We hear a lot about omega 3s, but there are actually three types of omega fats: 3, 6 and 9. The main difference between them is their chemical structure, but they also differ in the impact they have on health and the foods they are found in.
Omega 3 and 6 are polyunsaturated fats that your body can’t make itself, meaning that you must get them through your diet. For this reason, they’re considered essential fats. Omega 9 fats are monounsaturated fats. They’re not considered essential because your body can make them, but eating them may have benefits.
Let’s take a closer look at each type.
Omega 3 fats include eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Your body can convert some ALA to EPA and DHA, but the process isn’t very efficient, so it’s a good idea to consume all three in your diet.
Omega 3 fats are good for your brain, heart and metabolism. EPA produces compounds called eicosanoids, which reduce inflammation and can alleviate symptoms of depression. DHA is needed for brain development, and makes up around 8% of your brain weight. ALA is primarily used for energy.
"...historically, people ate a 1:1 ratio of omega 6 to omega 3s, whereas today people eat 15:1 or more."
EPA and DHA can be found in fatty fish like salmon, halibut and mackerel, as well as marine algal oil. ALA is found in nuts and seeds, especially walnuts, chia and ground flax seeds.
Many people don’t eat enough omega 3s. The recommended daily amount of ALA for adults is 1.1 grams for women and 1.6 grams for men. As a frame of reference, 1 tablespoon of canola oil contains 1.28 grams, 3 oz wild salmon contains 1.22 grams and 1 tablespoon of flaxseed oil contains 7.26 grams. The World Health Organization recommends at least 1-2 servings of fatty fish per week, or at least 200-500 mg of EPA and DHA.
The most common omega 6 fats include linoleic acid, arachidonic acid (ARA), gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).
ARA produces eicosanoids, but unlike EPA, they are pro-inflammatory, which can become problematic. However, certain omega 6 fats do offer some health benefits. GLA may reduce arthritis symptoms and have an application in breast cancer treatment. CLA may play a role in healthy weight loss.
Omega 6 fats are found in vegetable oils like soybean, corn and canola oil. Other good sources include almonds, cashews, walnuts, sunflower seeds and mayonnaise.
Omega 6 fats are essential and good for you when consumed in moderate amounts, but most people eat way too many.
Omega 9 fats are found in almonds, walnuts, cashews and as well as in olive, peanut and avocado oil.
Eating a variety of the above foods will help you maintain an optimal balance of omega fats in your diet. An imbalance promotes inflammation and can increase your risk of various chronic diseases. Most of us need to eat more omega 3 fats, and less omega 6 fats.
Evidence suggests that historically, people ate a 1:1 ratio of omega 6 to omega 3s, whereas today people eat 15:1 or more.
If you choose to take an omega supplement, most that contain all three omega fats provide a ratio of 2:1:1 of omega 3:6:9. However, since most people eat more than enough omega 6 and 9, choosing an omega 3 supplement that does not contain 6 and 9 might be a better idea if you don’t eat many rich food sources.
Whatever the case, we should all be eating more anti-inflammatory omega 3 and fewer omega 6 fats. This can be achieved by eating foods rich in omega 3s like fish, flax, and walnuts or supplementation if needed.
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