Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 6/21/2020
If you believed everything you read on the Internet about your health, you’d be broke, not to mention paranoid that nearly any food could kill you or save your life.
When it comes to Omega fatty acids, much of what you read is hype. This doesn’t mean they aren’t good for you. But it does mean that you should look a little more closely before adjusting your diet or purchasing supplements (as you should with any health claims!).
There are three main omega fatty acids: omega-3, -6, and -9. Each is unique.
All three of these fats are unsaturated, and many purported benefits are found in using them in place of unhealthier saturated fats.
Omega-3 fats are essential, or not made by the body, and are naturally found in seafood.
While there may be some benefits to eating a diet rich in omega-3s, the latest research suggests it isn’t the heart health panacea we once thought.
Omega-6 fats are also essential, but you likely get plenty already.
Omega-9 fats are made by the body, so non-essential. You can get more through your diet and these plant-based fats may be healthier than saturated, animal-based ones.
There are three types of omega fatty acids — 3, 6, and 9 — and each kind is unique. Rather than try and explain how they’re alike, we’ll skip straight to what makes them different.
Omega-3 fatty acids are perhaps the most well-known. There’s a good chance you have an omega-3 supplement in your house right now, as that market is valued at roughly $33.04 billion in 2016, according to Grand View Research. But what are they exactly and is that supplement worth your hard-earned cash?
Omega-3 fats are essential. This simply means the body doesn’t produce them and you must get them from your diet. In the body, omega-3 fats help make up cell tissue. There are three types of these polyunsaturated fats: alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (ELA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). DHA and EPA are mainly found in seafood, while ALA is most abundant in plants including nuts and flaxseed, soybean, and canola oils.
The popularity of omega-3 supplements has largely boomed over the past few decades in response to scientific studies linking the fats to reduced risk of heart disease. But they’ve also been touted as good for: mental health, weight management, bone health, anti-inflammation, asthma, and more.
The most recent development in the saga of scientific research on omega-3 fats comes from Cochrane and an analysis that looked at 79 randomized trials including more than 112,000 people. The conclusion: that long-chain omega-3 fats have “little or no” meaningful effect on the risk of death from any cause and the risk of cardiovascular events including heart attacks and stroke. The little benefit suggests that 1,000 people would need to increase their ALA consumption for just one person to see a benefit.
While more research is needed to definitively link supplementing with omega-3s to any real benefit, and many touted benefits aren’t backed by strong scientific research, some evidence suggests it could be useful in the treatments of: depression and asthma.
Much of the research loosely tying omega-3 fats to health benefits are focused on diets rich in seafood rather than supplements. This could be because the fats are providing real benefits, but it could also be because diets rich in seafood are also associated with healthier living overall. There are no risks associated with omega-3 fat supplements, but the potential benefits aren’t a sure-thing.
Like omega-3 fats, omega-6 fats are polyunsaturated and essential, or not produced by the body. However, unlike omega-3s, excess intake of omega 6 fats is associated with negative health effects rather than benefits.
Omega-6 fatty acids are generally found in vegetable oils and are eaten in much greater abundance than omega-3 fats. You likely get more than enough in your day-to-day diet. They are important for lowering “bad” and raising “good” cholesterols and helping manage blood sugar levels.
Some research has pointed to a diet in rich polyunsaturated fats, including omega 6 fats, being beneficial for cardiovascular outcomes. However, much of this research looks at substituting these fats in place of saturated fats, which are known to be potentially dangerous for the heart. As of yet, science has not isolated polyunsaturated fats as the cause of these benefits.
What we do know is this: while omega-6 fats can be beneficial, the Western diet is typically rich in these fats, to the detriment of omega-3s. According to the company Omega 9 Oils, the standard American diet may contain 11-30 times more omega 6 fats than omega 3s.
A diet with a lower ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats is generally considered more heart healthy.
Omega-9 fats are a little different — they’re monounsaturated and they’re naturally produced by the body and one of the most abundant types of fat found in us. Still, they are present in food sources like canola oil, sunflower oil, and almonds.
A diet rich in monounsaturated fats is associated with heart health when compared with one rich in saturated fats. While the Food and Drug Administration suggests, “eating about 1 ½ tablespoons of canola oil daily may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease,” they add that this is only when it is used to “replace a similar amount of saturated fat and not increase the total number of calories you eat in a day.” In other words, they acknowledge monounsaturated fats like omega-9s are healthier than saturated fats, but go no further.
Your body already makes this fat, so it’s not necessary to focus on getting more through diet or supplementation. That being said, monounsaturated fats like omega-9 fatty acids are a healthier option than saturated fats.
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