Updated 30 July 2013

Understanding Omega-3 and Omega-6

Omega-3 and omega-6 are essential for optimum health because they cannot be manufactured by the body and must therefore be provided through diet. DietDoc explains.


Omega-3 and Omega-6, also known as essential fatty acids are on the tip of everyone’s tongue. What exactly are they, where do they come from and how do they help?

Omega-3 and omega-6 are two families of polyunsaturated fatty acids that are essential for optimum health because they cannot be manufactured by the body and must therefore be provided through diet. They are abundant in neural tissues, important in terms of cognitive and visual function, and form an integral part of the membranes of all the body's cells.

If you use margarine and sunflower oil in your kitchen, then the chances are that you are getting more than enough omega-6. Omega-3 fatty acid is predominantly found in oily fish such as mackerel, herring, salmon, tuna, sardines, anchovies and trout. Recently there has been an increase in the production of omega-3 enriched foods such as eggs, bread and milk. Plant sources such as flaxseed, canola, walnut and soya oils are also rich in omega-3.

How much is enough?

Not only do we have to make sure that we include them in our diets, but the amounts we eat also need to be balanced. Researchers have discovered that the so-called omega-3 to omega-6 ratio should be about 1/5 for optimal health. This means that we must make sure that we eat 1g of omega-3 for every 5g of omega-6. In many diets the ratio is 1 to 20 or even 40. It is, therefore, important to make sure that we eat more omega-3.

We need to keep the intake balanced because the essential fatty acids compete with each other in our bodies for enzymes. If you eat too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3, only omega-6 will be metabolised and your body won’t be able to use the omega-3 fatty acids. Such an imbalance can result in diseases.

Some of the added benefits of Omega-3?

More and more scientific evidence points to the fact that omega-3 fatty acids are important for human health and normal development. It is becoming increasingly clear that modern human beings who eat a western diet with a low fish content, are exposed to omega-3 FA deficiency and an imbalance in the omega-3:omega-6 ratio. Although research into the role of omega-3 FAs in psychiatric conditions, such as depression and schizophrenia, is still in the early stages, some studies have shown promising results.

Omega-3 FAs are important for the normal development of the brain, nervous system and vision in infants before, and during the first year after birth. Omega-3 FA supplementation during pregnancy and even in breastfed infants is advisable.

Dr Ingrid van Heerden is a registered dietician and holds a doctoral degree in Nutrition and Biochemistry. She believes that "we are what we eat" and offers free nutrition and weight loss advice via her DietDoc service on Read more of her articles.


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