November 17, 2020
In the 1970s, researchers studying the Inuit populations of Greenland made a discovery that perplexed them and turned conventional thinking about the role dietary fats play in the human body upside down.
Despite consuming an extremely high-fat diet (which was at the time thought to be a major cause of heart disease), the Inuits turned out to surprisingly have much lower rates of cardiovascular issues than their Westernized low-fat diet enthusiast counterparts.
In fact, in what seemed highly paradoxical and head-scratching at the time, the robust health the Inuits enjoyed was partially because of the high amounts of fats—particularly the omega-3 fatty acids (about 4,000 mg per day!)—they were consuming from a diet composed primarily of (you guessed it) fish.
Since then, with the help of thousands of studies and years of human clinical research, the consensus is in on the importance of consuming that particular form of fatty acid: omega-3. In addition to providing cardiovascular benefits, these fatty acids have been shown to promote neuronal health, cognitive enhancement, mood, muscular recovery, and many other little-known benefits.
As a matter of fact, as I've voiced on many podcasts and in other articles, aside from creatine—because the fatty acids within it are required to build our cell membranes, the very basic building blocks of our entire body—I consider fish oil to be the safest and most studied nutritional supplement ever known to humankind. I realize that's a bold statement, but I suspect you'll agree with me after reviewing my thoughts below.
Anyways, things have progressed quite a bit since the 1970s and the Inuits. Fast forward to today and you'll find you can walk into just about any grocery store and find a host of omega-3-enriched products, from eggs to beverages to even Raisin Bran cereal. (Yes, now you can get your omega-3s right alongside your mega-dose of refined sugar and grains!) Then, waltz over to the hippie nutrition section of that same grocery store, and you'll find no shortage of omega-3 products. Sadly, the majority of these products, along with most of what you'll find online or in a supplement store, are masquerading as health products, but disguised in the form of rancid, oxidized, and poorly-sourced fish oils that contain dangerously high levels of mercury and other toxins. As you may already be beginning to suspect, there's a whole lot more to consuming fatty acids than meets the eye.
So, in today's article, you’ll discover everything you need to know about fatty acids—including the actual proven benefits of omega-3s, the best ways to incorporate them into your diet, how to optimize their efficacy, why your ratios of fatty acids are so darn important, what to look for when sourcing your fish and fish oil, and much more!
Why Should You Care About Omega-3s In The First Place?
Omega-3 fatty acids are technically classified as essential polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs)—with the word essential being important because your body can’t produce them on its own and instead must obtain them through diet or supplementation—usually as either fully-formed fatty acids from foods such as those you'll discover below or as building blocks your body can put together, such as what you might get from fish oil or an omega-3 fatty acid supplement.
There are three primary forms of omega-3s: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
The first, DHA is critical for brain growth in infants and proper brain function in adults. Deficiency is associated with fetal alcohol syndrome, ADHD, cystic fibrosis, phenylketonuria, depression, and adrenoleukodystrophy (the degradation of the myelin sheath that protects your nerve cells). One study observed the effects of DHA supplementation on the memory and reaction times of young adults who had a low intake of omega-3 fatty acids and found that DHA improved episodic memory in women and working memory in men. Another study on omega-3 benefits revealed that DHA supplementation prevented aggression toward others from increasing in young students during times of mental stress.
Next, EPA, while not as critical for neuronal health (your brain's levels of EPA are typically 250 to 300 times lower than that of DHA!), still plays an important role in protecting your cells and your neurons. EPA helps improve the strength of cell membranes and influences behavior and mood. It also acts as a precursor to eicosanoids, which are signaling and inhibiting molecules crucial in inflammatory and allergic reactions.
Finally, ALA, a plant-based omega-3 fatty acid (meaning, rather than being derived primarily from animals, you get it from foods such as seeds and nuts), has been shown in research to increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which plays a major role in maintaining neurons and improving learning and memory. Although—like the other two omega-3 fatty acids—ALA cannot be produced by your body, once in your body, it can be converted into DHA and EPA. But, much to the chagrin of those who are 100% plant-based, the conversion of ALA to DHA and EPA is shockingly minuscule. Research suggests that only 2 to 10 percent of all ALA consumed is actually converted into DHA or EPA.
In addition, making things even more problematic for people who want to rely upon the plant kingdom alone for their essential fatty acid intake, the expression of the ALA-converting genes that allow ALA to be converted to DHA and EPA, known as FADS (fatty acid desaturase) genes, can vary widely from person to person. For example, one variant of the FADS gene increases conversion, while another reduces conversion—which means that people with a certain variant are less able to convert ALA to DHA and EPA than those with another variant. The FADS variant that improves ALA conversion is most common in African, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Sri Lankan populations. It is moderately common in European populations (although there is also variation across European populations, the conversion-increasing variant is most common in southern Europe) and least common in Native Americans and indigenous Arctic populations. Of course, this all seems to make sense, since those populations who would have relied on fats from meats and animal sources to a lesser extent have turned out to develop a slightly greater ability to get these fatty acids from meats—but again, it's at very low amounts even in these populations.
In other words, variations in ALA to EPA and DHA conversion are likely due to the relative availability of plant sources of omega-3s and genetic adaptations to that availability in a historical context. So the more an ancestral population relied on plant sources of fatty acids, the more the population adapted to convert ALA into usable DHA and EPA and the more a population consumed DHA and EPA directly from animal and fish sources, the more the conversion-increasing variant was replaced by the conversion-decreasing variant.
So, if you have, say, African or Southern Asian ancestry, you likely carry the conversion-increasing variant of the FADS gene and don’t need to consume as much DHA and EPA from animal or fish sources. It is important to note that this doesn’t mean you don’t need to consume animal or fish sources at all, but simply that, depending on your level of inflammation, exercise intensity, exposure to pollutants, etc., you may not need as much of them as people of other ancestral heritages do.
If you have far northern European, Iberian, Native American, or indigenous Arctic ancestry, you most likely can’t effectively convert appreciable amounts of ALA into usable DHA and EPA. Those of British and Northern European ancestry may have more effective conversion rates, but the conversion-increasing variant is not as common as in Tuscan and southern European populations. If your genetic heritage comes from these groups, you need to get your DHA and EPA directly from meat and fish.
