In the health and fitness community, there is frequent discussion over the importance of essential Omega-3 fatty acids in the diet and how they play key roles in cardiovascular and neuromuscular function, body composition, and performance. Though we have come a long way from the narrowed minded “fat makes you fat” era, there is still lingering confusion arguing over which type of fat is best. Two polyunsaturated fatty acids tend to go head to head on their effects on the body, with one demonized more than the other. Omega- 3’s are seen as the “friend” of the fatty acids, while the neglected Omega-6 gets portrayed as being the foe. However, this is far from reality. A balance of Omega 6 and Omega 3 fatty acids is essential for your overall health and is crucial in order to reach your fitness and physique goals. Understanding the role of Omega-6 fatty acids and their importance in the diet shows us that not only is the Omega-6 fatty acid our friend, but reinforces the fact that too much or too little of anything is never a good thing and what should be the focus is a healthy, balanced diet.
Just like Omega-3 fatty acids (linolenic acids, ALA), the body must obtain Omega-6 fatty acids (linoleic, LA) from the diet. Both are essential to the body, classified as polyunsaturated fats, and partake in functions involving growth and repair, lipid metabolism, as well act as structures to cell membranes. Polyunsaturated fatty acids are 20-carbon fatty acid chains with at least more than one double bond. They tend to be liquid at room temperature, such as olive oil, and contribute essential nutrients such as vitamin E to the diet. Examples of Omega-6 ‘s include vegetable oils, the popular avocado, soybean oil, corn oil, and safflower oil. Examples of Omega 3’s include fatty fish such as salmon, flaxseeds, walnuts, and soybeans. Omega-6’s can be found in supplements such as evening primrose oil or CLA, while Omega-3’s are often in supplemental form as fish oil pills. Upon consumption, dietary fatty acids are oxidized as fuel, incorporated into plasma phospholipids, lipoprotein particles, and cell membranes, or they are stored as triglycerides and body fat. Both Omega-3’s and Omega-6’s function as eicosanoids, serving as precursors for prostaglandins, thromboxanes, and leukotrienes that participate in a variety of immune and metabolic functions. Though both are essential and play some familiar roles, there is quite a difference in their metabolism and effects on the body.
Omega- 6 fatty acids, being the most abundant fatty acids in the American diet, are most known for their adverse effects on inflammation in the body, and in excess, their contribution to metabolic disorders and obesity. This contribution is partially due to the high prevalence in the American diet, with almost 90% of Americans consuming most of their fats from these sources. Omega-6 fatty acids are the metabolic precursors of arachidonic acid (AA), which in excess contribute to the overproduction of eicosanoids. It is assumed that raised tissue levels of AA enhance the pro-inflammatory eicosanoid response and that this may play a role in increasing inflammatory markers in the body that lead to the development of chronic diseases. In the gym, we want acute inflammation, a marker for growth and muscle protein breakdown, which we then fuel for recovery and to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. However, we don’t want chronic inflammation, which can lead to chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, as well as will inhibit our strength and body composition goals. Though Omega-6 fatty acids can contribute to chronic inflammation, it must be understood that this is done when in excess or in dietary insufficiency of Omega-3 fatty acids. The Omega-3 fatty acid gets glorified for its health benefits, but too much of either fatty acid can interfere with the body’s production and utilization of DHA (an important Omega-3 fatty acid) and AA. This spells trouble for strength, hormone regulation, digestion, immunity, and more!
Looking at the effects on body composition with Omega-6 fatty acid consumption, a high Omega-6 intake and high Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio is associated with weight gain in both animal and human studies. There is also evidence, stated in Nutrients, that diets high omega-6’s increase the risk of leptin resistance and insulin resistance. However, a diet balanced in Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids decreases these effects. The AA metabolites from Omega-6 intake are blocked by Omega-3 intake of EPA and DHA, preventing inflammation as well as regulating glucose utilization, insulin sensitivity, and helping to regulate the secretion of adipokines that are involved in energy homeostasis, glucose, and lipid metabolism. Many of these factors are largely influenced by overall caloric intake and physical activity, with overall caloric intake being the biggest contributor to excess weight gain and obesity. A ratio of 1-2/1 of Omega-6/Omega-3 intake, along with caloric control and physical activity are important factors that should be implemented in one’s lifestyle in order to maximize their health and fitness potential.
