If you’re like me, everyday of elementary school started with 2 tablespoons of Cod Liver Oil and FlaxSeed Oil. No? Was that just me?

The only thing worse than burping up Cod Liver Oil is not knowing why you’re taking it in the first place. I thought it was for complexion, but puberty proved that theory wrong. So let’s break down Omega 3’s and 6’s – the good, the bad, and the fatty.

What are Fatty Acids?

First thing’s first, the scientific definition of a Fatty Acid is, “a carboxylic acid consisting of a hydrocarbon chain and a terminal carboxyl group, especially any of those occurring as esters in fats and oils.” In layman’s terms, Fatty Acids are complex strands of molecules that our body breaks down for energy. So then, what are essential fatty acids? We can break those down into saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated; or just Saturated and Unsaturated Fats. The Non-Essential is trans fats (the kind you see on nutrition labels).

We could break down the science of each strand and what they do, but then your O-Chem professor would be out of a job. Just know that Trans Fats are bad. 

Trans Fats

Trans Fatty Acids are the ones we find in baked goods, fried foods, processed snacks – they’re extremely difficult for our body to break down and offer little to no nutritional benefits. As a matter of fact, in June 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that partially hydrogenated oils, the main source of artificial trans fat in processed foods, aren’t “generally recognized as safe” to eat. Which is a really nice way to couch, “don’t eat this stuff!”

As of 2016, food manufacturers had 3 years to phase them out. Following suit, the World Health Organization (WHO) is working to eliminate trans fats from the global food supply by 2023. With the world against them, it’s safe to say that if you can avoid Trans Fats, do.

Saturated Fats

The jury’s still out on this one. Saturated Fatty Acids can be extremely confusing for consumers. We find saturated fats in:

  • Fatty meats like beef and lamb
  • Pork and Chicken
  • Cream
  • Butter
  • Whole Milk
  • Shortening
  • Cheese
  • Coconut and Palm Oils

They’re not all bad. These are the favorite fats of those attempting to hit ketosis (a metabolic state in which fat provides most of the fuel for the body). Since saturated fats are often solids or heavy liquids they are the favorites for cooking, and whole, raw consumption.

So far it’s a no for Trans Fats, and Saturated Fats in moderation, unless macros are set for specific dietary means. But what about unsaturated fats?

Unsaturated Fats

The reason we’re all here. Omega 6 and Omega-3 Fatty Acids fall under Unsaturated Fats – and they’re the ones we should be focusing on. The easiest way to discern between Saturated and Unsaturated Fats is that, with few exceptions, Saturated Fats are tightly packed and often are solid at room temperature. Unsaturated Fats are much more loosely condensed in their molecular structure and are generally liquids at room temperatures.

From here Unsaturated Fats can be split into two categories:

  1. Monounsaturated
  2. Polyunsaturated

Monounsaturated Fatty Acids are commonly found in:

  • Olive Oil
  • Peanut Oil
  • Avocados (Millennials, are you reading this?)
  • Most Nuts
  • Most Seeds

Monounsaturated fats are healthy fats and have been known to support cardiovascular health. Polyunsaturated Fats are where Omega-6 Fatty Acids and Omega-3’s come into play.

Omega 3

Before we get into the breakdown of each, what are the differences between Omega-3’s and and Omega-6 fatty acids? At its core, the only difference between the two are in their structure. The last double bond in an Omega-6 is six carbons while the double bond for Omega-3’s is three carbons – hence the 3 and 6 (Omega is the final and 24th letter of the Greek alphabet, often symbolizing the end, thus the final carbons).

There are 3 different types of Omega 3’s (I’m gonna lose it if we break these down into more subcategories):

  1. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
  2. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
  3. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)

EPA

Most commonly found in oily fish or their oil extracts; such as:

  • Cod Liver Oil
  • Herring
  • Mackerel
  • Salmon
  • Menhaden
  • Sardines

If eating fish, or fish textures don’t appeal, most grocery stores carry a wide variety of fish oil supplements. However, you can also get this essential oil in Mother’s Milk and algae. This is typically where fish get it in the first place, from the algae, On top of the fact that fish can synthesize EPA from fatty acid precursors found in their cellular alimentation process (my fifty cent word for, “process of reserving or affording nourishment”), this is why they’re so incredibly rich in Omega-3 EPA.

EPA and DHA both have been found to absorb less well, and therefore be less effective, on an empty stomach or in association with a low-fat meal.

Omega 6

Just like Omega 3’s there are 3 subcategories of Omega 6’s:

  1. Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA)
  2. Dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid (DGLA)
  3. Arachidonic acid (ARA)

Unlike Omega 3’s, Omega 6 Fatty Acids and their subcategories are more closely related. Trying to break them apart and pick out the differences would be like trying to dissect the differences between a Fuji and Gala Apple. At their core they both support a healthy immune system while maintaining healthy cholesterol levels already within a normal range. 

We can find Omega 6’s in oils and nuts like:

  • Safflower Oil
  • Sunflower Oil / Seeds
  • Pumpkin Seeds
  • Walnuts
  • Soybean Oil
  • Corn Oil

However, because O6 bonds are just a touch more difficult to break down, without the aid of Omega 3’s, they can get a little risky. The main charge against Omega 6 Fats is that the body can convert the most common one, linolenic acid, into another fatty acid called arachidonic acid, and arachidonic acid is a building block for molecules that can promote a healthy inflammation response.

The American Heart Association suggests that instead of cutting back on Omega 6 Fatty Acids that we simply add more Omega 3’s to our current diet. Currently Americans consume Omegas at a rate of 25:1 in favor of Omega 6’s. According to the AHA recommendations, the optimal consumption rate is 4:1 – but remember, don’t cut back your Omega 6’s, just consume more Omega 3’s (the Institute of Medicine recommends getting 5% to 10% of your daily calories in just Omegas).

While fish may not be everyone’s go-to food, research what foods you can get your Omega 3’s and 6’s from and implement them in your diet whenever possible. Humans can’t produce our own Omega’s, it’s requisite that we supplement them from outside sources. Always consult a doctor of physician before altering diets, to check food allergies, and make sure that dietary restrictions fit your personal life and dietary needs!

Good luck, and get fatty!