But no matter how you look at things from a genetic standpoint, it cannot be denied that, due to reasons you're about to discover, nearly everyone living in a Western dietary context is remarkably skewed in terms of their omega-6:omega-3 fatty acid balance or their overall intake of omega-3s altogether.
How To Get More Omega Fatty Acids Into Your Diet
Before you learn why ratios of your fatty acids are such an important part of optimizing your internal biology, I'd like to spend a little bit more time exploring the fascinating world of omega-3 fatty acids (specifically regarding where you can and should get them in the first place), then introduce you to a few of the other important omegas that you need to know about if you want to optimize your cell membranes and overall health.
Generally speaking, fatty fish is the ideal food source for ensuring you get high amounts of bioavailable EPA and DHA. As I mentioned earlier, ALA comes only from plant sources such as avocados and certain nuts and vegetables. Remember that ALA is a plant-based (and shorter-chain version) of an omega-3 fatty acid.
If you happen to be allergic to fish or shellfish, or can't stand the taste, DHA is also available from sources such as pasture-raised eggs and grass-fed beef. If you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, you can still get DHA, but it does take a bit more effort and expense. For example, algal sources such as spirulina and chlorella contain moderately to high bioavailable forms of DHA. Interestingly, as you can read plenty more about in Dr. James DiNicolantonio's new book, The Immunity Fix, muscle meat of wild animals has 2-5 times more omega-6 than omega-3, but the fat of animals is closer to a ratio of 1:1. Ancestral humans ate both plants and animals, achieving the desired 1:1 omega-6:3 ratio, but it's important to understand that A) They were eating animals “nose-to-tail,” including the fatty bits and organ meats, and B) None of their omega-6 fatty acid intake came from the industrial seed oils such as the canola oil and soybean oil that our modern-day omega-6 fatty acid intake primarily comes from. It's also important to understand that, when it comes to animal-based sources of omega fatty acids, grain-fed cattle have an omega-6:3 ratio twice that of grass-fed animals!
That all being said, common and readily available foods that are excellent sources of DHA and EPA include:
- Salmon (1,000-1,500 mg omega-3s per 3 ounces)
- Sardines (500-1,000 mg omega-3s per 3 ounces)
- Grass-fed beef (80 mg omega-3s per 3.5 ounces)
- Halibut (200-500 mg omega-3s per 3 ounces)
- Shrimp (~200 mg omega-3s per 3 ounces)
- Cod (~200 mg omega-3s per 3 ounces)
- Tuna (500-1,000 mg omega-3s per 3 ounces)
- Chlorella (100 mg omega-3s per 3 grams)
- Marine phytoplankton (15 mg omega-3s per gram)
You may have heard that seeds and nuts such as flax seeds, hemp seeds, and chia seeds are also good sources of DHA, but the fact is—due to reasons you've already learned about regarding the poor conversion of ALA into DHA and EPA—your body’s ability to unlock those reserves and convert them into usable omega-3 fatty acids is very low. Some research has indicated that your body is actually incapable of deriving any DHA at all from seeds and nuts in particular! However, some vegetables, such as brussels sprouts, are rich in other short-chain omega-3 fatty acids, and while these are less potent than DHA, they can act as neuroprotective compounds and are beneficial for your cellular and brain health. In other words, as you may be realizing already, the best omega-3 fatty acid intake can be had from high fish and fish oil consumption, a wide variety of animal compounds (especially the natural fat sources in animals), and omega-rich plants that preferably aren't seeds and nuts (but rather more vegetable-based).
In addition, algae is often cited as an excellent source of DHA. So why not just take algal oil daily? While algal oil is indeed one of the only significant sources of DHA for those following a 100% plant based diet, there are a few problems with algal oil. First it doesn’t always contain EPA. There are literally thousands of species of algae, and they vary widely in their ability to make EPA and DHA. In addition, have you seen the price of a high quality algal oil lately? Production of algae at the scale required for the optimal nutrition of the global population is not currently feasible, in terms of infrastructure or cost. As a matter of fact, in the paper “A Cost Analysis of EPA and DHA in Fish, Supplements, and Foods at “, literally none of the food products fortified with algal oil (e.g. milk, soymilk, prenatal supplements) made the list of most economical sources of EPA + DHA. This reflects the relatively high cost of algal oil as a source of DHA and the fact that these are specialty products for niche markets. I don't know about you, but I want to be able to take an omega-3fatty acid source daily and be able to afford my rent.
ALA can be found in the following fat-rich plant foods:
- Avocados (223 mg per avocado)
- Walnuts (2.5 g per ounce)
- Flax (12-13 g per 1 tbsp of seeds or oil)
- Chia seeds (5064mg per ounce – and yes, a seed, but when rinsed well and soaked in water overnight, less problematic than many other seeds)
- Kale (121 mg per cup)
- Collard greens (.18 g per cup)
- Hemp seeds (2466mg per ounce – hemp seeds contain no phytic acid, the mineral-binding antinutrient common to most nuts, seeds, grains, and legumes)
- Winter squash (332 mg per cup)
In addition, although you might not realize it because it gets shoved to the side due to all of the buzz out there about omega-3 benefits, there are also other omega fatty acids that are worth mentioning. For example, you may have heard of omega-3 and omega-6, but there are also omega 5, 7, and 9 fatty acids. Here are some of the lesser-known omega fatty acids, their benefits, the best sources of them, and reasons you should limit your intake of a few of them, particularly relative to your intake of omega-3s:
- Benefits: Enhances cognitive function, supports mitochondrial health.
- Sources: Olives, olive oil, nuts, chicken, eggs, avocado, flaxseed, flaxseed oil, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, acai berries.
- Reasons to limit: Too much omega-6 relative to your levels of omega-3 oils can result in high amounts of inflammatory LDL cholesterol, makes blood cells more susceptible to oxidative damage, and predicts a higher risk for colon cancer. (You'll learn plenty more below about ideal omega-6:3 ratios.)
