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How do we know the omega 3/6 profile is really important?

by (20787)
Updated about 9 hours ago
Created September 19, 2010 at 12:06 PM

We talk a lot about keeping a good ratio of omega 3 to 6. I have seen the epidemiological study that shows that people in countries with a better ratio are healthier. But I have not seen much other evidence. My concern is epidemiological studies cannot show causation. What could be happening is that low grain and grain oil intake is what is giving them better ratios and it is also the lack of grains that are the primary cause for health. The omega profile might be correlated but not be the actual cause.

Also, for any group with low fat intake, addition of some fats might have major health benefits. Or the benefits could be in simply keeping the omega 6s within reason and may have less to do with the exact ration of 3 to 6. Another concern is that both omega 3 and omega 6 are PUFAs and therefore unstable and easily going rancid. Maybe high intake of any PUFAs is just not that good for you in general, especially if the food is not fresh like it is in many fish eating coastal regions that have the higher omega 3 consumption.

I have heard some people worry that omega 3 is on its way to becoming like the next 'fiber' or 'whole grain' trend in that the overall theory sounds good but really has minimal research behind it and may well turn out to be in error over the long haul. There are many such theories that sound logical at first but later are found to be in error due to factors that were not yet known at the time. Meanwhile, companies make money marketing another pill. I have heard that some people felt ill after consuming a lot of fish oil pills and that also got me to thinking. How much strong evidence do we really have that fish oil and omega 3 is really so good for you that you should be eating a lot of them?

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8858 · July 31, 2011 at 5:20 PM

I'm upvoting. Where would we be without contrarian ideas here?

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1033 · April 13, 2011 at 5:24 PM

I go with the evolutionary reasoning idea. We did not evolve separating oils from vegetables and then ingesting massive quantities. This is a new/modern problem that points to an unbalanced ratio when looking at the evolutionary history of mankind.

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1033 · April 13, 2011 at 5:13 PM

I wonder how long would it take for decades of overconsumption of omega 6 oils to be removed from the cells of your body? Ever? Just a rhetorical question.

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0 · December 19, 2010 at 9:20 PM

One needs to educate themselves on this subject...beause there is lot of misinfomation out there and is misleadinig... read the following report paper by Brian Peskin.. http://brianpeskin.com/BP.com/publications/Dec.2010-Explore19-6.pdf

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717 · September 20, 2010 at 3:24 PM

Thanks Eva. It may very well turn out to be wrong, but I think Willett's opinion is worth looking at.

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20787 · September 20, 2010 at 2:58 PM

NastyBrute, I agree with the 'far from resolved' part. I didnt' downvote, but I would assume it was done because people felt the post was saying that more omega 6 is better, something they probably felt is wrong. FAQ suggests that wrong info should/could be downvoted.

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717 · September 20, 2010 at 1:14 PM

? Why was my comment downvoted? Willett's opinions aren't welcome here?

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717 · September 20, 2010 at 7:12 AM

I don't disagree. But just because Western civilization has high rates of obesity/cancer/heart disease and we also have an omega-6/omega-3 ratio of 15:1 doesn't mean that we have all of these diseases *because* our omega-6/omega-3 ratio is so high.

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20787 · September 20, 2010 at 3:19 AM

Good point, it could also be related to a 3 deficiency. If too much 6 is also bad, then that could make it look like ratio is important, when really it could just be that you need to get an adequate supply of each but don't overdose on either. Similar to like how vit A is good for you in the right dose, but too much can be very bad for you.

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20787 · September 20, 2010 at 2:25 AM

Just cuz something happened around the time something else happened does not mean one causes the other. And reducing LDL by a little bit will only make you happy if you think LDL actually causes heart probs. Might also want to consider that people with low cholesterol have way more cancer, so LDL might not be so bad after all! Also, yes omega 6s are good for you, but only in moderation. The dose makes the poison and SAD eaters are overdosing big time.

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15976 · September 19, 2010 at 11:01 PM

I have to agree that just thinking about the issue in a very basic way, and thinking evolutionarily, that the most important thing would be to simply lower our modernday intake of omega 6s. plain and simple. Avoid seeds themselves, nuts themselves, their respective oils, and vegetable oils and youre a good way there. Low quality beef etc are going to be an issue, yes, but if you get all those veg oils out completely you're doing well id say. Eat some fish once or twice a week and i think you're rocking proper.

