Omega-3 and Omega-6: It's All About the RatioThese days it seems we are bombarded with advice to take Omega-3 supplements or eat foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids. A large body of evidence has found that Omega-3s are important for brain and mental health, as well as cardiovascular health. But what about Omega-6? When it comes to Omega-3 and Omega-6, what’s important is not necessarily the total intake but the ratio of one to another.

Generally speaking, it’s important to eat foods that contain Omega-3 and Omega-6 because our bodies can’t produce these nutrients. The only way we can get these essential nutrients in our bodies is to eat them.

Nutritionists recommend that we eat Omega-3 and Omega-6 in a 1 to 5 ratio. That is, for every milligram of Omega-3 we eat, we should eat 5 milligrams of Omega-6. In the American diet, however, we tend to eat far more Omega-6 foods than Omega-3 foods. That’s because Omega-6 is present in most types of vegetable oils. Most Americans now eat Omega-3 and Omega-6 in a ratio that’s closer to 1 to 10, 1 to 20, or even 1 to 25. That’s far in excess of the recommended 1 to 5 ratio.

Why is this ratio important? Omega-3 and Omega-6 perform opposite functions in the body. All of these functions are necessary for optimal health, and each is activated at different times. For example, Omega-3 has a thinning effect on blood, and Omega-6 has a clotting effect. (When we get a cut, we want the blood to clot. When we have too much fat in our arteries, we want the blood to thin.)

How can I improve my ratio? If you don’t like fatty fish–the best source of dietary Omega-3s out there–don’t worry. You can also get it from soybeans, green leafy vegetables, sunflower seeds, some types of nuts, flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, seaweed, and eggs (especially those that say “enriched with Omega-3”.) If you do aim to get your Omega-3s from fish, be aware that how you prepare it can affect the nutritional value.

There is one food that has a near-perfect balance of Omega-3 and Omega-6: walnuts. That might be why walnuts are often touted as a brain- and heart-healthy food. Of course, we can’t just eat walnuts all day, so we have to be mindful of all of our food choices and keep the Omega-3 / Omega-6 ratio in mind as we do.