America's Sickening "Omega Imbalance"
What it is, how it happened, and how to fix it … in brief, cut back on vegetable oils and foods high in them, and get ample omega-3s from seafood and supplements.
Many scientists familiar with food-borne fats' impacts on human health express deep concern over Americans' relatively recent shift to diets that promote disease.
This unhealthful shift included a rapid rise in consumption of vegetable oils – and packaged or prepared foods made with them – which produced a big, unprecedented, imbalance in Americans' intake of omega-3 and omega-6 fats.
As Columbia University Professor Mehmet Oz, M.D., said, "Maintaining the right balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fats is absolutely vital for your health." (For an expert's explanation of the research behind that statement, see "Essential Viewing", in our sidebar.)
This unhealthful imbalance is the subject of our "Out of Balance" video, featuring leading researchers in the field.
And America's omega imbalance is the major reason why we offer The Vital Omega-3 and 6 HUFA Test™, which reveals users' blood levels and relative ratios of omega-3 and omega-6 fats.
(HUFA is the acronym for "highly unsaturated fatty acids". In human cells, the dominant and only essential HUFAs are long-chain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.)
To learn more about the research that's persuaded Dr. Oz, Dr. Andrew Weil, Dr. William Sears, Dr. Nicholas Perricone – and virtually all nutrition-savvy physicians – see the sidebar at right, and our summary of a landmark study: "Report Finds Americans Need More Omega-3s ... and Far Fewer Omega-6s".
Professor William E. Lands, Ph.D. – one of the world's most respected and published fatty acid scientists – co-authored that research, and makes the broader societal case for optimizing people's omega-3/omega-6 balance:
"Physicians, health insurers, and policymakers could revolutionize preventive health care, and reduce related costs and suffering, by monitoring Americans' proportions of omega-3 and omega-6 blood fatty acids, and encouraging dietary choices that improve that balance." – William E. Lands, Ph.D.
A sickening rise in omega-6s … and decline in omega-3s
The available evidence indicates that people will thrive best – and reduce their risk of most major diseases – on diets providing about three parts omega-6 fats to one part omega-3 fats.
But Americans' relative intakes of omega-6s to omega-3s shifted dramatically in favor of omega-6 fats over the past 100 years … a trend that accelerates sharply starting in the late 1960's.
As a consequence, the average American's diet now provides 20 or more parts omega-6s to one part omega-3s … a whopping seven times or more higher than the three-to-one intake ratio shown to deter major diseases and promote optimal health.
This radical dietary shift resulted partly from a decline in Americans' consumption of omega-3 fatty acids … but mostly from a radically higher intake of omega-6 fatty acids.
Omega-6 fats predominate in the cheap vegetable oils that started replacing butter and lard in the 1960's – with the as yet unrealized goal of reducing heart disease risks – mostly corn, soy, cottonseed, sunflower, and safflower oils.
Note: While wild and farmed salmon have comparable levels of omega-3s, farmed salmon is generally much higher in omega-6 fats (Megdal PA et al. 2009).
But ample and fast-growing evidence shows that America's relatively recent turn to oils high in omega-6 fats – and the great majority packaged and takeout foods made with them – has had unanticipated, seriously unhealthful consequences.
And this isn't just our opinion. According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, "There is general agreement that individuals should consume more omega-3 and less omega-6 fatty acids to promote good health. Good sources of [omega-3] EPA and DHA are fish and organ meats."
America's severe omega imbalance drives major diseases
Ironically, the consequences of public health authorities' campaign to replace saturated fats with vegetable oils include overlooked or shamefully ignored evidence of harm to heart health … as we explain in "Heart Association Appears Blind to Risks of America's 'Omega-Imbalance".
That article summarizes a rigorous evidence review refuting the American Heart Association's 2009 finding that Americans' very high, historically unprecedented intake of omega-6 fats poses no heart risks.
In short, the AHA's 2009 report didn't distinguish between clinical trials that raised people's omega-6 intake only vs. those in which omega-3 intake also rose … a truly astonishing scientific error that perpetuates the deadly mistake that Americans' extremely high omega-6 intakes don't matter.
Other ill effects of America's omega-imbalance include higher risks for depression and major cancers. To read summaries of recent – and rather alarming – research in this realm, visit the "Omega-3 / Omega-6 Balance" section of our news archive.
How the omega imbalance harms human health
Dozens of human clinical and epidemiological studies – and many more cell and animal studies – link the omega-imbalance typical of most American's diets to higher disease risks.
This is because of omega-6 fatty acids' comparatively stronger, generally pro-inflammatory influences on hormone-like immune system agents called eicosanoids (eye-coss-uh-noyds).
Omega-3s exert weaker, generally anti-inflammatory influences on these hormone-like agents … and their influence is easily overwhelmed by an excess of dietary omega-6 fats.
The omega balance: How to help get it right
Critically, omega-3 and omega-6 fats compete for absorption into our cells, and an excess of dietary omega-6s will result in too few omega-3s being incorporated into cell membranes, from where they exert their essential, indirectly hormone-like effects.
Adding to this problem, many of the omega-3s in American's diets consist of the "short-chain" omega-3 called ALA, which occurs in a few plant foods … beans, dark leafy greens, flax seeds and oil, canola oil, and walnuts.
Omega-3 ALA has to be converted into the long-chain forms the body actually needs to survive and thrive, called EPA and DHA.
And the rate at which this conversion occurs – which is already very inefficient (only one to 10 percent of ALA gets converted to EPA and DHA), is further reduced when your diet is awash in competing omega-6 fats … especially the short-chain omega-6 fat called LA.
Omega-6 LA predominates in most vegetable oils … except olive, macadamia nut, and "hi-oleic" sunflower oils.
Seafood is the only food source of the long-chain omega-3s our bodies need, and fatty fish like salmon, sardines, tuna, and sablefish offer the highest levels, by far.
This is why doctors and researchers alike urge people to eat more fatty fish and/or take fish oil supplements, instead of trying to balance their omega-6 intake with plant-source omega-3 ALA … which is the kind typically used to "omega-3-fortify" cereals, yogurt, and other packaged foods.
William E. Lands, Ph.D.