More on Omega

Last week’s Definitive Guide to Fats gave us a chance to unpack the essential fatty acids. But we thought they deserved a closer look still.

Just to review, omega-3 and omega-6 are known as “essential” fatty acids because the body can’t produce them itself. So, it’s up to us to incorporate them into our diet. The typical Western diet is rich in omega-6. (Think corn, soy, peanut, safflower, and other oils.) As for the prevalence of omega-3? Not so much. (Think fish, flax, algae, walnuts, and animal products from grass fed livestock.)

We talked about the importance of ratio last time. Experts estimate that the typical American diet has as much as 30 parts omega-6 to 1 part omega-3 (30:1). Uff da.

As we said last time, there’s some squabbling to be certain about the proper ratio. Some nutritionists go as high as 4:1. Others suggest 2:1. But since we’re all about the primal here, we’re taken in by the ratio most experts agree characterized hunter gatherer diets. And that would be an elegant 1:1 ratio. You gotta love simple.

So, what’s with the bickering about ratios anyway? The fact is, omega-3 keeps omega-6 in check. Omega-6, when left to its own devices, wreaks havoc, inciting and oxidizing LDL in the body (a real cholesterol threat). Lower ratios have been associated with higher bone density and decreased risk for diabetes, arrhythmia and heart disease.

Among other cultures, the ratio is much more favorable, and death from heart disease is much lower. Greenland Eskimos, because of high fish consumption, are estimated to have a 1:1 ratio. According to one study, their rate of death due to heart disease is approximately 15% of what it is for those in the U.S. and Europe who eat a typical Western diet.

Furthermore, the traditional diets of the Mediterranean and Okinawa, Japan, are characterized by high levels of omega-3 fatty acids and a low 6 to 3 ratio of 4:1 or less.

Ratios have also been assessed in the context of particular diseases and physiological conditions. A 2:1 ratio was found to reduce inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis, while even a 5:1 ratio relieved symptoms in those with asthma.

With all the fervor over omega-3 fatty acids, there’s a lot of questions out there regarding recommended amounts. The World Health Organization recommends two servings of fish (particularly fatty fish like salmon, herring, sardines and mackerel) as well as the use of oils containing omega-3. Other experts recommend three to four servings of low toxin fish each week.

And how much is too much, especially if you choose to take an omega-3 supplement? Or is there such a thing? Although there isn’t an official RDA for omega-3 fatty acids, you can consider anywhere between 1-3 grams daily to be optimal. There is some concern about the fatty acid’s ability to thin the blood too much with higher doses. We’d advise talking with your doctor about beginning a supplement. If you’re taking a blood thinner or a daily aspirin regimen, that conversation and perhaps some monitoring will be essential. There has been some indication that larger doses of omega-3 fatty acids can be (in very rare cases) associated with an increased risk of stroke. Many doctors will also suggest that you stop taking the supplement within a week or more of surgery. With all that said, supplementing your diet with a high-quality omega-3 fatty acid supplement is, in our estimation, one of the best things you can do for your body.

Thoughts? Comments? Further questions? Shoot us a line.

Saffana, blackmoon, maxnathans Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

How to Eat More Fat

Eating Fish, Omega-3 Oils, Fruits and Veggies Lowers Risk of Memory Problems

Dr. Briffa: Omega-3 Fat Intake Associated with Improved Pregnancy Outcomes

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18 thoughts on “More on Omega”

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  1. Great post, Mark. Can you give us some rules of thumb for getting into the 1:1 ratio ballpark? For instance, I eat sardines pretty regularly, as well as salmon every week or 10 days. I also supplement with your Vital Omegas — which say 3-6 caps per day. If I have a 12 ounce steak for dinner, how many Vital Omegas would get me to 1:1 for that meal? If I skip breakfast, have a can of sardines at lunch, and eat chicken for dinner, where would I stand (roughly) on the omega ratio for the day? Should I be trying to hit the ratio for every meal, for each day, or by the week, or even over a longer time period? Your suggestions would be a great help in all this. Thanks.

  2. how can i incorporate flax and walnut oil into my diet?

    also, i have never been able to find grass fed livestock where i live so what should i do for meat?

