Let’s be honest: fat has a bad rap. While it often has a negative connotation, there are health benefits to having the right kinds of fat in your diet. Polyunsaturated fats, specifically omega-3s and omega-6s, boast a long list of potential health benefits, but what does the science say? Our scientific contributor, Heather Huntsman, Ph.D., CSCS gives her take on what you need to know on omega-3s and -6s.
Fat is the most energy dense of the 3 macronutrients (i.e., fat, carbohydrates, and protein). So, by their very nature fats are the easiest, and sometimes the most delicious, type of food to over eat when you are trying to keep your energy expenditure balance in check. There are also different types of fats, such as trans fat and saturated fat that by the simple act of consuming them they can negatively impact your health.
Just like simple carbs and complex carbs are not the same, not all fat is created equally. When it comes to fat, the type of fat you consume makes a difference. Whether you are on a keto diet, or trying to stick to a low-fat diet, consuming the right kind of fat is important. Believe it or not, there are essential fats that we all need to consume that are important to key biological functions such as cell signaling, cell membrane structure, blood clotting, glucose regulation, and even inflammation. Omega-3s and omega-6s are both essential fats and each have varying levels of research supporting their role in health.1,2
Depending on the source, these polyunsaturated fats can often sound like a high-ranking superfood, but the truth is that we still haven’t fully understood their role, nor do we know enough to recommend daily amounts for optimal health. It’s important to focus on the information regarding omega-3s and -6s that we have the most evidence for, and leave the hype where it belongs (in less scientifically backed, click-bait articles).
For starters, the omega-3 and -6 conversation is much more complex than it is often presented. Omega-6s are a family of fatty acids which include fatty acids such as linolenic acid (LA) and γ-linolenic acid (GLA); and similarly, the omega-3 fatty acids family includes fatty acids like α-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).2 Of all of these specific fatty acids, experts only have recommended daily amounts for ALA.3
While we are starting to see more specific studies, it is still very common to see health claims associated with the family names without a true understanding of the role of each actual fatty acids themselves. For example, both omega-3s and omega-6s have been credited with decreasing the risk of heart disease. As the body of evidence grows and more studies are conducted, it appears that omega-3s, and more specifically DHA and EPA3, appear to have a larger effect, while the evidence supporting fatty acids in the omega-6 family still needs to be confirmed.4 Other diseases and conditions that are often cited in the conversation are the prevention of various cancers, skin conditions, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease. To those I would say the verdict is still out, as there are studies that both support and negate their effectiveness in preventing or slowing the progression of these conditions.3,4
From a scientific perspective, there is still much to unpack, making it difficult to make solid claims or specific recommendations about either of these families of essential fatty acids. We still need more studies that do a better job of looking at the specific fatty acids in cohorts of specific ages and sexes, since both have an effect on nutritional need. Knowing what we know about the average American diet, the only recommendation I see that we have enough evidence to make is to focus on increasing your intake of the omega-3s EPA and DHA.5 And as with any nutrient or supplement, more isn’t always better. When it comes to a healthy diet, balanced macros and food variety are important, and to always keep energy expenditure in mind. So, the final verdict on omegas: stay tuned. Better studies are coming, and when they do, look for the recommendations that are specific to an actual fatty acid, age group, and sex.