I used to eat chicken every day. I would slow cook about 20 chicken thighs, freeze half, and fridge the rest for my week of lunches. My coworkers used to joke that I would put Tyson out of business.
But chicken, as I came to realize, actually has the highest omega-6 fatty acid content of just about any meat. Far from helping me stay healthy, all that chicken was likely causing me harm. I’ll explain why in a minute, but first a little background on omega fats.
Omegas are “essential” fatty acids, but you don’t need much of them
Both omega-6 and omega-3 fats are classified as “essential” fatty acids, which is just another way of saying your body can’t generate them. You have to get them from your diet.
But just because omegas are essential doesn’t mean you should start swilling them like a thirsty wildebeest. Your body simply doesn’t require these fats in high quantities. “Only a small amount of dietary [omega 3 and 6],” writes Perfect Health Diet author Dr. Paul Jaminet, “is necessary to prevent a deficiency.”
In other words, the important functions – brain health, lipid function, cell membrane support, etc – that omega 3s and 6s serve can be fulfilled with tiny amounts of each in your diet. Really, you only need 1-2% of calories from omega- 6 and perhaps less than 1% of calories from omega-3.
Now we turn to the problems with too much omega fats (like eating, as I did, chicken thighs for breakfast, lunch and dinner).
Omega fats are easily oxidized… bad news
Omega fats, also known as polyunsaturated fats, are highly reactive to oxygen. Your body tends to have lots of oxygen floating around because oxygen is used to make energy in the form of ATP. But if you have too many omega fats in your system, all that oxygen reacts with these unstable fats.
If you’ve ever smelled rancid fish, you are whiffing oxidized omega-3 fats.
This interaction between fat and oxygen, called “lipid peroxidation”, also creates loads of damaging byproducts in your body. And these byproducts can lead to sticky situations like clogged arteries, systemic inflammation, high levels of oxidized LDL, and mitochondrial damage.
Bad news for your health.
Too much omega-6 is definitely bad
You probably already knew that omega-6s can cause problems. Researchers have theorized, in fact, that high omega-6 consumption might even be the primary driver behind the obesity epidemic in America. Yeah, we Americans love our fried foods and our chicken.
We also love our fried chicken Since these American staples are commonly sizzled up in peanut or vegetable oil (read: an omega-6 soup), we are literally serving up oxidized lipids. Recall: lipid peroxidation leads to clogged arteries, inflammation, and a long list of nasty conditions.
Bottom line: we eat too much omega-6. Instead of the 1-2% required, Americans consume 9% of our calories in the form of linoleic acid, a type of O-6. Not optimal.
What about too much omega 3?
Depending on the quality of the source, omega-3s can actually be more dangerous than omega-6s. Wait, what?
That’s right. It’s because omega-3s, important as they are for brain health and a host of other functions, are even more readily oxidized than omega-6s.
Stinky fish? That’s oxidized 3 in action. Fish oils too can go rancid if they are exposed to heat or light. Rule of thumb: if they have a strong smell, trash ‘em.
But non-rancid fish and fish oils – unoxidized omega 3s – actually carry some serious benefits. And these benefits seem to stem from the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats in your body.
UPDATE 5/10/18: For fresh fish oil (omega 3), I’ve come to rely on this brand from Amazon (never rancid, tested for purity and a good value).
Shoot for a 1:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 intake
What’s the primally approved ratio? Well, ancestral dietary evidence points to a 1:1 omega-6 to omega-3 ratio as being optimal. Despite their lack of formal education, our predecessors knew a thing or two about staying healthy.
But it’s not just ancient history. Modern science also gives the nod to a 1:1 ratio for benefits like improved heart and brain health. One study, in fact, highlighted the importance of 6:3 tissue balance in preventing cardiovascular disease, several types of cancer, and other chronic illness. And a more recent paper found a clear “cardioprotective effect” when omega-6 and omega-3 are brought into balance.
I could go on linking to studies all day, but I think you get the gist. The ratio is important, and I suspect that many of the benefits of omega-3s are due to this often overlooked piece of the puzzle.
UPDATE 5/10/18: I now take about 2-4 grams of high quality fish oil per day to bring my ratio close to 1:1. I use Viva Naturals Fish Oil (from Amazon) because they test for purity (toxins like PCBs are a major problem with many commercial fish oils) and the oil is not rancid. I also keep the pills in the fridge to avoid the fragile omega 3 oil from becoming oxidized.
Recommendation: Eat food with low absolute levels of omegas and a relatively balanced 6:3 ratio
To recap, we want to:
1) Keep intake of both 6 and 3 at reasonable levels because they are both easily oxidized and cause damage in the body
2) Ensure the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 intake is roughly 1:1 to realize the benefits verified in numerous studies.
What foods are ideal for these goals?
Grass fed products: (personal favorite): beef and lamb meat, as well as grass fed butter, are clear winners with a omega 6 : omega 3 ratio of about 3:1 and low absolute levels of both omegas. Beef and lamb meat are also loaded with nutrients.
Oil: Coconut oil (my favorite brand), beef tallow and other saturated fats are all great options.
Olive oil is also a primal choice, but low quality olive oils for cooking will oxidize when cooked. In other words, use a high quality olive oil. (I like this brand from Amazon due to the high polyphenol content, which are responsible for the health benefits of olive oil and also protect the oil from oxidation. See this polyphenol chart for more on this).
Fish: Paul Jaminet recommends a pound of fatty fish – salmon, sardines, anchovies – per week for omega-3s. (I buy Wild Planet sardines due to low toxins). And so if you have trouble reducing your omega-6 intake, you may want to ratchet up your fatty fish intake to improve your 6:3 ratio.
These foods ought to comprise the bulk of the protein and fat in your diet, but that doesn’t mean high omega-6 foods like chicken or pork can’t grace the dinner table once in a while. Seek to improve your existing regimen and that will be a success.
Like this article? Check these out next:
Jaminet, Paul, and Shou-Ching Jaminet. The Perfect Healt Diet. New York: Scribner, 2012.