What You Should Know About the History of Omega-6 and Omega-3 Fats

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Prior to the twentieth century, our diets of vegetables, fruits, nuts, meats, and fish contained equal parts of the essential fatty acids (EFAs) omega-3s and omega-6s, which was ideal for maintaining the body’s optimal health. 

This balance is significant because EFAs assist in building and maintaining healthy cell membranes; regulating cell division; and controlling immune function, inflammatory responses, and other essential body processes. An excess or deficiency in either omega-3 or omega-6 fats may impede these functions and lead to detrimental health issues. 

The cultivation of grains and their pervasiveness in the food system, in both whole and ground (flour) form, and the introduction of industrial seed oils and grain-fed animals, shifted the typical human diet toward omega-6 dominance. 

Today our diets have changed so much that studies estimate the omega-6:3 ratio in the standard American diet may be more like 20:1 or even above 30:1. The prevalence of omega-6-containing grains, seed oils, margarine, and shortening; along with grain-fed meats, eggs, and dairy and a reduction in omega-3-rich fatty fish, green plants/seaweeds, and pasture-raised animal products in our diets have been, in large part, responsible for this. 

Though all of these factors contribute to the imbalance in essential fatty acids, soybean and canola oils are particularly notable since their consumption increased more than 1000-fold from 1909 to 1999, and 167-fold from 1986 to 1999, respectively (according to an article in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition). 

Margarine, which was introduced in the late 1800s and increased in popularity throughout the mid-1900s as the primary substitute for butter, is also responsible for the rise of omega-6 fatty acids in our diets. From 1909 to 1999, margarine consumption increased 1000 percent while butter and lard consumption decreased around 75 percent. (Blasbalg.) 

An extremely processed, partially hydrogenated fat that is bleached, dyed, and derived from industrial vegetable oils (often soy or canola), this fake butter substitute is not only a source of omega-6 fatty acids, but also dangerous trans fats. Partially hydrogenated fats are also suspected to inhibit the utilization of EFAs. (Blasbalg.) Since a majority of omega-6 fats are converted to pro-inflammatory hormones in the body, the surplus of these types of EFAs in our modern diet has become a concern. 

Omega-6 fats have been suspected of contributing to heart disease and other inflammatory conditions. Omega-3s on the other hand, possess anti-inflammatory properties and have been linked to healthy neurological function, decreased risk of certain cancers, reduced incidence of stroke and coronary heart disease, and playing an essential role in fetal development. Correcting this imbalance requires reintroducing omega-3s back into our diets while also decreasing the intake of omega-6-laden foods. 

Consuming pasture-raised beef, bison, and other meats as well as pasture-raised eggs and dairy, as opposed to animal protein fed on grain, can help to decrease the amount of inflammatory omega-6 fats consumed while restoring depleted omega-3 stores in the body. 

Next we’ll discuss the best sources of omega-3 EFAs, and achieving a health-promoting omega-6:3 balance. 

-STEPHANIE COLD

Works Cited

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