While fats are much maligned for their harmful effects on health, they are by no means all the same. Indeed, some fatty acids have been shown to be essential for the body. As the French Food Safety Agency (Anses) reminds us, we should not exclude all fats or lipids from our diet; in fact it recommends that 35%-40% of our total energy intake should be in the form of fats 1
. It is important, however, to differentiate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ fats. While too high an intake of the latter can increase the risk of various health problems such as obesity and cardiovascular disorders, optimal consumption of ‘good fats’ helps the body function properly. In this context, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are regularly highlighted for their health benefits. Widely-studied, these two polyunsaturated fatty acids have been shown to be essential for health. Nonetheless, recent research reports that an imbalance between intake of omega-6 and omega-3 may alter certain body functions. So what is the correct ratio between these two fatty acids? What roles do they play in the body? And what are the best sources? Let’s take a look at the latest studies published on this subject.
An essential intake of omega 3 and omega 6
Contrary to popular belief, there is not just one type of fat. Fats (or lipids) are actually a large group of molecules and include several types of fatty acid: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. The body is able to produce the first two types and there is thus no need to consume them. However, polyunsaturated fatty acids such as omega-3 and omega-6 must be ingested from the diet and are thus considered ‘essential’. Ensuring an adequate intake of these omega fatty acids is all the more important given their involvement in several of the body’s functions. 3
. As fluidity-determining components of cell membranes, they play a structural role. Polyunsaturated fatty acids are also stored as triglycerides in adipose tissue, to provide energy for the body. In addition to these vital functions, certain omega-3 fatty acids have demonstrated additional health benefits. These omega-3s include docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), known to contribute to the development and activity of the retina, brain and nervous system, and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) which plays an anti-inflammatory role. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are thus considered ‘good’ fats and should be high on our list of dietary priorities!
A worrying imbalance between omega-6 and omega-3
While the importance of both these omega fatty acids is beyond doubt, scientists have sought to determine the optimal intake for each of them. The latest studies published on the subject confirm how important it is to achieve the right balance between omega-6 and omega-3. According to the French Food Safety Agency, the correct ratio is 53
; in other words, we should have an intake of 5 molecules of omega-6 for 1 molecule of omega-3. Unfortunately, there is a considerable imbalance in current diets between these two omega fatty acids, as demonstrated in several studies conducted by Dr. Artemis Dimopoulos. She has shown that the ratio is currently between 15 and 16.7 in Western populations4
, which is much too high a proportion of omega-6 relative to omega-3. This imbalance is primarily due to diets being too high in omega-6-rich foods, and too low in omega-3-rich foods5
. Hence the need to rebalance the ratio by increasing omega-3 intake.
The benefits of supplementing with omega-3
In the light of these disproportionate figures, a number of researchers have been investigating the consequences of such imbalances, with worrying results. According to a study published in 2008 in the journal Experimental Biology and Medicine6
, which assessed the effects of omega 6:omega 3 ratios on chronic cardiovascular disease, a ratio that is too high in favour of omega-6 promotes the development of a number of diseases. Conversely, a lower proportion of omega-6 reduces the incidence not only of certain cardiovascular diseases, but also inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, as well as cancer. In particular, an omega-6:omega-3 ratio of 3 or 4 is associated, as part of secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease, with a 70% decrease in mortality. The study similarly suggests that an omega-6:omega-3 ratio of 2.5 may reduce production of cancer cells in patients with cancer of the colon. More recent research supports these findings. One study, published in 2016 in the journal Medicina, focused on the importance of achieving the right omega fatty acid balance in combatting problems of depression7
. According to these researchers, an imbalance between omega-6 and omega-3 could, in certain cases, be involved in the development of depression. This reflects the important role played by omega-3 in the structure of brain cells. They concluded that supplementation with omega-3 may be beneficial for treating depression.
Together, these studies confirm the importance of achieving the right balance between omega-6 and omega-3. Found in meat and dairy products, omega-6 are often consumed at excessive levels in relation to omega-3, hence the need to rebalance these proportions with an increased omega-3 intake. This can be achieved by prioritising certain omega-3-rich foods such as oily fish or vegetable oils. In addition, omega-3 supplements have been developed such asSuper Omega 3, Super EPA and Super DHA which are available from the Supersmart catalogue. These dietary supplements are formulated from a high quality fish oil, rich in DHA and EPA.
> Sources :
1. Anses - Agence nationale de sécurité sanitaire de l’alimentation, de l’environnement et du travail, Les lipides, Mis à jour le 24/01/2017.
2. Anses - Agence nationale de sécurité sanitaire de l’alimentation, de l’environnement et du travail, Les acides gras oméga 3, Fonctions dans l'organisme, et besoins alimentaires, Mis à jour le 07/06/2016.
3. Agence française de sécurité sanitaire des aliments (Afssa), Acides gras de la famille des oméga 3 et système cardiovasculaire : intérêt nutritionnel et allégations, Rapport signé le 01/07/2003.
4. Simopoulos AP, The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids, Biomed Pharmacother, 2002 Oct, 56(8):365-79.
5. Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), L'abus d'oméga 6 et le déficit en oméga 3 favorisent l'obésité de génération en génération, Communiqué de presse, Paris, 16 juillet 2010.
6. Simopoulos AP, The importance of the omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid ratio in cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases, Exp Biol Med (Maywood), 2008 Jun, 233(6):674-88.
7. Husted KS, Bouzinova EV, The importance of n-6/n-3 fatty acids ratio in the major depressive disorder, Medicina (Kaunas), 2016, 52(3):139-47.