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The Complete Guide to Omega Fatty Acids


After vitamins and minerals, omega-3 fatty acids are the most popular supplements sold in the United States. Why? Because proponents of these products claim benefits ranging from the prevention of heart disease, stroke, and cancer, to the control of lupus, eczema, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Mracel030NL / flickr

With publicity like that, the question becomes 'why not?' instead of 'why?' But like most supplements, the decision to start or continue their use is a little more complicated than it appears. There is more than one kind of omega-3 fatty acid, and there is also something called omega-6.

Omega-6 is essential for health, and isn't made by the body. It's contained in many of the foods we eat. Maintaining a balance between omega-3 and omega-6 is important. The general consensus is that we get too much omega-6 and probably not enough omega-3.

Omegas by the Numbers

The percentage of Americans who have taken an omega-3 supplement for health reasons

A healthy diet should consist of two to four times more omega-6 than omega-3.

In one study, the rate of sudden cardiac death was reduced by 50 percent among heart attack survivors who took omega-3 supplements daily for three years.

How Omega-3 Fatty Acids Work

Omega-3 is a polyunsaturated fat classified as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), or alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). EPA is primarily obtained from fish oil that is healthy for the heart. DHA, also from fish oil, has been shown to positively influence brain, nerve, and eye health. ALA comes from plant-based sources such as flax seeds and walnuts plays a minimal roll in providing omega-3s.

omega-3 sources include:

  • Cold-water fish: salmon, sardines, cod, mackerel
  • Omega-3 eggs
  • Vegetable oils
  • Nuts
  • Leafy vegetables
  • Red meats: venison, elk, grass-fed beef

Omega-3s, according to the Harvard School of Medicine, are an integral part of cell membranes and impact the function of cell receptors. They also play a part in blood clotting, digestion, muscle contraction, making arterial walls pliable, and guarding against inflammation. Omega-3s are best known for protection against heart disease and stroke. They have been shown to help lower blood pressure, improve blood vessel function, and lower triglycerides. Omega-3s may also be valuable in treating or preventing other conditions, but more evidence is needed before conclusions can be drawn.

Omega-3s appear to be safe, but not entirely free of side effects. Fish oil supplements have been linked to upset stomach, bloating, indigestion and heartburn. In high doses, omega-3s may interfere with blood thinners and medicines used to treat hypertension, so check with your doctor before taking a supplement.

Dr. Carl Lavie, medical director of Cardiac Rehabilitation and Prevention at the Ochsner Heart and Vascular Institute in New Orleans, told ABC News that healthy people should consume at least 500 mg per day of EPA, plus DHA, in order to meet their daily needs for the nutrient. The recommendations were made in a 2009 issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. People with cardiovascular disease, according to the same report, should consume 800 to 1,000 mg per day.

How Omega-6 Fatty Acids

Omega-6 is also an essential fatty acid. Working with omega-3, it's needed for brain function, growth and development. The omega-3/omega-6 combination also helps with skin and hair growth, bone healing, metabolism and reproduction. Omega-6 deficiencies can cause dermatitis, infertility, infection, and a reduced ability to heal following a wound.

The good news: Most people get enough omega-6 in their diets. In fact, the typical American diet consists of up to 25 times more omega-6 than omega-3. Some experts believe this imbalance is a factor in the rising rate of inflammatory disease.

omega-6 sources include:

  • Sunflower oil
  • Safflower oil
  • Corn oil
  • Cottonseed oil 
  • Soybean oil 
  • Egg yolks
  • Meat (grass-fed beef

Balancing Omega-3 and Omega-6

The goal is to maintain a ratio in the range of 2:1 to 4:1 (omega-6 to omega-3). Most people get plenty omega-6, so it isn't necessary to take an omega-6 supplement unless you're being treated for a specific condition and your doctor advises a supplementation program.

Tags: Supplements, Vitamins, Nutrients, Health, Cooking, Fat, Food


  1. American Heart Association
  2. Harvard School of Medicine
  3. Journal of the American College of Cardiology
  4. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
  5. National Center for Health Statistics
  6. The Ohio State University
  7. University of Maryland Medical Center