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Even though the word "fat" might get a bit of a bad rap in the nutrition world, there are plenty of healthy fats out there that you should include in your diet. To be more specific: when we talk about "healthy fats," we're talking about Omega 3 6 9 fatty acids.
You might already be familiar with omega-3s. At the very least, you’re probably aware that they’re an important part of a heart-healthy eating plan. But the omegas -6 and -9 are also important fats to be aware of, especially if you’re looking to maximize your nutrition intake.
Let’s talk about omegas 3 6 9, why you need all three of them, and how you can optimize your intake of each.
What are omega-3 fatty acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are a kind of essential healthy fat. They're polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), meaning they have multiple double bonds in their chemical makeup. Omega-3s have a variety of roles in your body, including acting as building blocks for cells in your brain and eyes.
While there are quite a few different kinds of omega-3 fatty acids, the three most important ones to be aware of are:
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an important compound used in your brain and central nervous system
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) is an active omega-3 with potential anti-inflammatory effects in the body*
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is another omega-3 fatty acid that is a precursor to DHA and EPA
Food sources of omega-3 fatty acids
The active omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are best found in marine sources like fatty, cold-water fish including salmon, mackerel, and tuna. You can also find EPA and DHA in algae, an aquatic plant organism that directly produces omega-3s through photosynthesis.
The other kind of omega-3, ALA, can be found in certain plant-based foods including chia seeds, hemp seeds, flaxseeds, and walnuts.
What are omega-6 fatty acids?
Omega-6s are another polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) type with a different chemical structure than omega-3s. Similarly to omega-3s, omega-6s are essential, which means you need to get them from your diet since your body can't make them on its own.
Food sources of omega-6 fatty acids
Omega-6 fatty acids are found in various foods, many of which are staples in the Western diet. For example, some of the best food sources of omega-6s include:
- Seeds and seed oils, like sunflower seeds, grapeseed, and pumpkin seed
- Vegetable oils, including canola, peanut, and corn oils.
You can also find omega-6s in some animal-based foods like meat and dairy.
What are omega-9 fatty acids?
Omega-9s are monounsaturated fatty acids. On a technical level, this means that they have only one double carbon bond.
Unlike omega-3s and omega-6s, your body does make some omega-9s on its own, making them "nonessential." However, you can also get more omega-9s from the foods you eat.
Food sources of omega-9 fatty acids
You can find omega-9s in a variety of foods, both animal and plant-based. One of the most common types of omega-9 is oleic acid, the fatty acid responsible for the potential health benefits of olives and olive oil. In addition, you can also get omega-9s from other kinds of vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds.
What’s the difference between omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9?
The key difference between omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9 is that they all have different chemical structures. All three are unsaturated fats, meaning their chemical structure includes double bonds. However:
- Omega-3s and omega-6s are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), meaning they have multiple double bonds. However, those double bonds are in different positions.
- Omega-9s are monounsaturated fatty acids, which means they only have one double bond.
But what exactly do these differences mean for you and your health? On a more practical level, one of the critical differences between omega-3s, omega-6s, and omega-9s is that they are all found in different foods (or made endogenously in your body). Perhaps most importantly, omegas 3, 6, and 9 have different roles and effects on your body. But you need all three of these healthy fats for optimum health.
Omega 3 6 9 Benefits
Each of these three omega-fatty acids plays an important individual role in the body.
For example, the benefits of taking omega-3s are well-known. Getting enough omega-3s in your diet has been associated with a huge host of potential health benefits, including:
- Improved mental health, mood, and cognition*
- Healthy brain development* is why getting omega-3s is essential for pregnant and/or breastfeeding mothers.
- Better heart health* due to its potential anti-inflammatory effects on the body.
But in addition to the widely known benefits of omega-3s, there are plenty of reported benefits that come with the other two kinds of omega fatty acids discussed here that are perhaps a little less well-known.
For example, there’s evidence that a moderate intake of omega-6s may be linked to improved cholesterol levels and a subsequent decrease in the risk for cardiovascular disease*.
Studies have also found that omega-9s, the active compound often lauded in olive oil, can potentially minimize inflammation*.
So all three of these unsaturated fats are important compounds that are used to form cell membranes in the body. They’ve also all been linked to lower instances of inflammation and better overall heart health, especially when compared to diets that are heavier in animal-based fats.
But importantly, the ratio of omegas-3, 6, and 9 present in your body matter just as much as the amount of each individual omega fatty acid. Having too much of one and not enough of the other may be detrimental. For example, many studies have long established that having too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3 can contribute to low-grade inflammation rather than helping reduce it.
Should you take an omega 3 6 9 supplement?
While there are definitely benefits that come with each omega fatty acid, there's not enough evidence to suggest that taking a combined omega-3-6-9 supplement is necessary for most people.
One reason is that omega-6s are found in many everyday dietary staples in the Western diet. This means that many people are already getting enough omega-6s on their own without needing to supplement. Remember, there's evidence that having too much omega-6 in your diet may contribute to inflammation in the body, especially when you aren't getting an adequate amount of omega-3 fatty acids simultaneously. The reality is that many people eating a Western diet are consuming an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 15/1, when it's actually thought to be much more beneficial to eat a ratio of about 4/1! In many cases, you probably don't need to supplement any more omega-6s on top of what you're already eating.
When it comes to omega-9s, your body makes enough of this MUFA on its own, so you probably don't need to supplement it. Omega-9s don't even have a Recommended Dietary Allowance since you don't need to eat them, unlike omega-3 and omega-6.
With that said, many people find that an omega-3 supplement is necessary for reaching their recommended intake (specifically, 1.6 grams for males and 1.1 grams for females). Because omega-3s aren't as common in our diets as omega-6s, and because having a high ratio of omega-3s-to-omega-6s may be necessary for combatting inflammation and improving your overall health*, taking an omega-3 supplement is a great idea for improving those ratios and giving your body the nutrients it needs for long-term health.
An omega-3 supplement may be especially crucial if you don't eat enough fish throughout the week or if you're a vegan or vegetarian. While plant-based foods like walnuts and chia seeds contain ALA, it needs to be converted to the active DHA and EPA forms first for your body to use, which isn't always efficient. It's best to use an omega-3 supplement that already contains an adequate amount of DHA and EPA. While fish oil is perhaps the most popular option, it isn't suitable for everyone or vegan-friendly.
So for a more efficient and eco-friendly option, consider adding algae oil supplements to your dietary regimen. They contain adequate servings of EPA and DHA without the need for fish (or for those dreaded fish burps that fish oil pills are so well-known for). Make sure to talk to your doctor before starting any dietary supplement to ensure that you take the correct dosage for your needs.
The bottom line
Omegas -3, -6, and -9 are all healthy fats your body needs to fight long-term chronic issues like inflammation and poor heart health*. But you don't need to take a special omega 3 6 9 supplement to get the correct ratios for each. By simply increasing your omega-3 intake with an algae oil supplement, you can increase your healthy fat intake, improve your ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s, and give your body the support it needs.