- Benefits: Powerful antioxidant properties that can combat metabolic syndrome, reduce LDL cholesterol, control neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, and can inhibit the growth of certain cancers.
- Sources: Grass-fed dairy (full-fat), tropical oils like palm and coconut oil, saw palmetto, wild salmon, pomegranate seeds and oil, macadamia nuts.
- Reasons to limit: May disrupt liver enzyme function if consumed in excess, but if you are eating coconut oil, palm oil, or grass-fed butter as regular parts of your diet, you’re likely getting enough omega-5 oil and don’t need to worry about overconsuming it.
- Benefits: Omega-7 supplements have been shown to inhibit cellular oxidative stress and inflammation and may improve skin elasticity and wrinkles, and oral administration of omega-7 palmitoleic acid in male rats induced satiety and the release of appetite-related hormones.
- Sources: Grass-fed meat, grass-fed dairy (full-fat), wild-caught salmon, macadamia nuts, sea buckthorn berries.
- Reasons to limit: No known side effects.
- Benefits: Reduces metabolic dysfunction, improves HDL cholesterol and reduces LDL cholesterol, mitigates inflammation during experimental sepsis.
- Sources: Olives, olive oil, avocado, grass-fed meat, nuts, sesame oil.
- Reasons to limit: They aren’t inherently essential because the body can produce them on its own. If you consume moderate amounts of omega-9 sources, you likely don’t need to worry about over-consumption. By liberally including extra virgin olive oil in your diet, you'll likely be just fine as far as your omega-9 fatty acid intake is concerned.
The following chart from Dr. J Renae Norton provides a helpful breakdown of the fatty acids you just learned about and a summary of the food sources of different fats that should be included in just about anyone's diet.
By now, your head is probably about to explode with all of these different “omega numbers” and various types of fish, meats, oils, nuts, and seeds. But in my opinion, the most important thing for you to understand at this point is the superior importance of optimizing your omega-3 intake.
Why are these things so darn important?
Because of their foundational role in the body, EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acid levels have an impact on a sweeping array of biological factors, including but not limited to:
- Brain health
- Skin and hair health
- Cardiovascular health
While the potential benefits of omega-3s are wide-ranging, there are a few specific health factors for which they have been scientifically proven across a wide range of human research studies to be beneficial, including:
Athletic Recovery: If you struggle with sub-par exercise recovery, achy joints, or excess soreness from exercise, omega-3s can help. A recent randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study on healthy young men showed promising results from eight weeks of omega-3 supplementation (600mg EPA, 260mg DHA). According to the study, “DHA and EPA supplementation may play a protective role against motor nerve function and may attenuate damage after eccentric contractions.” Another study using a much higher dose (1.86g EPA, 1.5g DHA) showed omega-3s stimulated muscle protein synthesis in older adults. This means omega-3s may help build muscle, as well!
Heart Health: Omega-3s have also been shown to have promising effects on the cardiovascular system. Based on a meta-analysis of RCTs (randomized controlled trials), supplementation of 0.45-4.5 grams/day “significantly improves the endothelial function.” This means omega-3s help with the functioning of blood vessels in the heart. There’s actually quite a long history of epidemiological studies linking fish consumption with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), lower inflammation, and general metabolic health. People who eat fish once or twice a week have been shown to have 50% fewer strokes, 50% lower CVD risk, and 34% lower CVD mortality risk compared to those eating no fish. A few very large and notable human studies have recently turned many in the medical community onto the heart health benefits of omega-3s in a big way. For example, the Diet and Reinfarction Trial (DART) discovered that among patients with a history of a heart attack, increasing fatty fish consumption reduced all-cause mortality by 29% compared to a control group. The GISSI-Prevenzione (GISSI-P) trial tested EPA/DHA on over 11,000 patients who had recently had a heart attack, and those who received the PUFA supplement saw a significant reduction in non-fatal second heart attacks, stroke, and death. Another Italian randomized controlled trial in 7,000 patients with heart failure saw that EPA/DHA supplementation significantly reduced all-cause mortality and cardiovascular hospitalizations. The Diet and Omega-3 Intervention Trial (DOIT) took over 500 Norwegian men and gave them an omega-3 supplement of about 2 grams of EPA/DHA a day in a placebo-controlled trial. They saw a 47% reduction in all-cause mortality, suggesting DHA and EPA may be beneficial for lowering mortality in those with cardiovascular problems. The research continues to pour in regarding fish oil and cardiovascular health, and it's probably one of the more impressive areas in which omega-3 fatty acid intake can optimize your overall health.
Mood, Memory, and Cognition: The benefits of omega-3 fatty acids aren’t just physical—they have benefits on our mental state and brain health, as well. A systematic review and meta-analysis on healthy adults reported “episodic memory outcomes of adults with mild memory complaints significantly improved with DHA/EPA supplementation (1 gram/day).” In another RCT study, participants 21-29 years old were given 2085mg EPA and 348mg DHA per day. The researchers noted omega-3 supplementation improved markers of brain health and mood—even in healthy, young adults. A low omega-3 fatty acid count predicts smaller brain volume and cognitive decline, even in older adults who don’t possess any other symptoms of dementia. And finally, the higher the amount of omega-3 fatty acid in your red blood cells, the lower your risk for colon cancer (and the higher the omega-6, the higher your risk for colon cancer).
Immunity: Interestingly, and relevant to the times we are currently living in with concerns about immunity and inflammatory cytokine firestorms related to viral infections, animal models have also shown that omega-3s fatty acids can have powerful immunomodulatory effects. Omega-3s may help reduce a cytokine storm in the lungs by:
- Lowering omega-6:3 ratio in immune cells
- Inhibiting inflammatory NF-kB activation
- Improving survival in sepsis and acute respiratory distress syndrome
- Decreasing arachidonic acid-mediated inflammation
- Increasing neutrophil and monocyte phagocytic activity
Basically, reducing your intake of refined omega-6 seed oils and ensuring an optimal intake of omega-3s is a potent key for balancing inflammation in the body, which is at the heart of most health conditions including cytokine storms. This is also important because infections can even increase the need for omega-3s because they can drain levels of anti-inflammatory omega-3s while simultaneously increasing the inflammatory levels of omega-6 arachidonic acid (AA). Indeed, EPA/DHA can actually inhibit AA metabolism into inflammatory cytokines and interleukins!
