We talk often about the health and beauty benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. They’re great for your skin because they boost moisture levels and keep down inflammation that can lead to redness, breakouts and aging. That same anti-inflammatory power is also important for your long-term health, decreasing your risk of eye problems like macular degeneration, gum disease and brain rot. The types of omega-3s that you get from fish like salmon and ocean trout (the only two fish in North American with predictable omega-3s), plankton and algae help maintain brain health and cognitive function.
And then there’s omega-6 fatty acid, which you hear about slightly less often and which present a slightly (OK, more than slightly) more complicated picture. Omega-6s are, like omega-3s, polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) and are found in many of the same sources. At the proper intakes, omega-6s play a really important role in supporting your immune system, providing material needed to produce hormones. But here’s the rub: Too much omega-6 is bad for you. That’s right, some is necessary, but too much is a hazard. Confusing, isn’t it?
A Question of Balance
It may all come down to ratios. The data aren't good enough to be 100 percent sure, but they're very persuasive. Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are considered “essential nutrients,” which means that our bodies require them, but cannot produce them and need to get them through food. Ideally, we should get about the same amount of omega-6s and omega-3s in our diets; a ratio of about 1-to-1 is what our ancestors ate, and thus is postulated to be best (and something in the neighborhood of 4:1 is still pretty good). The problem is that your average American doesn’t get equal amounts of each fatty acid. Not even close. In fact, most estimates say, and the National Nutrition surveys find, that typical Americans who eat a typical Western diet get 15 to 25 times more omega-6s than omega-3s. That may be bad news.