  3. Ed –

    Check back on Mondays for my Dear Mark series of posts. I will address your questions in an upcoming post. Cheers!

  4. Omega 3s in algae?? What are your thoughts on unrefined/cold pressed mac nut and avocado oil for salads (not heated of course)?

  5. Mark – while you are addressing questions on this topic, can you please explain the differences in salmon?? The “normal” salmon at the store has 14g of fat per serving on the label. The “wild caught Alaskan” salmon has only 2g of fat. I know we’re supposed to eat wild salmon but doesn’t more fat grams = more omega 3’s??? Or does farmed salmon have some other kind of fat in it as well. Also, what is the difference between the wild salmon that is 3.99$/lb (cheaper than non-wild) and the wild salmon that is 12.99$/lb (pretty much out of my price range). Is this a case of you get what you pay for? Thanks!!

  6. Sammie, check Eat Wild and Local Harvest (Google for them) for local farmers.

    One thing to note is that the omega-6 intake is as important to the 6:3 ratio as is the omega-3 intake. If one is truly eating primal, using only healthful oils (olive, coconut, palm, lard), along with eating grassfed/pastured/wild meats, omega-6 intake is going to be right in line with ancestral intakes. Note that grains are a predominant source of omega-6 in the US Diet as well, but a truly Primal/Paleo Diet doesn’t include them. So if you’re avoiding the overabundance of omega-6s, eating some fish and grassfed meat is likely enough to get you an adequate omega-3 intake. A small dose of cod liver oil could provide a bit of backup, but unless you’re really hitting the exercise hard, you probably don’t need mega-dosing on the omega-3s.

    Now, as for the omega-3s in flax and walnuts, they provide the short-chain acid, alpha linolenic acid (ALA). The body requires the long-chain acids EPA and DHA and therefore has to lengthen ALA to EPA/DHA through several conversions of desaturation and elongation. This conversion is extremely inefficient, on the order of 5-10%. It’s best to use animals to take care of that conversion for you…fish and grassfed animals provide the long-chain acids, having already converted the ALA. I wrote a post about this some time back that you can find here.

    Scott Kustes
    Modern Forager

  7. I use ground flaxseed in both salads and kefir with berries. I’ve never tried avocado oil before, although I eat a lot of avocado. I would say the oil would be great in salads–maybe with a splash of lime juice and some cumin.

  8. Charlotte – I can’t answer all yor questions, but quite a lot of farmed salmon is fed grains, which are higher in omega-6, causing omega-6 to build up in the fat of the fish. So the wild salmon is the better deal for omega-3s.

    Along those lines, I was amused to see the salmon photo Mark used to illustrate this post. That’s farmed salmon if ever I saw it – such a pale peachy specimen. There’s a bit of color variation between species of salmon, but wild salmon is generally a much deeper orangey pink or red, sometimes even reminiscent of coral. This is because wild salmon eat krill, which are loaded with carotenes, while farmed salmon are fed carotene supplements (and often not enough to make their flesh that gorgeous deep orange).

    Here’s a photo I found that looks more like real wild salmon to me:

  9. I actually just wrote a post about dosage/sources last week.

    What I found was that without supplementation you are probably not getting anywhere near the amounts that were used in studies.

    A can of tuna has less than .5g.
    Most studies seem to use 1-3g of EPA/DHA which shouldn’t be confused with ALA from Flax Seed. ALA is converted to the aforementioned but at a low rate (<15%).


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  11. I know this is an old post, but does anyone know the omega 3:6 ratio of bacon? I’m sure it’s somewhere on this site, but my attempts at searching lead me nowhere. Nor does a google search (but it sure does give me a lot of information about tilapia)

  12. I eat seafood (especially fish) everyday and I don’t eat any other meat. What is the possibility of me having too much omega 3? Thanks in advance!

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  15. So how did cultures that didnt have seafood such as Australian Aborigines that lived inland get their Omega 3? By all accounts they were as healthy as the Aborigines that lived on the coast.

  16. Just a quick note that red caviar is rich in omega 3s as well and I’m gonna assume its not a common part of any American diet unless they’re heavy in eastern european culture. I love the taste personally!!

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