Of course, if you're steeped in the health sector, you may be aware of the argument that “omega-3 fatty acids, including fish oil, oxidizes within the heat of the human body”. Sure, as you can see in page 22 of this European Food Safety Authority document on fish oil, some oxidation and free radical formation will certainly occur as fish oil oxidizes in human tissue (or fish tissue) or any other raw tissue. But guess what? Small amounts of free radicals serve as crucial signaling molecules used to fight inflammation in your body, and we are talking about completely natural production in your body produced in limited amounts due to natural lipoxygenase activity, which is far, far different than the rampant oxidation that occurs via the consumption of, say, a heated and processed vegetable oil. As a matter of fact, the guy that champions the “fish oil is bad for you because it is oxidized in the body” – Brian Peskin – often cites this scientific paper to back up his “fish oil is bad for you” argument. But read the freakin' paper! It clearly states that fish oil can be oxidized in tissue but that the beneficial effects of omega-3 fatty acids may be explained by a PPAR alpha-mediated anti-inflammatory effect of oxidized EPA. Folks like Brian simply confuse the difference between peroxidation, which is the oxidative degradation of lipids in which free radicals “steal” electrons from the lipids in cell membranes, resulting in cell damage and oxidation, a natural transfer of electrons that occurs all the time within normal human metabolism.
You can continue to read headlines of multiple additional studies regarding this, including “Inhibition of leukocyte-endothelial interactions by oxidized omega-3 fatty acids: a novel mechanism for the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil”, “Oxidized omega-3 fatty acids inhibit pro-inflammatory responses in glomerular endothelial cells“, “Oxidized omega-3 fatty acids inhibit NF-kappaB activation via a PPARalpha-dependent pathway” and “Inhibition of phagocyte-endothelium interactions by oxidized fatty acids: a natural anti-inflammatory mechanism?“. This means oxidized EPA and other omega-3 fatty acids can – inside your body – serve as a free radical signaling mechanism that shuts down inflammation, which is why human clinical trials demonstrate fish oil's efficacy for a variety of beneficial health effects related to fighting inflammation, particularly for the heart and the brain. But this doesn't mean you should consume rancid, oxidized fish oil. You instead need to consume pure, clean, unoxidized fish oil that then undergoes a natural oxidation process within your body!
Convinced yet that omega-3s are incredibly important to nearly every aspect of your health? Perhaps you were already aware of this, and you're already prioritizing omega-3s. You still need to pay attention to another very important consideration, because I've found that even for those health-conscious folks who are getting fish and fish oil in their diet, there is still a glaring issue related to continued intake of processed seed, nut, and vegetable-based oils rich in rancid and oxidized omega-6 fatty acids. So now you're about to learn the single most important key to reaping all of the benefits of omega fatty acids: your omega-6:3 ratio.
The Single Most Important Key To Optimizing Your Fatty Acid Intake
As I alluded to earlier, anthropological research suggests that hunter-gatherers consumed omega-6 and omega-3 fats in a ratio of about 1:1 and up to 4:1. However, after the industrial revolution, omega-6 fatty acid consumption steadily increased to the point where now the average American consumes a ratio of 10:1 or up to 50:1 in favor of omega-6 fatty acids. Today, that's the equivalent of almost 30-times more omega-6 fats than even the early 1900s. Shockingly, although our ancestors derived none of their omega-6 fatty acids from industrial seed and nut oils, 20% of all calories we Westerners consume now comes from a single food source: soybean oil. Soybean oil—along with (to a slightly lesser extent) canola oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, and even your precious “healthy” seed and nut butters—is extremely high in linoleic acid.
Why is this a problem?
It is not that omega-6 fats and linoleic acid are inherently harmful. We do need them in small amounts. They are, as you have already learned, essential, but what matters is how much are you getting and what form they take. See, linoleic acid can make red blood cells more susceptible to oxidative damage, which ages the cells and impairs their ability to deliver oxygen to tissues. The amount of linoleic acid in adipose tissue and platelets has been shown to be positively associated with coronary artery disease. It is also a predictor of earlier death and physical and cognitive decline. Additionally, a higher amount of linoleic acid in adipose tissue has also paralleled the rise in diabetes, obesity, allergies, and asthma; and excess linoleic acid (and a lack of EPA/DHA) could also create a pro-inflammatory and pro-thrombotic (blood clotting) state. Common sources of this pesky linoleic acid include safflower oil, pine nuts, sunflower oil, corn oil, soybean oil, brazil nuts, canola oil, and sesame oil.
As I will be outlining in the upcoming podcast, Q&A 421: Microdosing With LSD, Fish Oil & Omega-6 Fatty Acid Confusion Cleared, The Latest Coffee Research, Staying Fit In Your Car & Much More!, you can limit this type of rampant damage and lipid peroxidation from seed oils and excess omega-6 fatty acid intake with strategies such as high magnesium intake; spirulina and glycine supplementation; inclusion of beverages, herbs, and spices such as coffee, cacao, olive oil, avocado oil, red wine, tea, turmeric, and garlic; prioritizing low-heat cooking; and avoiding excess physical training and ionizing radiation exposure. Still, there is a glaring issue with health enthusiasts over-consuming staples such as seed and nut butters, handfuls of raw almonds, “Paleo granola,” smoothies, and other superfoods and bars laden with excessive seeds and nuts and even the average salad bar at the healthy grocery store. This means that even in healthy people, the omega-6:3 ratio tends to be way out of whack.
