Omega 3 6 9: Don't believe the hype

Omega 3 6 9 "balanced" supplements have started appearing on store shelves lately. These products have some merits, but the idea of a "perfectly balanced" fatty acid supplement misrepresents some of the basic science of fatty acid supplements.

A number of researchers focus of the omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid ratio as key indicator of your cardiovascular and degenerative disease risk. While there is some truth to these findings, the supplement companies trying to sell you a balanced omega 3 6 9 product are being misleading at best. This article outlines what the hype is about, what the facts and benefits are, and why you should stick with good old fish oil.

While the underlying reasons getting a balance of omega 3 6 9 are a matter of ongoing study, two factors are driving this debate. First, let's talk about omega-6 oils. These compounds are present in most whole grains, avocados, and vegetable oils, and in supplements in flaxseed, borage, and evening primrose oils. In short, they are essential, and fortunately they are everywhere. So unless you eat nothing but Crisco, you probably don't need any more of them in your pills. Second, let's talk about the omega-6/omega-3 ratio. In Western diets, this ratio is very high, on the order of 15:1. Our recent ancestors got a ratio closer to even. Some scientists use this data to assert that our bodies have not evolved to function optimally on our current fatty acid mix. And indeed, omega-6 fatty acids give rise to more potent inflammatory signals like arachidonic acid (AA), so keeping the ratio low can, in principle, reduce inflammation.

But here is where the supplement companies go to work on you. It's the same formula as usual: link some general benefits to a component of your nutrition and sell a product. Never mind all the places you are already getting the omega-6 linoleic acid. Also never mind that the notion of an ideal omega-6/omega-3 ratio has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years.

There is one benefit to "balanced" supplements: GLA from borage oil. As we cover in the section on borage oil, GLA is a useful fatty acid nutrient with anti-inflammatory effects. I don't think it's entirely necessary to have GLA in your supplementation regimen because a. it is made in the body and b. EPA from fish oil does similar things.

Omega 3 6 9 balanced supplements usually contain borage oil

As for omega-9 fatty acids, I will be brief: worry about other things instead.

The bottom line is simple:
There is abundant evidence in favor of increasing omega-3s and decreasing saturated fats in your diet. Since eating fish multiple times a week is difficult for many people, supplementation is a wise choice. But there is no reason to supplement something that you are already getting in spades, namely, omega-6. And there certainly is no reason to think that you are getting a better blend by having the supplement companies balance your omega-6/omega-3 ratio for you. There are more intelligent ways to meet your fatty acid needs than omega 3 6 9 supplements, unless of course, you're eating nothing but Crisco.

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1. Simopoulos, AP. "The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids." Biomed Pharmacother. 56 (2002) 365-79.
2. Simopoulos, AP. "Evolutionary aspects of diet, the omega-6/omega-3 ratio and genetic variation: nutritional implications for chronic diseases." Biomed Pharmacother. 60 (2006) 502-7.