Omega 3 vs. Omega 6: What's the Difference?

Omega 3 vs. Omega 6: What's the Difference?


You have likely heard of omega-3s, but you may not have heard much about omega-6s. Both nutrients are important fats found in our diet that have significant roles in our bodies. 

Despite their similar name, omega-3s and omega-6s have a few key differences. In order to maintain a balanced intake of healthy fats, it helps to understand what both of these nutrients are and how they differ.

What Are Omega-3 Fats?

What Are Omega-3 Fats?

Omega-3s are a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) found in the human body. This type of fatty acid plays a valuable role in the body, making up a key building block of cell membranes, influencing how cells interact with each other, and even providing a source of energy. 

By influencing how cells interact with each other, omega-3s have a key role in supporting the functions of various bodily systems. There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids:

ALA is much more common in a standard diet since it is found in vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds, so it is unnecessary to supplement it. Meanwhile, DHA and EPA are often only found in marine foods. The body can convert ALA into DHA and EPA but only in very small amounts, so it is important to consume these two fatty acids directly.

What Are Omega-6 Fats?

What Are Omega-6 Fats?

Like omega-3, omega-6 is a type of PUFA found in the body. What separates omega-6 from omega-3 is its chemical structure. In omega-6 fats, the final carbon double bond is positioned six atoms away from the end of the chain, while the final double bond in the omega-3 is positioned only three atoms away from the end of the chain.

Also, like omega-3s, the body uses omega-6 fatty acids for various purposes, like using them as a source of energy, forming cell membranes, and influencing cell interactions in the body.

Omega-6 fats are important for our health, but the body cannot create them, so you must consume them through food. The most common form of omega-6 is linoleic acid, which is found mostly in vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds. When you consume linoleic acid, the body converts it into gamma-linolenic acid (GLA).

While we can obtain some GLA from what our body converts from linoleic acid, GLA is also found naturally in plant oils like evening primrose oil, black currant seed oil, and borage oil. Once GLA is converted, it can be broken down further into two other omega-6 fatty acids — DGLA and arachidonic acid. Nutrients in the body, like magnesium, zinc, and B and C vitamins, help support the conversion process. Still, these conversions appear to happen in a very small percentage.

What Are the Key Similarities Between Omega-3 and Omega-6?

Before pointing to the differences between these two fatty acids, it is important to point out that they have several similarities. Omega-3 and omega-6 both offer some great potential health benefits.

Since omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are essential for bodily function and influence cell function, they both support key systems in the body, including our hearts. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids share several benefits, like:

  • Supporting healthy triglyceride levels in the blood
  • Helping to maintain a healthy blood pressure
  • Supporting cholesterol levels already within a healthy range
  • Supporting overall healthy circulation and a healthy heart
  • Producing eicosanoids that help maintain proper functioning in the body

What Are the Differences Between Omega-3 and Omega-6?

Although both omega-3s and omega-6s are important fatty acids with similar names, they have quite a few differences, from where you can find them to how they interact with the cells in your body. The following are a few key factors that set these two types of fatty acids apart from each other.

They Can Have Different Effects

Omega-3 is widely known for its potential to support a healthy inflammatory response in the body, while omega-6 may do the opposite, leading to a potential increase in the body’s inflammatory response. Of course, in some contexts, inflammation is important to respond to injury or respond to pathogens.

Although short-term inflammation can be helpful, too much inflammation can lead to long-term risks. Eating too many of certain omega-6s may lead to an overactive inflammatory response.

Omega-6 Is More Common in a Western Diet

In the United States, it is much easier to eat a large amount of omega-6-rich foods than omega-3s. For example, some common sources of omega-6 fats include plant oils and foods like:

  • Sunflower oil
  • Safflower oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Sesame oil
  • Corn oil
  • Walnuts
  • Meats
  • Eggs

Many of the above are common parts of a western diet. Since omega-6 is so abundant in a western diet, it is generally not necessary to supplement omega-6. On the other hand, with so many foods containing high levels of omega-6 fats, it may be important to be conscious about how much you consume. After all, too much of anything is usually a bad thing.

