The nutritional supplement market is a multi-billion dollar industry, but most consumers don’t realize that supplement manufacturers have NO responsibility to sell you products that are actually effective. That’s why it can be so confusing to sift through the marketing mumbo-jumbo and get to the evidence.
Fatty acid supplements are one such example. Many people are concerned about their omega-3 intake (as they should be) and with the multitude of benefits associated with high dietary intakes of omega-3s, particularly those from fish, it is not surprising that many people elect to take omega-3 or fish oil supplements.
While the jury is still out on the benefit derived from taking omega-3 supplements, what about the other omega fatty acids on the market, such as omega-3-6-9 supplements? Are they worth the added coin or simply a marketing ploy?
Omega 3s, 6s and “9s” are fatty acids that have at least one double bond in their carbon chain – this keeps them liquid at room temperature. But that is where the similarities end! From food sources to how they affect your health to whether or not they are even required in the diet, there are many important differences between omega 3s, 6s and 9s.
The biggest difference? Omega-9s such as oleic acid are not polyunsaturated as omega-3s and 6s are, and they are not considered ESSENTIAL, which means that your body can produce them and they do not have to be a part of your diet. Pretty big difference! And there’s more…
Omega-3 fatty acids can be categorized into two groups:
- those from plants like walnuts and flaxseed, namely alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
- those from cold-water fatty fish: DHA and EPA*
Our bodies cannot produce omega-3s*, so they must be present in the food we eat to avoid deficiency. While overt deficiency is rare and omega-3s are actually quite abundant in plant-based diets rich in unprocessed, whole foods (a.k.a. not the norm!), up to 90% of people do not consume enough omega-3s (1).
The ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s in the North American diet has increased dramatically with most people consuming a minimum of 10:1 ratio to upwards of 25:1 … which is much, much higher than the expert-recommended 5:1! This altered ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s is characteristic of the unhealthy “Western diet” and has even been implicated in the obesity epidemic (3).
Higher intakes of omega-3s, particularly those from fish, have been associated with numerous benefits. While the positive link between dietary omega-3s and heart health gets the most press, omega-3s have also been linked to reduced risk of cognitive decline and dementia, better arthritis outcomes, improved mental health, and reduced risk of some cancers (1-7).
The long-chain omega-3s DHA and EPA are also crucial for prenatal eye and brain development, so adequate intakes during pregnancy are essential (pun intended!) and have been linked to improved vision scores and cognitive abilities in children (8).
While also required, linoleic acid (LA) found in vegetable oils is not hard to come by in our diet. In fact, our intake of omega-6 linoleic acid has increased 1000-fold since the turn of the 20th century (2)! Are we really eating that much vegetable oil? Check the label of most processed foods items; vegetable oils rich in omega-6s – soybean, sunflower, safflower – frequently appear because they are stable and CHEAP (soybean oil is EVERYWHERE). We also get non-essential omega-6s from meat, particularly chicken and chicken skin (3).
What’s so bad about eating omega-6s if your body needs them? Well, it’s all a matter of how much and also where you get them. Avoiding omega-6 deficiency is still important (people with ultra low-fat diets could be at risk), but too many omega-6s in your diet, particularly from processed foods, can trigger inflammation and and possibly an increased risk of some cancers (1-3).
Getting omega-6s from sunflower seeds and pecans is quite different than sunflower oil-fried potato chips though!
Omega-9s are not only abundant in the diet, they are considered NON-ESSENTIAL because your body can make them from other fatty acids. As such, there is little to no research on omega-9 supplements in humans because they are totally unnecessary!
While diets rich in omega-9 oleic acid from vegetable sources like olive oil, nuts and seeds have been linked to reduced bad cholesterol and improved heart health (9), this is not where most of us get oleic acid from! The top sources of oleic acid in the North American diet include:
- grain-based desserts (i.e., pies, cookies, brownies, etc.)
- chicken and mixed chicken dishes
- sausage, bacon and hot dogs (!)
- nuts and seeds
…not exactly the healthiest sources!
No Baloney’s advice? As with anything, food is the way to go. Each of these types of fat are important and play a role in good health BUT taking an omega-3-6-9 supplement is, at best, a waste of money, and, at worst, contributing to an already high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio.
Focus on boosting your intake of omega-3 fatty acids, preferably with food first.
- aim for at least two servings of fish per week (ideally, cold-water fatty fish)
- add flaxseed, chia and walnuts to cereal and salads
- choose heart healthy vegetable oils most often
- look for pasture-fed meats when available
Omega-6s are overly abundant in the diet and may be doing more harm than good, so we suggest switching away from soybean, sunflower and safflower oils in favour of canola or olive oil and limiting processed food as much as possible.
The omega-6 gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) is often found in supplements containing borage oil and evening primrose, and is not pro-inflammatory like other omega-6s. Marketed as beneficial for a myriad of conditions ranging from eczema to multiple sclerosis, evidence regarding the effectiveness of GLA supplementation is preliminary at best.
As for omega-9s, your body can make as much as is needed, so taking them in supplement form is a waste of money. Rich sources of oleic acid (“omega-9″) include olive oil, nuts and seeds, which are great sources of lots of beneficial compounds, so as always, eat real food!
As with all supplements, omega 3s, 6s and 9s can have interactions with medications, so check with your health care provider before starting any new supplement regimen!
*DHA = docosahexaenoic acid, EPA = eicosapentaenoic acid. Although DHA and EPA can be made in our body from ALA, the amounts are generally too small to meet our needs; therefore, DHA and EPA are not strictly essential but rather considered to be conditionally essential.
- Deckelbaum RJ, Torrejon C. The omega-3 fatty acid nutritional landscape: health benefits and sources. J Nutr 2012; 142:587S-591S.
- Blasbalg TL, et al. Changes in consumption of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in the United States during the 20th century. Am J Clin Nutr 2011; 93:950-62.
- de Lorgeril M, Salen P. New insights into the health effects of dietary saturated and omega-6 and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. BMC Med 2012; 10:50.
- Chowdhury R, et al. Association between fish consumption, long chain omega 3 fatty acids, and risk of cerebrovascular disease: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ 2012; 345:e6698.
- Kotwal S, et al. Omega 3 Fatty acids and cardiovascular outcomes: systematic review and meta-analysis. Circ Cardiovasc Qual Outcomes 2012; 5:808-18.
- Loef M, Walach H. The omega-6/omega-3 ratio and dementia or cognitive decline: a systematic review on human studies and biological evidence. J Nutr Gerontol Geriatr 2013; 32:1-23.
- Apte SA, et al. A low dietary ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 Fatty acids may delay progression of prostate cancer. Nutr Cancer 2013; 65:556-62.
- Imhoff-Kunsch B, et al. Effect of n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid intake during pregnancy on maternal, infant, and child health outcomes: a systematic review. Paediatr Perinat Epidemiol 2012; 26 Suppl 1:91-107.
- Miura K, et al. Relationship of dietary monounsaturated fatty acids to blood pressure: the international study of macro/micronutrients and blood pressure. J Hypertens 2013; 31:1144-50.