Why you should up your omega-3 intake - and CUT omega-6

Want to sleep better, a healthier heart and less bloating? Then you need to get your omegas in check

Omega-3 foodstuffs
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Although it might not be top of your eating agenda, making sure you eat a healthy balance of omegas - specifically omega-3 and -6, could be the key to a healthier, happier you. 

According to BioCare Clinical Nutritionist Lucy Sparkes, our diets have changed significantly in favour of Omega-6 over the decades. Doesn’t sound so scary, right? After all, Omega-6 is an omega and surely they’re all healthy? Well, not quite... 

Fats are essential to health – the right kind, that is. Lucy explains that one of the most vital groups of fats are omega-3s and omega-6s, known as essential fatty acids. This is because they’re needed for normal functions within the body. 

Emily Rollason, nutritionist at Holland & Barrett, says: ‘These fatty acids have a host of health benefits. They’re thought to be important for eye health, heart health, production of hormones linked to sleep and aiding with nerve-cell communication in the brain, along with having anti-inflammatory properties. As we’re unable to synthesize these fatty acids within the body, it’s important that we get them from the foods we eat.’ 

But while in the past, humans ate an omega balance of roughly 1:1, these days the ratio is far more likely to be 16:1, with omega-6 taking the lead role – and causing some serious problems.

Why the ratio change? Lucy reckons it’s probably due to post-agricultural and industrial revolutions, so now we’re more heavily reliant on processed foods, which contain an abundance of omega-6s in terms of plant oils. While omega-6 is also found in nuts, seeds and avocados – a health lover’s favourite foods – modern society has turned to packaged and processed grub as an everyday staple. 

What’s wrong with omega-6?

Emily says: ‘Omega-6 fatty acids (particularly animal-sourced omega-6 ones such as arachidonic acid) are thought to be pro-inflammatory and may promote the development of chronic diseases including heart disease and inflammatory conditions such as arthritis.’ Inflammation can also be the cause of bloating and stomach upsets. 

It’s even been suggested that too much omega-6 can hamper weight loss and increase appetite. In contrast, if you balance this out with omega-3s, this can actually help the body reduce the amount of fat it stores – so, healthier insides and a flatter tum.

Signs you’re lacking in omega-3

Suffering from any of the below? If so, it might be time to make a few diet swaps... 

  • Eczema and skin-related disorders such as dry, bumpy skin on backs of arms and a dry scalp
  • Poor memory and cognition
  • Mood-related signs such as depression, anxiety and sleep disorders
  • Hormonal signs such as PMS, irregular menstrual cycles and painful periods
  • Generalised aches and pains (inflammation) 
  • Difficulty losing weight, especially around the middle
  • Fatigue

How to up your Omega-3 intake

The best way to increase your intake is by eating a diet rich in omega-3 foods

Emily explains that oily fish such as mackerel, sardines and salmon are the best source of EPA and DHA, the most biologically active forms of omega-3. Choose wisely, though, as the seafood we consume shows high levels of heavy metals and pollutants. Opt for fish sourced from less polluted waters, or take a fish oil supplement from a reputable company that screens heavily to ensure purer oils. 

The good news for vegetarians is that other sources of omega-3 include walnuts, chia seeds, pecans and linseeds. And switching from an omega-6-rich vegetable oil to a canola or flaxseed oil can help re-balance. 

Lucy reveals that our bodies are able to make a limited amount of omega-3 without eating fish, but we need to be in optimal health to do this. ‘The factors that can inhibit this enzyme include smoking, stress, environmental pollution, radiation, obesity and chronic disease. It’s clear why we might struggle to make our own Omega-3 in today’s hectic society of stress, convenience foods and a more sedentary, less labour-intensive lifestyle.’ 

Three easy ways to eat more Omega 3

Swap hazelnuts for walnuts

Both are healthy, but 1⁄4 cup of walnuts in their raw state can provide 66% of your recommended Omega-3.

Sway blueberries for acai berries

The superfood (available in powder form) contains noticeable amounts of Omega-3, plus it’s a great source of antioxidants 

Swap cod for salmon

White fish is great, but it's the oily fish that will really provide you with an omega boost.