Finally, you should know that some folks in the scientific community have been pushing back against this vilification of linoleic acid by claiming that it's a necessary component of cell membranes, particularly cardiolipin (CL), which is a component of the mitochondria that is found almost exclusively in the inner mitochondrial membrane where it is essential for the optimal function of numerous enzymes that are involved in mitochondrial energy metabolism. Cardiolipin is uniquely susceptible to oxidation because it can be composed of easily-oxidized linoleic acid, but while one often reads that cardiolipin is composed of four linoleic acid molecules, this isn't entirely correct. In fact, CL molecules are rich in unsaturated fatty acids, particularly linoleic acid in the heart and liver but also DHA and AA acids in brain tissue and mitochondria; and the fatty-acid composition of CL is directly dependent on dietary intake of fatty acids. This means that it is indeed true that your CL contains linoleic acid, but if your diet is high in processed seed oils, the CL is far more susceptible to oxidative damage compared to the CL of someone consuming more DHA and less-processed oils such as coconut oil and extra virgin olive oil. You can take a deep dive into the science of this topic in this excellent article by Tucker Goodrich.
There is also another important caveat when it comes to omega-6s. The omega-6 fatty acid in plants and vegetable oils is linoleic acid, but the omega-6 fatty acid that you ultimately use in your body, and that you get from animal foods, is arachidonic acid. The omega-3 fatty acid that is found in plants and vegetable oils is alpha-linolenic acid, but the omega-3 fatty acids that you wind up using in your body and that you get from animal foods are EPA and DHA. In a nutshell (ha!), this means that across the spectrum, reliance upon omega-3 fatty acids from plant-based sources sets you up for less EPA and DHA availability and more inflammation.
Now here’s one thing that a lot of folks don’t realize: Despite all the talk about the ideal omega-6:3 ratio, most of the data on this ratio is based on animal experiments in which the animals were fed only these fats I discussed above that are found in plants and vegetable oils, specifically linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid. The enzymes that convert linoleic acid into arachidonic acid are the same enzymes that convert alpha-linolenic acid into EPA and DHA, so too much intake of one fat may use up more of the enzymes and hurt the conversion of the other, resulting in an even greater omega-6:3 imbalance! But it’s important to understand that unless you’re a vegan who is only getting fats from plants, this doesn’t matter, because the arachidonic acid, EPA, and DHA found in animal foods, particularly foods such as eggs, liver, and fish (and, even if you are a vegan, algae) don’t need to compete for the enzymes—they’re already usable and don’t need to be converted. So, ultimately, you need to pay even more careful attention to omega-6:3 ratios if you are eating a plant-based diet!
So with this all being said, what’s the ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids?
You're already aware of how much trouble we're in when it comes to excess omega-6 intake, as the average American’s diet provides an omega-6:3 ratio of 12:1, and sometimes even as high as 25:1. The ideal dietary ratio is well-established at 4:1 to 1:1. As you can see, you'd be providing a huge service to your overall health by incorporating more omega-3s into your diet and less omega-6s. In addition, according to research, the optimal dietary fat ratio of monounsaturated (MUFA) to polyunsaturated (PUFA, but not those from processed oils!) to saturated fats (SFA), should be 6:1:1. Again, within that framework, the ideal PUFA ratio is 4:1 to 1:1 between omega-6 and omega-3s.
In addition to achieving an ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3, it’s also important to ensure that minimum amounts of omega-6 (remember, it’s still essential) and omega-3 are consumed. The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics/Dietitians of Canada advises that 3-10% of your total calories come from linoleic acid, while the Institute of Medicine recommends a minimum daily intake of 17 g and 12 g for adult males and females respectively. Regarding ALA, the Institute of Medicine encourages a daily intake of 1.6 g and 1.1 g per day for adult males and females, respectively. No general consensus has been reached on the amount of DHA/EPA to aim for per day, although most health organizations suggest a minimal intake of 500 mg.
How to Optimize Your Omega-6:3 Ratio
So now that you know your ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 should be 4:1 to 1:1, is there a way that you can actually know if you're getting close to that amount?
Honestly, the simplest thing that you can do is simply track your nutritional intake for a week to a month as you follow your typical diet, then see how the values match up. My favorite tool for this type of intake analysis is Cronometer. It's that simple! Once you see your total intake, you can analyze particularly if you are getting at least 500mg of DHA/EPA per day, with no more than 10% (and preferably closer to 3% of your total calorie intake coming from linoleic acid).
You may also want to consider an omega index test, which allows you to actually test your blood levels of omegas. You can order this test yourself from a company like WellnessFX, then simply have your blood drawn at a local lab—or, even easier, OmegaQuant, which you can get on Amazon, test yourself at home with a simple finger prick, and have results in as little as a week. An omega index test examines the EPA and DHA in your red blood cell membranes, then calculates an index.
For example, if you have 64 fatty acids in a cell membrane, and 3 are EPA or DHA, then you would have an omega-3 index of 4.6%, which is 3 divided by 64. An index of 8% or higher is ideal. Most people these days have an index around 6% or below, and in the US, most people are at 4% or below—the highest risk zone. This translates to a 90% higher risk of sudden cardiac death, and as you already know, this is directly because of excess omega-6 fatty acid intake from rancid and oxidized industrial seed, nut, and vegetable-based oils.
Your stearic acid:oleic acid ratio, also known as your saturation index, is another important marker you can check. Stearic acid is a saturated fat and oleic acid is a monounsaturated fat. A lower saturation index (less stearic acid and more oleic acid) is linked to a reduced risk of several aging-related diseases, including nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, prostate cancer, colon cancer, and gallbladder cancer. The normal index for both adults and children is 0.97 to 1.02. These types of slightly more advanced lipid panels can be ordered through your doctor or via an independent lab like DirectLabs.
So, if you find out that you have an imbalanced ratio, how do you go about correcting it?
There are three ways to optimize imbalanced fatty acid ratios. The first, as mentioned above, is to eat whole-food sources of omega-3s, including the DHA and EPA sources mentioned earlier in this article (grass-fed beef, shellfish, and cold-water fish like salmon, herring, tuna, mackerel, etc). Eating these, along with a variety of plant sources of fatty acids in more limited amounts, such as flaxseeds, walnuts, pistachios, dark leafy greens, olives, and avocados will provide you not only with a decent dose of DHA and EPA, but also ALA and a host of the other micronutrients, phytochemicals, minerals, and antioxidants necessary for optimized cognitive and physical performance. In addition, eating this way will give your body many of the natural precursors it needs to produce some of its own EPA and DHA.