Omega-6 fatty acids, with their reputation for increasing chronic inflammation, make strength and weight-training athletes ponder if they will inhibit their strength and recovery goals by consuming too many in diet. This is another case for promoting a balance of the fatty acids in your diet, focusing on consuming a variety of sources, from polyunsaturated to monounsaturated fats. Looking at the effects of reducing Omega-6’s in the diet, research shows their reduction does not create benefits for your strength and recovery. Another study in The Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology assessed the influence of Omega-6 intake on recovery of muscle performance after fatigue exercise. They found that that a diet in which Omega-6 fatty acids were lowered and Omega-6 increased did not associate with less fatigue or faster recovery. Though countless studies have proven the benefits of Omega-3 intake, the literature on the reduction of Omega-6 is less clear. It is safe to conclude that reducing Omega-6 intake will not influence your performance, but consuming a balanced Omega-6 to Omega 3-ratio will be beneficial to both your fitness goals and overall health.
Despite their bad reputation, Omega 6 fatty acids show clinically significant changes on lowering blood cholesterol when substituted for saturated fatty acids. A publication in The Journal of Nutrition provided evidence that Omega 6 fatty acids may help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by upregulating LDL receptors, increasing cholesterol synthesis, and decreasing conversion of VLDL to LDL. In addition to their foreseen benefits, research shows that they may not be sole contributors to inflammation in healthy populations. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics collected the research on Omega-6 fatty acid intake and inflammation in healthy individuals, including a publication from Prostaglandin, Leukotrienes, and Essential Fatty Acids, and concluded that there was no evidence from randomized controlled trials that confirmed the relationship that Omega-6 intake leads to inflammation. Concluding these findings, a commentary research article from the Academy stated that a balance of metabolites and dietary fats needs to be considered before labeling a dietary component as “pro-inflammatory”. If one is to argue the detrimental effects of omega-6 fatty acids, they must also take into account all other dietary components that influence inflammation.
Instead of avoiding Omega-6 fatty acids, one should focus on getting a proper balance of both Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids in their diet in order to feel and look their best! Consuming 5-10% of daily calories from these fatty acids is suggested by food and nutrition practitioners, consuming a ratio of 1-2/1 Omega-6/Omega-3. Reducing saturated fats and keeping trans-fat to a minimum helps to reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease and reduce inflammation in the body. Focusing on consuming anti-inflammatory foods such as broccoli, cauliflower, berries, dark chocolate, and spinach that contain phytochemicals and antioxidants helps to further lower inflammation and provides essential vitamins and minerals that it needs to thrive. It’s best to get a variety of nutrients in the diet, including fat, and to make sure that dietary fat never dips too low, for this may cause nutrition deficiencies and hormonal imbalances. A fat intake of 20-35% calories from fat, with 500mg EPA/DHA a day is suggested by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
The neglected Omega-6, though can contribute to inflammation, should be monitored, not avoided. Too much or too little of any nutrient as well as physical activity can potentially lead to detrimental effects on your overall health and may wipe away your fitness or body composition goals. The most important thing that you can do to reach your goals and keep your body healthy and happy is to consume a well-balanced diet and to ensure quality, adequate sleep. My motto is “moderation, not deprivation”, which includes remembering that though food is fuel, it’s also meant to be enjoyed! By understanding how nutrients are involved in the body and their importance in its function, growth, and regulation, one can make food choices to fuel their body for a long, fulfilled life. The true foe of the Omega-6, just like many other nutrients, lies in its avoidance or excess, not the fatty acid itself.
Fernandez ML, West KL. Mechanisms by which dietary fatty acids modulate plasma lipids. J Nutr. 2005;135(9):2075-2078.
Fritsche KL. Too much linoleic acid promotes inflammation—Doesn’t it? Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2008;79:173-175.
Mozaffarian D, Micha R, Wallace S. Effects on coronary heart disease of increasing polyunsaturated fat in place of saturated fat: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. PLoS Med. 2010;7(3):e1000252.
Montain, Scott et al. Influence of Omega-6 HUFA Status on Recovery of Muscle Performance After Fatiguing Exercise. Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biolog. 2015; 29(1) 598.6
Simopoulos, AP. An Increase in the Omega-6/Omega-3 Fatty Acid Ratio Increases the Risk for Obesity. Nutrients. 2016; 8(3) 128.
Joseph SV, Jacques H, Plourde M, Mitchell PL, McLeod RS, Jones PJ. Con- jugated linoleic acid supplementation for 8 weeks does not affect body composition, lipid profile, or safety bio- markers in overweight, hyperlipidemic men. J Nutr. 2011;141(7):1286-1291.
Johnson GH, Fritsche K. Effect of dietary linoleic acid on markers of inflamma- tion in healthy persons: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012;112(7):1029- 1041.