Omega 3-6-9 Fatty Acids: Here Is a Beginner’s Guide
There are nutrients our bodies need to function, yet we are unable to make at all (or at least in sufficient amounts). Thus, we must get these “essential” nutrients from the foods we eat. This includes water, vitamins, minerals, certain amino acids, and certain fatty acids, including omega-3 (specifically alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA, eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA, and docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA) and omega-6 fatty acids (specifically linoleic acid, or LA, gamma-linoleic acid, or GLA, and arachidonic acid, or AA).
Each of these fatty acids has a different role in the body, and they are available in different foods in varying amounts. There’s another lesser discussed omega fatty acid, however, known as omega-9, which is more often referred to as oleic acid. Unlike omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, omega-9 fats are not “essential” because the body can produce oleic acid; as you’ll find out, though, consuming more of this type of fat (particularly in place of other fats) may have health benefits.
In today’s beginner’s guide, we’ll discover:
- What are Fats?
- What is Omega 3?
- What is Omega 6?
- What is Omega 9?
- Do You Need Omega-3, Omega-6, or Omega-9 in Your Diet?
Before we dive in, let’s take a brief look at fats. Without getting too thick into the weeds, all fats are made up of chains of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, which are joined in various combinations by chemical bonds. Along those lines, fats are classified according to their number of double bonds.
To be a polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA), for example, the “chain” must have more than one double bond. 1 Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA), meanwhile, have one double bond. And if you’re keeping score, saturated fats have no double bonds.
The various omega fatty acids are so named due to where their double bonds fall—in the 3, 6, or 9 positions. With that being said, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are PUFAs, while omega-9 fatty acids are MUFAs. Get it?
The structure of these fats, however, isn’t what’s important. What they do in the body is. Let’s look at arguably the most important essential fatty acid.
If you’ve heard of any of the omega fatty acids, it’s most likely been omega-3. These essential polyunsaturated acids—particularly ALA, EPA, and DHA—play significant roles in the body. They make up the structures of cells and are needed for hormone production, immune function, and to support the heart and lungs.
Studies have demonstrated that omega-3 fatty acids have numerous benefits, including:
- Promoting a healthy inflammatory response 2,3
- Supporting healthy triglyceride levels 4
- Supporting cardiovascular (i.e., heart) health 5
- Promoting healthy cognitive function 6
- Supporting brain and nerve health and a healthy mood 7,8
- Promoting healthy hair, skin, and eyes
- Providing support for a healthy metabolism and healthy weight management 9,10
The best sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish, like salmon, sardines, and oysters. Omega-3 fats can also be found in chia seeds, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, and walnuts in the form of ALA. However, the body must convert ALA to the superstars EPA and DHA, and it isn’t all that efficient at doing so. A mere 5% of ALA is converted to EPA and just 0.5% is converted to DHA. 11 Even with a diet high in ALA-rich foods, it can be very difficult to sustain healthy levels of EPA and DHA, so it’s recommended you consume foods that provide these nutrients or to supplement. One of the very few vegan sources of EPA and DHA is algal oil. 12
Another group of polyunsaturated fats, omega-6, is found in most plant-based cooking oils as well as in nuts and seeds, meat, and eggs. Moderate amounts are not only safe, they’re necessary. The problem, however, is that most people consume way more omega-6s than omega-3s, which creates an unhealthy balance, as these fatty acids are precursors to signaling molecules that have differential effects in the body. For example, an unhealthy balance in favor of omega-6 fats can lead to increased inflammation within the body.
Key omega-6 fatty acids include arachidonic and linoleic acids. While the body needs some omega-6s, an overabundance (which is common) can lead to:
- An overactive inflammatory response
- Mood issues
These fats do, of course, also have benefits when balanced with omega-3 fatty acids. These include:
- Increased energy
- Immune system support
- Fat loss support (in the form of CLA) 13
The most common sources of omega-6 fatty acids in the typical American diet are safflower, soybean, and peanut oils. Processed foods—like cereals, fast foods, and baked goods—tend to really throw off the balance between omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids as they’re so high in those omega-6-rich vegetable oils.
There is still research to be done on the optimal balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids, but initial research indicates a 1:1 to 4:1 ratio, although that may vary significantly from person to person. Unfortunately, most of those who follow a typical Western-style diet consume a ratio closer to 15:1 to 17:1, in favor of omega-6 over omega-3, which can contribute to unhealthy levels of inflammation. 14 – 16
A monounsaturated fatty acid, omega-9 fatty acid is not essential as our bodies can make it. That doesn’t mean it isn’t important, though, as it does play key roles in the body. It’s often associated with the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet as it’s found in olives and olive oil.
Omega-9 fatty acids have been shown to:
- Help lower LDL (harmful cholesterol) while increasing HDL (beneficial cholesterol), which may help prevent plaque buildup in the arteries and thus decrease the risk of heart attacks and strokes
- Support a healthy blood sugar response and insulin function 17
- Support increased energy
- Boost mood
- Promote memory
- Support the immune system 1
Many of the healthier plant-based oils, like olive and almond, are higher in omega-9 fatty acids. It can also be found in avocados and avocado oil, olives, cashews, almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, macadamia nuts, and mustard seed. 1
To ensure the body enjoys a stable amount of omega-9 fatty acids, it’s best to consume these foods throughout the day rather than just in a single meal.
The short answer is, yes, you do need all of these important fatty acids in your diet. HOWEVER, what’s more important is the balance of the omega fatty acids. The SAD (Standard American Diet) is high in omega-6 fatty acids, thanks in large part to a heavy reliance on processed and packaged foods, yet very, very low in omega-3 fatty acids, especially the vitally important EPA and DHA.
You can get enough omega-3 fatty acids if you eat fatty fish and seafood like salmon, mackerel, sardines, or oysters at least twice a week (for a total of at least eight ounces) to get the recommended 250 to 300 mg of omega-3 fatty acids. 18 If fish isn’t your favorite, then you can eat a variety of nuts and seeds for ALA, but you’ll also likely get better results by consuming a form of microalgae or supplementing for DHA and EPA.
What Is Omega-3, Omega-6, and Omega-9: A Wrap-Up
Fats are essential to a healthy diet. They add flavor and texture to foods, and they provide nutrients your body cannot live without. Fats provide needed energy and are required for our cells to communicate. Include whole-food sources of healthy fats like fatty fish, avocados, nuts and seeds, and quality cold-pressed, unrefined oils in your diet to support overall health. All of the above fats are “good” fats, yet it’s the dose that makes them so.
We tend to get more than enough of omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids from our diets. Yet we don’t often get nearly enough omega-3 fatty acids. What’s most important is the balance of omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9 fatty acids for optimal health. 19
For those who don’t regularly eat fatty fish, supplementing with a quality omega-3 fatty acid supplement is typically recommended. For those who eat a lot of processed foods, you’re also very likely getting too many omega-6 fatty acids and need to cut back. Avoid using refined vegetable oils in your own cooking and choose olive oil, avocado oil, or a nut oil instead. Go with a cold-pressed, extra virgin oil, though, as these key fatty acids are easily oxidized when exposed to light or heat.