omega 3 to 6 ratio?

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Great links for the weekend!

    [...] interested in the omega 3/6 ratio.  If you still aren’t convinced by all the fuss then it’s interesting to read about Susan [...]

  • Blog-watch: Omega 3

    [...] links from my own blog.  To start with a reminder, I did a post a couple of years ago about the omega 3:6 ratio and what could potentially be done to improve it.  I also wrote an article in the very early days [...]

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