Omega 3 fatty acids have been touted as anti-aging super nutrients for the heart and brain. New research suggests that omega-3s deliver these health benefits by preserving DNA. But the prevalence of omega-6 fatty acids in the standard American diet may be cancelling out the benefits of omega-3s.
Essential fatty acids
Omega-3 and omega-6 are essential fatty acids that the body can’t produce on its own. To stay healthy, we need to get them from our diet. The best source for omega-3s today is the fat of cold-water fish such as salmon, sardines and tuna. The two most essential omega-3 fatty acids are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). EPA and DHA are essential for healthy cell membranes and hormones that regulate immune function, blood clotting, and cell growth.
Omega-6 fatty acids come from vegetable oils. Decades of research have suggested that omega-6 also plays a role in heart health. However, a big problem with the standard Western diet is an imbalance in the omega 3/omega 6 ratio.
Sources of omega-6 fatty acids are ubiquitous. Refined vegetable oils are used to make most junk food. Soybean and cottonseed oils are used so much in the production of processed chips, crackers, cookies and other baked goods that according to Dr. Andrew Weil, 20 percent of the calories in the American diet come from this single source.
According to Weil, before processed foods dominated the American diet, people consumed omega 3 and omega 6 in equal amounts. But now millions of people are suffering from the effects of an omega 3/6 ratio that is out of whack. This imbalance could be a reason for the rise of asthma, heart disease, cancer and allergies that are triggered by inflammation in the body.
Recent research at Ohio State University suggests that rebalancing the omega 3/omega 6-ratio can produce anti-aging benefits. They found that rebalancing the omega 3/6 ratio in most of the overweight people in their study preserved segments of DNA in their white blood cells called telomeres. Telomeres are known to shorten in many types of cells with aging. Rebalancing the omega3/6 ratio lengthened the telomeres.
The study suggests that lengthening telomeres by rebalancing the omega 3/6 ratio can possibly make a difference in preventing all the modern ailments associated with aging. The ratio of omega-6 to omega -3 for the average American is about 15-1. Nutrition experts say for maximum benefit this ratio should be lowered to 2-1.
Balancing your omega 3/6 ratio
Avoiding fast food and processed foods and doing your own cooking with whole, fresh ingredients can cut up to a third or more of omega-6 from your diet. Be sure to change cooking oils from canola or corn oil to olive and coconut oils.
You don’t need to eat fish everyday to increase your omega-3 intake. Just two servings a week can be enough to boost blood levels of omega-3s. Stay away from grain fed meats and look for free-range or pasture fed meats. If you’re a vegetarian, consider taking an omega-3 supplement. Because EPA and DHA have become so popular, you can find many foods fortified with omega 3s.