Omega-3, Omega-6, Omega-9: The Basics
Three-six-nine, the goose drank wine... or was it fish oil? If it was fish oil, or certain vegetable oils, that would be one healthy goose because the omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9 fatty acids found in these oils confer a variety of medical benefits when they are consumed on a regular basis and in the right amounts.
You need omega-3 fatty acids because they are a vital part of the membrane that surrounds every cell in your body. Omega-3 fatty acids are called "essential fatty acids" because, unlike other types of fat, your body cannot produce them on its own. You must get omega-3's from your diet.
Omega-3's help reduce your risk of developing heart disease or having a stroke by decreasing LDL (bad) cholesterol levels in your body and also by decrease triglycerides (blood fats) that circulate throughout your body. Omega-3's help keep your arteries "elastic" and prevent fatty plaque from building up in your artery walls. They thin your blood, decreasing your risk of developing blood clots. In addition, omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and may help control rheumatoid arthritis, eczema and other autoimmune condition.
The most functional forms of omega-3 fatty acids are called EPA and DHA. They are found in oily fish, such as salmon, bluefish, herring, sardines, mackerel, and tuna. DHA is linked to brain development and brain and nerve tissue. Another omega-3 fatty acid, known as ALA is found in vegetable oils, flaxseed, soybeans and walnuts. ALA can be converted by your body into EPA and DHA.
Omega-6 fatty acid-found in vegetable oils, nuts and seeds-help reduce your risk of heart disease by reducing total and LDL cholesterol when they are used in place of animal fats in your diet. However, too many omega-6 fatty acids can have the opposite effect and increase your risk of developing heart disease and other conditions by promoting inflammation in your body. They may also decrease your blood levels of HDL cholesterol and interfere with your body's ability to use ALA and convert it to EPA and DHA.
Food sources of omega-9 fatty acids include canola oil olive oil, peanut oil, and safflower oil. But your body produces sufficient amounts of its own omega-9 fatty acids so, unlike the other omegas, "9's" are not considered essential and therefore don't get the same amount of attention as "3's" and "6's." But whether they come from within your body or from your diet, omega-9's are also known to help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke by lowering LDL cholesterol and raising HDL cholesterol levels in the blood.
The Bottom Line
Omega fatty acids are only good for you when consumed in the right balance, and that balance is 2:1 to 4:1, omega-6 to omega 3. Unfortunately, the typical American diet has contained anywhere from 10 to 30 times more omega 6 than omega 3. To counter this imbalance, the American Heart Association and other medical experts recommend eating oily seafood at least twice a week to increase your omega-3 intake. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, the Mediterranean diet is a good example of a diet that provides a better balance of the three omega fatty acids. It is a diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, seafood and poultry and emphasizes olive and vegetable oils while at the same time de-emphasizing red meat, butter and heavy cream.
If you are considering taking fish oil supplements to increase your omega-3's, and especially if you have been diagnosed with heart disease, speak with your doctor first to find out which type of supplements, and in what dose, is best for you.