Next, and no surprises here, you can significantly limit your intake of linoleic acid (LA). As you learned earlier, some of the most concentrated sources of LA are found in plant-based oils like safflower, sunflower, grapeseed, and corn, along with a high intake of seeds and nuts, especially sunflower seeds, pine nuts, pecans and Brazil nuts.
The final way to correct an imbalanced omega-6:omega-3 ratio is simple…
…supplement with fish oil.
Now, you may be wondering, “Why do I need to take fish oil if I can get DHA, EPA, and ALA with regular food?” You’re about to find out.
The Problem With Fish (& Why A Good Fish Oil Beats Most Farmed & Wild-Caught Fish)
Hands down, cold-water fish are the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids. No other source—including red meat and organ meats like liver—even comes close to delivering the amount of omega-3s that cold-water fish provide. But, there's one problem…
…the majority of the cold-water fish you'll find at grocery stores (yes, even your local, organic specialty store) are grown and harvested on fish farms that care little about raising fish to maximize nutrient density.
First of all, farmed fish are most often fed corn, soy, and other vegetable oils (which, as you've learned, contain rancid and oxidized omega-6s), thereby shooting up their own omega-6 content. Then, there are the host of issues that overcrowding present. Aside from disease and parasite-ridden fish winding up on your dinner plate, these sick fish have also been known to escape and infect wild fish populations. According to a National Geographic News report, sea lice from fish farms are even threatening to wipe out wild salmon populations. Oh, and how do you think fish farms deal with the problem of sea lice? You got it, pesticides. As you can see, there are a multitude of problems with farmed fish I could fill an entirely separate article with.
But about wild-caught fish?
Many DHA- and EPA-rich fish you'll find in lakes, streams, and seas also have their own special issue—namely, concerningly high levels of mercury. One study conducted from 1998 to 2005 found that 27 percent of fish found in 291 streams around the United States contained mercury in concentrations above the acceptable consumable limit. Another study from 2011 on fish commonly caught off the coast of New Jersey found high or very high levels of mercury in several of the fish covered.
Most of the fish analyzed in these studies were top predators such as trout, bass, catfish, and sharks—which usually contain the highest levels of mercury because they eat a lot of small fish that all contain some amount of mercury. So one obvious method for avoiding high mercury levels is to stick to small, bottom-of-the-food-chain fish such as anchovies and sardines, but this can still present problems. Here's why: Mercury in the bigger fish is acquired through a process called bioaccumulation. Over time, if a human eats enough small fish, the same mercury bioaccumulation can occur, resulting in dangerous concentrations of either circulating mercury or mercury stored in body fat, which, when burned, will be released back into your bloodstream where it can then accumulate in vital organs.
So your best bet, aside from ensuring you don't touch a fish oil capsule with a ten-foot pole unless you know the fish are from only pristine, clear, and toxin-free waters, is to stick to wild-caught fish that are tested for mercury. Let's face it though, fish are expensive the way it is, and the added costs of catching them in the wild and testing them for mercury make them a not-so-feasible option for the average person to get their DHA and EPA. Heck, I've personally seen high-quality salmon fillets range all the way up to $30 per pound, and that can add up over time, not to mention the fact that if you're not living in a coastal region, you'll pay even more for shipping, be forced to add in environmental and carbon costs, and have to hassle with a host of other issues related to poor access to high-quality fish on a regular basis!
Finally, when it comes to toxic fish (from which most fish oil is derived), there are major contaminant concerns you need to be aware of, whether you're eating wild or farmed fish, because—besides what the fish ate and how that fish was raised—the actual water from which that fish is harvested is incredibly important. One particularly relevant quote I recently read by Peter Montague, from his book Headline: Paydirt from the Human Genome:
“What will it mean to raise our babies on water contaminated with low levels of birth control drugs and athlete's foot remedies plus Viagra, Prozac, Valium, Claritin, Amoxicillin, Prevachol, Codeine, Flonase, Ibuprofen, Dilantin, Cozaar, Pepcid, Albuterol, Naproxen, Warfarin, Ranitidine, Diazepam, Bactroban, Lotrel, Lorazepam, Tamoxifen, Mevacor, and dozens of other potent drugs, along with hair removers, mosquito repellants, sunburn creams, musks and other fragrances? No one knows, but evidently we're going to find out, learning by doing.”
What the heck does that quote have to do with fish?
Well, as Peter goes on to explain here:
“In June of this year, Daughton and others organized a scientific conference in Minnesota. There, Glen R. Boyd, a civil engineer from Tulane University in New Orleans reported finding drugs in the Mississippi River, in Louisiana's Lake Ponchetrain, and in Tulane's tap water. In all the waters tested, Boyd and his team found low levels of the anti-cholesterol drug clofibric acid along with the pain killer naproxen and the hormone estrone. In Tulane's tap water, estrone averaged 35 parts per trillion with a high of 80 parts per trillion.
Naturally, the water-dwelling creatures will bear the brunt of all this because they cannot escape civilized peoples' habit of urinating and defecating in all the available fresh water. At the Minnesota meeting in June a team of scientists reporting finding male carp and walleyes producing “sky high” quantities of vitellogenin, an egg-yolk protein normally made only by females. In 1998, Environment Canada, Canada's federal environmental agency, reported high levels of estrogens and birth control compounds in the effluent of sewage treatment plants nationwide. Chris D. Metcalfe of Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario created laboratory conditions similar to those found by Environment Canada and he reported in June that those conditions cause some fish to become intersex — having the characteristics of both males and females. Metcalfe has found intersex white perch in the Great Lakes.”
Yep, you read that correctly. It basically means that if you're aren't sourcing your water, your fish, or your fish oil properly, you're consuming every day your neighbor's birth control pills, your sister's statins, and all the traces of your local hospital's Valium prescription supplies.
