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Fine-Tune Your Intake of Fatty Acids

Omega-3 and omega-6 acids are vital to a healthy diet

TUESDAY, Dec. 28, 2004 (HealthDay News) -- Whether you've been counting carbs, calories, or fat grams, you can help your body by paying attention to what are known as fatty acids -- specifically, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

These essential chemicals can't be manufactured by the human body, so they must be obtained from dietary sources or supplements.

The primary food source for omega-3 fatty acids is certain types of fish -- Atlantic salmon and other fatty, cold-water fish, including herring, sardines, Atlantic halibut, bluefish, tuna, and Atlantic mackerel. The American Heart Association recommends that people eat tuna or salmon at least twice a week.

Generally speaking, people ingest far more omega-6 acids than omega-3 acids. That's because the sources for omega-6 acids taste better: cereals, eggs, poultry, most vegetable oils, whole-grain breads, baked goods, and margarine. Omega-6, or linolenic acid, may produce the inflammatory acids known as prostaglandins that promote cancer, according to new research.

Dr. Ann Kulze, a primary care physician in Charleston, S.C., said that omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are vital components of a healthy diet. "These fats are designed to work together," she said. "Too much of one and not enough of the other is dangerous to your health. That's why it's extremely important to achieve a balance between the two, both to promote optimum weight loss and general health status."

According to the American Cancer Society, omega-3 acids and omega-6 acids work well because they counterbalance each other as important nutrients involved in many human biological processes.

"Americans currently eat an overabundance of omega-6 fats relative to omega-3 fats, which is unfortunate," Kulze explained. "Generally, omega-3s oppose the effects of omega-6 and are anti-inflammatory, anti-blood clotting, and anti-cellular growth. Like a seesaw moving up and down, the two constantly work at achieving equilibrium, but when diets are deficient in omega-3s, a healthy balance is impossible to achieve."

Kulze said our Stone Age ancestors had diets with an equal ratio of the two acids, while current research suggests that most Americans consume 14 to 25 times more inflammation-promoting omega-6 fats than anti-inflammatory omega-3s.

Reducing this ratio has several benefits, Kulze added, including cancer prevention, weight loss, improved cardiovascular health, and diabetes and arthritis control.

Shawn Talbott, a nutrition expert at the University of Utah, strongly agreed. "In my experience, almost everyone can benefit from eating more omega-3s," he said. "The best source is three or four weekly servings of fatty fish."

But this isn't a prescription for wellness that many Americans find easy to swallow. "The problem with the dietary route to increasing omega-3s is that many people just don't seem able to do it," Talbott said, calling most Americans' response to fatty fish the "yuck factor."

"Too many Americans just don't like the taste of the oily, fatty fish -- such as mackerel, tuna, sardines, or wild salmon -- that are rich in omega-3s," he said. "Others eat the wrong fish -- for example, fish sticks or other white fish -- which has a negligible impact on their omega-3 level and may actually raise their omega-6 levels. Even those who are trying diligently to increase their omega-3 intake tend to grossly overestimate how much they are consuming in their diets."

So what's the answer? Talbott and Kulze agreed that fish oil oral supplements have an important role in restoring the desired 3-to-6 balance. "Supplements fill the gap," Talbott said. "I recommend fish oil supplements almost as often as I recommend a multivitamin."

Kulze said she also recommends supplements to her patients. "Philosophically, I believe people should try to get as many of their nutrients as possible from real food," she said. "Natural food is better absorbed and used than supplements. But, as a practical matter, I have to admit that most people don't have success with that recommendation. In fact, I don't even have complete success with it myself."

Although pointing to canola oil, wheat germ, walnuts, and other foods as other good sources for omega-3s, Kulze said supplementing dietary fatty acids with high-quality fish oil in adequate amounts makes a lot of sense and accomplishes the goal. You should consult your physician or a good nutritionist to make sure you're buying the right supplement, she added.

More information

You can learn more about fatty acids at this National Institutes of Health site.

SOURCES: Ann Kulze, M.D., primary care physician, Charleston, S.C.; Shawn Talbott, Ph.D., associate clinical professor, department of nutrition, University of Utah, Salt Lake City; American Cancer Society
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