Excess Omega-6 May Have Risks

Unless you consume an absurd amount of omega-3 fats, it is very unlikely that you can consume too many. Omega-6 fats, on the other hand, may be less forgiving. There is still more research to be done, but some signs suggest that a high intake of omega-6 may increase your risk of negative health outcomes.

These findings are commonly associated with the pro-inflammatory effects of arachidonic acid. However, further studies have shown that your body only creates a very small percentage of arachidonic acid, even with a high linoleic acid intake.

As with most things in nutrition, it would be a complete oversimplification to say that omega-6 is bad and should be avoided. In fact, some experts say that there is no need to avoid healthy omega-6 fats at all.

Omega-6 May Be Misunderstood

Omega-3s are widely agreed upon as a necessary addition to everyone’s diet, and health experts commonly recommend consuming more of them. Omega-6, though, seems to be a bit more controversial. 

Despite the negative perception of omega-6 fatty acids, they are not all bad. Ultimately, the most important factor is where you obtain your omega-6 fats.

For example, consuming large amounts of omega-6 through brazil nuts or walnuts is likely to affect your health differently than consuming large amounts of omega-6 through butter or processed foods. Although some forms of omega-6 fatty acids may have a negative impact, not all forms are bad.

In fact, consuming omega-6 fatty acids instead of saturated fats in your diet may have strong benefits for your health. Some reports show that replacing saturated fats with omega-6 fatty acids is more beneficial than replacing them with monounsaturated fats or carbohydrates.

Does Your Omega-6 to Omega-3 Ratio Matter?

Does Your Omega-6 to Omega-3 Ratio Matter?

Many experts recommend being mindful of your omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. It seems that omega-6 is not inherently responsible for potential health consequences but that these risks might be more exacerbated by a high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio.

Currently, there is no widely agreed upon ideal number for an ideal omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. However, to maintain optimal health, you may be advised to strive for no more than a 4-to-1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3. You can keep a balanced ratio by either limiting your omega-6 intake or maintaining a regular intake of healthy omega-6s and simply including more omega-3s.

There is no set recommended daily intake for either omega-3s or omega-6s. However, many experts recommend consuming between 250 and 500mg of DHA and EPA. Still, you should talk to your healthcare provider to determine the best way to adjust your diet to your needs.

How Do You Get More Omega-3?

When it comes to getting more omega-3s, you want to be sure that you are focused on getting the correct omega-3s. Foods like chia seeds, flaxseeds, and flaxseed oil are known for their high omega-3 content, but they actually only contain ALA.

It is not a bad thing to obtain ALA omega-3s, as these foods offer other benefits, but it is bad to assume that relying on these foods for omega-3 is enough. It is crucial that you include both DHA and EPA omega-3s in your diet.

DHA and EPA omega-3 fats are most abundant in fatty fish like sardines, mackerel, and salmon. These fish can also be used to make fish oil, a convenient omega-3 supplement. Unfortunately, eating fish and consuming fish oil can have drawbacks. Many people prefer to avoid fish because of allergies, dietary restrictions, or an overall distaste for fish.

Fortunately, oily fish aren’t the only way to obtain essential fatty acids. An increasingly popular option is algae, an abundant source of DHA and EPA fatty acids. Not only is it a strong source, but algae just might be the best source of these two fatty acids. Compared to other sources, like fish or krill oil, algae provides a 1.7x better absorption rate of omega-3s in the body. Even better, it has no fishy aftertaste.

Include Both Nutrients in Your Routine

Both omega-3 and omega-6 are necessary nutrients for the body and should be an important part of your daily nutrient intake. However, getting the right balance of both these fatty acids can be easier said than done. Fortunately, with a bit of mindfulness and the help of iwi life, you can ensure you get enough of both essential nutrients.

When you take an iwi life omega-3 supplement, you consume your daily recommended 250mg of DHA and EPA omega-3 fats as well as omega-6 fats. From its antioxidant properties to its healthy fat content, algae is an excellent addition to your daily routine. To see all of the ways that you can benefit from including algae in your routine, explore the complete family of iwi life omega-3 supplements.


Omega-6 fatty acids Information | Mount Sinai - New York

No need to avoid healthy omega-6 fats | Harvard Health

Linoleic Acid | PubMed Central

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