As outlined in disturbing detail in the book The Lost Language of Plants, scientists have discovered anywhere from thirty to sixty pharmaceuticals in water samples extracted from numerous countries, including tap, surface, and groundwater. These and other chemicals, including herbicides and pesticides, easily bioaccumulate in the tissues of marine life, and even more disturbingly, since many pharmaceuticals are designed to be lipophilic (fat-soluble), this means that the fats and oils from fish are where many of these chemicals end up.
I don't know about you, but the prospect of popping Prozac every time I take fish oil isn't a very pleasant idea for me.
Which Fish Oil I Use And Why
For all of the reasons you've just read—including the extreme necessity of a diet rich in animal-derived omega-3s and the problem with getting all those omega-3s from fish alone, (plus the additional benefits of fish oil you're about to discover)—fish oil has been a staple in my supplement arsenal for years.
A fish oil supplement high in DHA and EPA, low in metals and toxins, and not prone to rancidity or oxidation, is paramount to achieving optimal cognitive and physical function—helping you with everything from remembering where you put your car keys to recovering from yesterday’s HIIT session to cranking through that pile of emails in your inbox.
You don't have to take it from me though. As I've already mentioned earlier, there are plenty of scientific studies displaying a wide array of proven human benefits from consuming high-quality fish oil, including:
- Athletic Recovery – Eight weeks of DHA and EPA supplementation was shown to protect motor neuron function and reduce damage after eccentric muscular contractions.
- Muscle Protein Synthesis – Omega-3 fatty acids were shown to stimulate muscle protein synthesis in older adults.
- Heart Health – Supplementation with 1g of tuna oil per day has lowered plasma triglyceride levels in premenopausal women.
- Endothelial Function – Omega-3 fatty acids can significantly improve endothelial function without affecting endothelium-independent dilation.
- Mood – Omega-3s can have a beneficial effect on mood.
- Memory – DHA and EPA supplementation was shown to improve episodic memory.
- Mitochondrial Health – Omega-6 fatty acids support mitochondrial health via the phospholipid cardiolipin.
- Cognitive Function – Higher DHA levels have been correlated with improved verbal fluency in older people and better performance in middle-aged adults.
It’s important to note, however, that not all fish oils are created equal. Notice I wrote high-quality fish oil above? This is because most fish oils on the market aren’t potent enough to have a noticeable effect due to low levels of total omega-3s. (Omega-3s have a dose-dependent effect, meaning that the benefits associated with these fatty acids depend on the amount consumed.) Most human clinical trials show benefits from at least 1g/day of omega-3s. As for specific EPA/DHA ratios, different ratios will all come with unique benefits. In fact, different kinds of fish have varying levels of EPA and DHA, so there is no “one-size-fits-all” ratio. For general health and wellness, athletic recovery, and brain health, you’ll want a fish oil with at least 500mg of EPA, and 400mg of DHA.
Then, there are fish oils that contain EPA and DHA in their ethyl ester forms, instead of the more bioavailable triglyceride form. (Research suggests that EPA and DHA in triglyceride form is 70% more bioavailable than ethyl ester counterparts.) See, fatty acids in fish oil actually start in triglyceride form, then ethanol is added to the oil to separate the glycerol backbone and provide a cap to stabilize the molecule, creating ethyl ester fatty acids. Unwanted fatty acids are then removed and replaced with DHA and EPA. While most fish oil supplements stop here to save money, in order to effectively create triglyceride fish oil, the distilled ethyl alcohols must be re-esterified to remove the ethanol backbone and reestablish a glycerol backbone. That's a hassle and a time-consuming process most fish oil manufacturers simply don't do.
Other fish oils are not sustainably sourced, or are sourced from fish containing higher levels of mercury. Small cold-water fish, such as anchovies, that are naturally low in toxins such as mercury, high in omega-3 fatty acids, and sustainably-sourced are best. One way to ensure your fish oil is sustainably sourced is by checking to see if the manufacturer has an RS (Responsible Supply) certification and ensuring their fish are harvested using responsible practices in compliance with the Global Standard for Responsible Supply and National Fisheries Health Service.
Finally, many fish oil manufacturers use unnatural preservatives such as tocopherols when there are natural alternatives (such as astaxanthin and rosemary oil) that are just as effective at preserving shelf-life, while at the same time offering additional health benefits. Even if natural preservatives are used instead of artificial options, these won't really protect your fish oil if it is allowed to be exposed to light and heat during the manufacturing or shipping processes, or if the fish oil sits on the grocery store shelf or in the warehouse for a long period of time, which is an all-too-common practice. I'm frankly shocked when I wander into the supplements section of a grocery or health foods store and find fish oil on a top shelf of the store at 70+ degrees, and even more shocked when I see the fish oil packaged in totally clear bottles that render it even more susceptible to damage from heat and light.
So, when shopping for a high-quality fish oil, you need to ensure that your supplement…
- It is a triglyceride form that contains at least 1g of omega-3s per serving…
- Contains at least 500mg of EPA, and 400mg of DHA…
- Is sourced from small, cold-water fish that live in pristine waters…
- Comes with an RS certification, signifying it is sustainably sourced…
- Is kept fresh by using natural antioxidants as preservatives…
- Is packaged, shipped and stored using methods that protect it from rancidity and oxidation…
OK, so now you're probably wondering, based on everything you've learned, how I optimize my own omega-3 fatty acid intake and exactly which fish oil I personally consume on a daily basis.
First, I follow all the recommendations I've given you: I avoid vegetable oils like the plague; I am very careful with my intake of so-called “healthy” seeds, nuts, nut butters, granolas, etc.; I avoid excessive inflammation from environmental factors such as ionizing radiating, overtraining, pollutants, etc.; I eat a widely varied diet that works in the omega-3, 6, 5, 7, and 9 fatty acids that you've read about in this article—all from sources as close to nature as possible…
…and I take fish oil. Lots of it.
However, like I'm sure you have, I've run into problematic issues over and over again with fish oils, including contamination, rancidity, high mercury levels, unsustainable sources, low EPA and DHA content, poorly absorbable ethyl ester form, synthetic preservatives, and a huge markup on cost and expense.
