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Olwen Anderson's Blog

Omega 3 and omega 6 oils: Getting the balance right

Saturday, August 20, 2011

There’s a general consensus that omega-3 fatty acids (like fish oils) are generally good for your health, and help treat many chronic health problems; but did you know that how much omega-3 oils are in your diet isn’t as important as their balance with your omega-6 intake?

The difference between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids is purely molecular – they have a slightly different structure that makes the omega-3 molecules a little more flexible, and omega-6 molecules a little stiffer. Both have a role to play in your body, but in our modern diet the ratio has become so skewed as to be unhealthy.

Omega-3 fatty acids are naturally anti-inflammatory, soothing arthritic joints and skin rashes, and even reducing depression and anxiety.

Why do they affect your thinking? It’s all to do with cell membrane flexibility (remember that difference in the molecular structure of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids). Your brain is mostly fat, and the more flexible your brain cell membranes (from a better omega-3 intake), the more effectively your brain will be able to transmit messages from one cell to another.

In the stone age, before we began gathering in villages and farming, our diets had a very different omega-3 / omega-6 ratio: about one to one. This is because our diets were much richer in seafood (easier to catch than a large animal) nuts, seeds and oily fruits, and had almost no dairy, meat or grains (all rich sources of omega-6 fatty acids).

As human settlements became more industrialised, our diet began to contain less seafood, and more meats, dairy and grains. A modern diet now contains about 10 times as much omega-6 as omega-3 oils. The result? Lots of chronic disease that stems from inflammation, and lots of mood disorders through our population.

You could take a large amount of fish oil capsules to take up the gap; but it’s more fun to change your diet and include more foods higher in omega-3 oils . This will naturally decrease the proportion of omega-6 oils in your diet.

As you change your diet to favour omega-3 oils, you’ll notice your skin becoming softer and more flexible; stiff or painful joints may ease; and if your mood tends to be low or anxious, you may notice a change there too.

Foods to improve your omega-3 / omega-6 balance:

-          Seafood, especially oily fish like sardines, salmon and tuna. Try sardines on toast with tomato paste and spring onions for breakfast.

-          Nuts (not peanuts). Walnuts are especially valuable, and make a great snack with some fresh fruit.

-          Oily fruit like avocado and olives: Use olive oil for cooking; add avocado to your salad.

Foods to eat less of:

-          Butter and yellow cheese: Loaded with saturated fat! Use avocado or hummus as a spread instead.

-          Pastries, cakes and biscuits: Choose fresh fruit and nuts for a snack instead.

-          Fatty, processed meats (ham, bacon, salami)

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Olwen Anderson @olwenanderson


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