What’s The Difference Between Omega-3 And Omega-6?

Asking what the difference is between omega-3 and omega-6 is a smart question and a question that many of us want to have a better understanding of.

Generally speaking, both omega-3 and omega-6 are considered essential fatty acids. This simply means that the human body cannot make either of these fats — we must get them through food or get them in supplement forms. However, once ingested, the game changes.

Read on to learn more about what omega-3s and omega-6 fatty acids are as well as how these two are different from one another.

Omega-3s Explained

Omega 3s and omega 6s in various cereals

Omega-3s are essential fatty acids that we must get from omega-3 rich foods or through supplementation. (1) These fatty acids are known for coming with some impressive anti-inflammatory properties. (2) Research has also found time and time again that they also play a huge role in both eye and brain health. (3, 4)

As the name suggests, there are three forms of omega-3 molecules:

  • Alpha Linoleic Acid (ALA) with 18 chains — ALA comes from vegetarian sources.
  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) 20 chains — EPA comes from fish or other non-vegetarian sources.
  • Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA). 22 chain — DHA also comes from fish or other non-vegetarian sources.

If you want to dive in deeper, why not take a look at our Ultimate Guide to Omega-3.

Omega-6 Explained

Omega-6s foods

Omega-6 fatty acids are also essential, but unlike omega-3s, getting too much omega-6 has been shown to contribute to inflammation.(5) This is where establishing a healthy omega-3 to omega-6 ratio comes into play.

We see omega-6 fatty acids in things like vegetable oils, which means that fried and processed foods are also often high in omega-6 fats.

Omega-6 vs. Omega 3

One of the differences between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids has to do with the structure of the molecules — the number of double bonds between the H and O on the carbon chains. Omega-3’s, as you would guess, have three double bonds, and omega-6 fatty acids have six double bonds.

While we do need both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, we need both in a healthy and balanced range. One study found that reducing the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio showed promising results for lowering inflammation.(6)

The Ideal Omega-3 & Omega-6 Ranges

So, what range are we looking at? Well, back in the hunter gatherer days, the ratio was 1:1. However, we are now seeing far too many omega-6 fatty acids from all the cooking as well as baking oils found in our modern-day food supply, including soybean, safflower, sunflower, and newer inventions like rapeseed oil. We are using these far too often,. One reason for this is that the smoke point of these oils is higher than omega-3 fats, making omega-6 fats something that so many of us use in cooking and baking. We consume foods that have been processed with Omega-6 oils. 

These fats are found in almost every processed food item, from bagels to donuts, to baked goods, and with the increase in vegetable oil use, we are now seeing the average ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 anywhere between 10:1 to 20:1 (7)

With the ideal ratio being 1:1 and the acceptable ratio for general wellness being 4:1, getting 10 to 20 omega-6 fatty acids to just one omega-3 is certainly something we all need to be much more aware Getting too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3 throws off our omega fatty acid balance and can even result in disrupting the body’s inflammatory response. (8)

Understanding your Omega-3 to Omega-6 Range

Understanding where your fatty acid markers are at can help you determine how much or how little omega-3 and omega-6 you may be getting. The good news is that there is a very simple test that you can do at home to then mail into the lab to see where your main markers are and where exactly you fit into the range.

You can learn more about this at-home test here, and the cost is about $75.

Finding a Balance

Omega 3 omega 6 balance

To establish a healthier omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid balance, it’s important to take a look at diet. What are you consuming on a daily basis, and what may you not be consuming enough of?

To help reduce the amount of omega-6 rich foods you are consuming, you’ll want to avoid fried and processed foods as well as vegetable oils, baked goods, and margarine.

We also want to make sure that we are getting enough omega-3 rich foods from clean and untainted sources that don’t come with heavy metals. Some great options include smaller fish like sardines and anchovies.

There are also plant-based foods that come in the form of ALA, such as walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and hemp seeds. However, if you are relying on plant-based sources, ALA needs to be converted into EPA and then further converted into DHA in order for us humans to benefit. So, we would need to consume more plant-based foods that we would fish in order to get enough omega-3s.

If you aren’t getting enough omega-3s from the foods that you eat, supplementation may be the most convenient option. However, you want to choose a high-quality, pure formula that’s free from heavy metals and contaminants. If you’re looking for a high-quality, pure omega-3 supplement, our True Omega-3 is third party tested which means what’s on the label is what’s in the capsules.

The Takeaway: Bring balance and cut back on Omega-6s

Like many things in life, we seek balance as balance is what brings health. Most Americans need to cut way back on omega-6 to get into balance. With inflammation being at the root of so many chronic modern diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and even cancer, finding our omega fatty acid balance is just one, but a very important piece to the equation of establishing overall balance for better health. (9)

Disclaimer: Always speak with your doctor about any questions or concerns you have related to supplementing with omega-3s, and check with your doctor before adding any new supplements to your supplement routine.

Resources

  1. National Institutes of Health. Omega-3 Fatty Acids. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-Consumer/
  2. Philip C. Calder. Omega-3 Fatty Acids & Inflammatory Processes. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3257651/#__ffn_sectitle
  3. Emma Derbyshire. Brain Health Across the Lifespan: A Systemic Review on the Role of Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplements. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6116096/
  4. Harvard Health Publishing. Omega-3 For Your Eyes. https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/omega-3-for-your-eyes
  5. James J DiNicolantonio and James H O’Keefe. Importance of maintaining a low omega–6/omega–3 ratio for reducing inflammation. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6269634/
  6. James J DiNicolantonio and James H O’Keefe. Importance of maintaining a low omega–6/omega–3 ratio for reducing inflammation. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6269634/
  7. Balancing Act Aglaée Jacob, MS, RD. Today’s Dietitian. Vol. 15 No. 4 P. 38. https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/040113p38.shtml#:~:text=As%20a%20consequence%20of%20these,of%20chronic%20and%20inflammatory%20diseases.
  8. Simopoulos AP. The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Biomed Pharmacother. 2002;56(8):365-379. doi:10.1016/s0753-3322(02)00253-6
    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12442909/
  9. Philip Hunter. The Inflammation Theory of Disease. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3492709/