Thursdays with Dr. Tadashi

Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids

I admit it - I am a grocery store squatter.

You know, those people who are a nuisance to you while shopping, as they’re idly standing (or worse, sitting on the store floor) reading nutrition labels of every interesting product they see on the shelves? Whole Foods, especially, is my kryptonite - I can spend hours there being a grocery store squatter. Whenever I have an errand at Whole Foods, I make sure it’s followed by another errand that is time sensitive.

I’m always interested in new marketing techniques from food companies to increase their sales and/or to find their niche. I’ve been seeing countless labels on an array of food products that announce “High in Omega-3 Fatty Acids,” “Fortified with Omega-3s,” “Heart-Healthy Chocolates” because they contain omega fatty acids. So, what’s up with these omega fatty acids that every food company, and everyone for that matter, are touting? 

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are both poly-unsaturated fats. What does that mean?!

Fat: they’re both fats - one of our three macronutrients that are required to sustain life (the other two being carbohydrates and proteins). Fats are the most energy-dense macronutrient that helps form our cells and produces hormones in our body.

‘Unsaturated’ means that the chemical structure of these fatty acids contain double bonds between carbon atoms. ‘Poly’ means that there are more than one double bond between carbon atoms. 

What do the numbers mean? The numbers simply denote which carbon contains the first double bond. So, in omega-3 fatty acids, the first double bond is located on the 3rd carbon, while in omega-6 fatty acids, the first double bond is located on the 6th carbon.

**Did some of you guys cringe and teleport back to chemistry 101 by reading about carbon and double bonds? Don’t worry - it’s not too important. Even though these omega fats are both polyunsaturated fats, they have different varieties, distinct sources and effects within our bodies.

You may be asking yourself: then why should we be consuming omega-6 fatty acids in the first place? The effects of omega-6s sound dangerous, right? Blood clots, constriction of blood vessels, and inflammation are actually all very important for our bodies. For instance, after a big cut on your leg, the sensation of pain, increased inflammation, and proper blood clotting is a necessity. But, like everything in life, too much of anything is not a good thing. Thus, it’s very important to have a good 1:1 balance of BOTH omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

Unfortunately, a typical Western diet is imbalanced and filled mostly with omega-6 fatty acids. They mainly come in the form of linoleic acid (LA) and arachidonic acids (AA) from vegetable oils and meat products, respectively. Look at your pantry and food ingredients - corn, soy, and safflower oils, along with meat products are most likely in there. Potato chips, pizza, bread, pasta dishes, desserts - most of these contain oils and animal products. In the modern diet, the ratio of omega-6:omega-3 is disproportionately high at 16:1 to 20:1. This is completely out of balance for optimal cellular health and integrity, and may be a reason for the increased incidences of inflammatory diseases (arthritis, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, inflammatory bowel disease), chronic pain, cardiovascular disease, and Alzheimer’s disease [1] [2] [3].

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen are often taken by individuals with chronic pain and inflammation. NSAIDs inhibit/block the actions of a COX-1 enzyme, which usually converts arachidonic acid (omega-6 fatty acids) into inflammatory compounds. In other words, NSAIDs decrease the amount of arachidonic acid being converted to inflammatory compounds.

Thus, if we consume less foods that are high in omega-6 fatty acids in the first place, the less arachidonic acid accumulation, which leads to less COX enzyme activation and less inflammatory compounds in our system. With proper balance of fatty acids, some of us may not need to depend on NSAIDs on a regular basis to control pain and inflammation [4].

In conclusion, our modern diet really requires a more balanced diet consisting of less omega-6 laden foods and more omega-3 foods to make a more balanced ratio for improved physiology of our body systems. So, the next time you’re in the grocery store, say “Hey Tadashi!” if I’m there being a grocery store squatter, but more importantly, choose foods that contain less omega-6 fatty acids, and more omega-3 fatty acids!

Live Well,

Dr. Tadashi Oguchi M.D.

Certified Health Coach


[1] E.Patterson, E.Wall, G.F.Fitzgerald, R.P.Ross and C.Stanton, “Health Implications of High Dietary Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids,” Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism, vol.2012.

[2] Mozaffarian, Dariush, “Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Cardiovascular Disease: Effects on Risk Factors, Molecular Pathways, and Clinical Events,” Journal of the American College of Cardiology, vol.58, is.20, 2011.

[3] Martin Loef and Harald Walach, “The Omega-6/Omega-3 Ratio and Dementia or Cognitive Decline: A Systemic Review on Human Studies and Biological Evidence,” Journal of Nutrition in Gerontology and Geriatrics, vol.32, is.1, pp. 1-23, 2013.

[4] Palwinder Singh, Shaveta Shaveta, Amrinder Singh, Jagroop Kaur, “Arachidonic Acid Metabolic Pathway: Appraisal of Differential Availability of Arachidonic Acid and Anti-Inflammatory Drugs on COX-A, COX-2, and 5-LOX Enzymes,” Inflammation and Cell Signaling, vol.1, is.4, 2014.