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24523 · September 19, 2010 at 8:20 PM

While Walter Willett is a very smart, very important dude, this is misleading. The Harvard School of Public Health guys and some other folks wrote an illogical position paper for the American Heart Association, saying that omega 6's weren't so bad to recommend, based on scanty evidence. In fact, check out this guy's page, where he says "All PUFAs are good, the ratio doesn't matter"! Uh yeah, they matter because they compete for the same enzymes.... http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/questions/omega-3/index.html

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717 · September 20, 2010 at 3:16 PM

I found this study interesting:

http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/reprint/66/1/89.pdf

"The present study challenges the generally accepted view that it is the ratio of dietary n-3 to n-6 PUFAs and not the absolute amount of n- 3 PUFAs that determines the efficacy of dietary n-3 PUFAs in exerting their potential beneficial effects (3, 9, 10, 13). Results from study 1 that show no effects of the ratio of n- 3 to n -6 PUFAs and those from study 2 that show an n- 3 PUFA dose-related effect indicate that it is the amount of dietary n- 3 PUFAs (in amounts used in these studies) rather than the ratio of n- 3 to n-6 PUFAs that determines the effectiveness of n-3 PUFAs in altering risk factors for cardiovascular disease. A corollary of this finding is that vegetable oil in the diet may not attenuate the efficacy of fish oil in favorably modifying some risk factors for CVD. This information is critical in assessing desirable amounts of different types of PUFAs for future dietary guidelines aimed at reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases and in the dietary management of patients with CVD."

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24523 · September 19, 2010 at 2:37 PM

The evidence for cardiovascular risk factors and depression is intriguing, but not substantial enough to make strong recommendations for high-dose supplementation. Adverse effects are few and far between.

The ratio has an okay amount of evidence, mostly for short and intermediate term biomarkers. The best papers are here:

http://content.karger.com/ProdukteDB/produkte.asp?Aktion=showproducts&ProduktNr=229515&searchWhat=books&searchParm=toc

The health effects of omega-3 are less conclusive than most assume. My workplace was assigned by the federal government to do the omega-3 systematic review a few years ago. The results are summarized here:

http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/omega3fattyacidsandhealth.asp

With regards to omega 6, there is much less research than there should be, because YOU CAN'T SELL A PRODUCT REMOVING OMEGA 6 FROM YOUR DIET!!!

In my opinion, this is a perfect area to apply evolutionary reasoning. We're never going to get high-quality randomized, double-blinded controlled trials comparing effects of different ratios. Since EFAs have more biological impacts than most any other single nutrient, it would make sense to do what has worked for 200,000 years.

Note that, while you can change serum markers of omega 6/3 ratio quite quickly (within 30 days there can be a dramatic shift), it takes much longer to squeeze out all those omega 6s you've been building up through the years that's stored in you adipose cells, cell membranes, etc. The reason this is important is that trials would have to follow you for a long time to fully ascertain the health impact of different ratios.

I would be very interested to see studies controlling for gluten/wheat intake though, that is an excellent point that Stephen Guyenet similarly made with regards to the China Study.

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1033 · April 13, 2011 at 5:24 PM

I go with the evolutionary reasoning idea. We did not evolve separating oils from vegetables and then ingesting massive quantities. This is a new/modern problem that points to an unbalanced ratio when looking at the evolutionary history of mankind.

535633b57c4a4940d1e913e7a12ee791
1033 · April 13, 2011 at 5:13 PM

I wonder how long would it take for decades of overconsumption of omega 6 oils to be removed from the cells of your body? Ever? Just a rhetorical question.

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19220 · September 19, 2010 at 3:59 PM

The amounts of omega 6 and omega 3 fats consumed do appear to have an effect on health and they do have important interactions with each other.

However whether the ratio or to the abosolute amounts of each is more important is I think less clear from the evidence. This difference is a little hard to explain.

If someone eats 0.5 grams of omega 3 and 20 grams of omega 6 this is probably unhealthy. But is it unhealthy because of the specific ratio is imbalanced or simply due to a deficiency of 3 and excess of 6.

If it is only the ratio that is important then eating 20 grams of omega 3 and 20 grams of omega 6 would be fine. Also only eating 0.25 grams of each would also be fine. I do not think there is evidence for this.

If the absolute amounts are more important it could hypothetically mean the following: That good health requires an intake of 2 grams of omega 3 fat and 10 grams or less of omega 6 fat per day. In this case the ratio of 3:6 will always be between 1:1 and 1:5 but the ratio is only reflecting the correct intake of each.

It is also still possible that none of it matters as long as you get adaquate omega 3 fats. The poor ratio in most western diets could simply refect omega 3 deficiency.