So I finally buckled down and decided to develop the ultimate fish oil: exactly what I have always looked for and asked of in a fish oil, but been unable to find at a reasonable price.
First, I went to the best of the best sourcing for the actual fish: small cold-water anchovies sustainably sourced from pristine ocean waters off the coasts of Peru. The fish are harvested using responsible practices in compliance with the Global Standard for Responsible Supply and National Fisheries Health Service. The fishery I sourced this fish oil from has also received RS (Responsible Supply) certification and has been assessed by Friends of the Sea. These anchovies have a near-perfect balance of EPA and DHA. Each serving contains 1000mg (1 gram) of highly concentrated Omega-3s as 530mg EPA, 435mg DHA, 35mg of other Omega-3s, meaning one single serving gets you your recommended daily intake of omega-3 fatty acids!
Next, I refused to allow the fish oil to be stabilized with any synthetic compounds so commonly used in fish oil. Instead, the fish oil is naturally preserved with powerful antioxidants from astaxanthin and rosemary, each of which has their own benefits for skin, athletic endurance, and cognitive function, but also for ensuring that when you consume the fish oil, it is in the same unadulterated form you'd find it in if you were to simply eat a nice cut of dark red fatty salmon. As a matter of fact, the rich, red color of the fish oil I've developed comes from the astaxanthin, the exact carotenoid that gives fatty fish its pinkish-red color. For the carrier oil of the rosemary extract, I used an organic, non-GMO sunflower oil extracted using low pressure without heat and natural carbon dioxide. The whole, natural sunflower oil extract only makes up 0.004% of the total formula, thus lending no issues with omega-6 fatty acids to the fish oil itself (as a matter of fact, the omega-3:omega-6 ratio in a single dose of fish oil capsule I'll tell you more about shortly is 20,760:1!)
I then chose to do what most fish oil manufacturers don't do as you learned above: convert the poorly absorbed ethyl ester form of the fish oil back into its natural triglyceride form. As you now know from having read this article, omega-3s are naturally found in fish in their triglyceride form, which is more bioavailable to the human body. In fact, research shows that fish oil in triglyceride form is absorbed 70% more than ethyl esters. I now insist my fish oil is always in triglyceride form, providing optimal absorption and potency.
In addition, the new fish oil I've developed is:
- GOED Compliant…
- Artificial Preservatives-Free…
- GMP Certified Manufactured…
- Fully tested to ensure it is free from heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, mercury, and cadmium.
Earlier this month, after a year of development behind the scenes at our secret batman labs at Kion, I finally got my hands on the first complete formula, and, especially compared to any fish oil I've experimented with in the past, the results are absolutely astounding, even at remarkably low doses relative to other fish oils on the market. Short term, you can count on experiencing:
- Stable mood…
- Reduced joint discomfort…
- Enhanced cognitive function…
- Improvements to athletic recovery…
- Improved appearance of skin and hair quality…
Long term, you'll be getting the same peace of mind that I now have, primarily knowing that you will have:
- Significant improvements in markers of cardiovascular health…
- A noted ability to maintain normal levels of attention and focus…
I've decided to call this bad boy…
It is so, so simple to benefit from this stuff.
You simply store your Kion Omega in a cool place like your pantry or cupboard (it can also be stored in the fridge or freezer for extended preservation). You then take one to two capsules per day, preferably with food to enhance absorption. Amazingly, I've even been popping these Kion Omega like candy and chewing them in my mouth, and I actually dig the unique flavor combination of the gelatin capsules with the anchovy fish oil, astaxanthin, and rosemary leaf extract (but I'm also a bit weird like that). It has absolutely none of that unpleasant fishy aftertaste common among other supplements (no “fish burps” here) as well as artificial preservatives, soy, and GMOs.
Pretty exciting, eh? The new Kion Omega is going to be flying off the shelves, but momentarily I'm going to give you a 20% discount code you can use to get yours fast, and I'll of course be taking any of your questions in the comments section below. But first, let's review.
Getting adequate DHA and EPA in optimal ratios has been proven to promote cardiovascular health, sharpen cognition, speed up muscular recovery, and more. There's no doubt that, for all of these omega-3 benefits, nothing comes close to cold-water fish…
…but you shouldn’t have to spend $30 on a single serving of fish (or subject your body to high levels of mercury) to support your heart, brain, and muscles.
Because of how difficult it can be to find a high-quality fish oil, I decided to strike out with my team at Kion to create our very own that satisfies each and every criterion we wanted in a fish oil.
The result is Kion Omega, a premium fish oil supplement that offers 1,000mg of EPA and DHA (530mg of EPA and 435mg of DHA). The fatty acids are also in triglyceride form rather than ethyl ester form, which boosts absorption even more.
Made from sustainably-sourced cold-water anchovies to minimize mercury content, Kion Omega is naturally preserved with the antioxidants astaxanthin and rosemary leaf extract (which have their own benefits for skin, athletic endurance, and cognitive function).
Kion Omega is also GOED (Global Organization of EPA and DHA Omega-3s)-compliant and processed in a GMP-certified facility. (Basically, this means that we have demonstrated a strong regulatory commitment and compliance to international good manufacturing practices.)
You basically just pop two Kion Omega softgels per day—again, preferably with food—for over 200% of your daily omega-3 recommendation. Because I actually feel amazing with higher dose fish oil based on my own personal experimentation, I personally take about 8g of fish oil (yes, a whopping 4 servings of Kion Omega) on days that I don’t eat fish, ideally with breakfast, since a fat-based supplement should be taken with a meal to maximize absorption. Of course, this is nowhere near old-school fitness icon Charles Polloquin's fish oil megadose recommendations for up to 40g/day, but it certainly packs a wallop in the cognition and recovery department, bigtime.
And that's it! I can't be any more excited to finally reveal this product to the world after months and months of behind-the-scenes formulating, development, and testing.
So…are you ready to try it?
If you have questions about this brand new formula, or anything else regarding all things fatty acids, leave your thoughts below and I’ll respond. I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve created at Kion and feel amazingly blessed to be able to share this brand new formula with you. Enjoy!