How these ratios also apply to different classes of fats from each group is also unknown. The omega 3 fat ALA (alpha linolenic acid) competes with the omega 6 LA (linoleic acid) for elongation enzymes reducing the amoujnt of LA converted into arachidonic acid while EPA and DHA do not. While EPA and DHA compete with arachidonic acid for conversion into eicosanoids.

It's all very complex and not as worked out and understood as many people like to think.

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20787 · September 20, 2010 at 3:19 AM

Good point, it could also be related to a 3 deficiency. If too much 6 is also bad, then that could make it look like ratio is important, when really it could just be that you need to get an adequate supply of each but don't overdose on either. Similar to like how vit A is good for you in the right dose, but too much can be very bad for you.

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2423 · September 19, 2010 at 3:37 PM

I agree with the general tone of your question; in particular, it's far from clear whether or not Omega 3 supplementation is a good idea. I think a lot of the evidence is overstated. Getting some naturally from fish makes more sense.

What seems much more clearly beneficial to me is lowering Omega 6 intake. Stephan shows here that 4% of calories might be a good cutoff point of sorts, and there's evidence from the Lyon Study showing just that. Once you get your Omega 6 intake low enough, perhaps the 3/6 ratio becomes largely irrelevant.

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15976 · September 19, 2010 at 11:01 PM

I have to agree that just thinking about the issue in a very basic way, and thinking evolutionarily, that the most important thing would be to simply lower our modernday intake of omega 6s. plain and simple. Avoid seeds themselves, nuts themselves, their respective oils, and vegetable oils and youre a good way there. Low quality beef etc are going to be an issue, yes, but if you get all those veg oils out completely you're doing well id say. Eat some fish once or twice a week and i think you're rocking proper.

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1085 · September 19, 2010 at 3:00 PM

It might even be that the omega-6 that most American's get is all damaged O-6 in the form of processed seed oil.

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717 · September 19, 2010 at 3:49 PM

I'd say that the issue is still far from resolved. In fact, Walter Willett, one of the world's leading epidemiologists, actually thinks that omega-6 fats are good for you:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/diet/interviews/willett.html

"And it was found that saturated fats increased our blood cholesterol, and polyunsaturated fats from liquid vegetable oils reduce our serum cholesterol. And so in the mid-1970s, the predominant dietary advice was to replace saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat. As it turns out, that advice was probably very good and had additional benefits beyond just those that influence serum cholesterol levels, in that [the] increase in polyunsaturated fat was probably largely responsible for the major reduction in heart disease rates we had during the '70s and early '80s in the United States. In fact, the rates of heart disease death went down by about 50 percent during that time."

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20787 · September 20, 2010 at 2:25 AM

Just cuz something happened around the time something else happened does not mean one causes the other. And reducing LDL by a little bit will only make you happy if you think LDL actually causes heart probs. Might also want to consider that people with low cholesterol have way more cancer, so LDL might not be so bad after all! Also, yes omega 6s are good for you, but only in moderation. The dose makes the poison and SAD eaters are overdosing big time.

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717 · September 20, 2010 at 7:12 AM

I don't disagree. But just because Western civilization has high rates of obesity/cancer/heart disease and we also have an omega-6/omega-3 ratio of 15:1 doesn't mean that we have all of these diseases *because* our omega-6/omega-3 ratio is so high.

21fd060d0796fdb8a4a990441e08eae7
24523 · September 19, 2010 at 8:20 PM

While Walter Willett is a very smart, very important dude, this is misleading. The Harvard School of Public Health guys and some other folks wrote an illogical position paper for the American Heart Association, saying that omega 6's weren't so bad to recommend, based on scanty evidence. In fact, check out this guy's page, where he says "All PUFAs are good, the ratio doesn't matter"! Uh yeah, they matter because they compete for the same enzymes.... http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/questions/omega-3/index.html

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717 · September 20, 2010 at 1:14 PM

? Why was my comment downvoted? Willett's opinions aren't welcome here?

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20787 · September 20, 2010 at 2:58 PM

NastyBrute, I agree with the 'far from resolved' part. I didnt' downvote, but I would assume it was done because people felt the post was saying that more omega 6 is better, something they probably felt is wrong. FAQ suggests that wrong info should/could be downvoted.

211d4075d68b24cd0aa7ebfa94262bb9
717 · September 20, 2010 at 3:24 PM

Thanks Eva. It may very well turn out to be wrong, but I think Willett's opinion is worth looking at.

531db50c958cf4d5605ee0c5ae8a57be
8858 · July 31, 2011 at 5:20 PM

I'm upvoting. Where would we be without contrarian ideas here?

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