Whenever I’m on airplanes, I make important life decisions: most recently, deciding to forfeit my year-long attempt at veganism.
Flying home from a family vacation this past January, I was munching on an interesting trail mix of soybeans and Craisins — one of the few healthy-ish vegan options sold at the airport — and reading one of my favorite guilty pleasures: a “Men’s Fitness” magazine. The article I flipped to had a title about getting a six-pack — classic “Men’s Fitness” — but the content mostly focused on the importance of consuming a balanced ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.
Both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids fall under the polyunsaturated fats category on nutrition labels, which I previously considered all good fats. However, the article made me realize that there are important distinctions between different omega fatty acids.
Before that day, I firmly believed in the benefits of eating omega-3 fatty acids: better mental health, less inflammation, more efficient metabolism — the list goes on. It wasn’t until reading this article, while eating my healthy-ish trail mix roasted in sunflower oil, that I realized my omega-3 advocacy missed an important part of the equation: omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids compete to be metabolized by the same enzymes. Thus, overeating omega-6 fatty acids, which is easy to do since most vegetable oils are jam-packed with them, can block all the important anti-inflammatory work done by omega-3s. The sunflower oil covering my healthy-ish trail mix was doing way more harm than I thought.
According to an article in the Biomedicine and Pharmacy Journal, humans evolved eating a 1-to-1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. Nowadays, most Western diets consume a 15-to-1 ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s, or higher. This ratio results primarily from the overconsumption of omega-6s, and it contributes to many diseases in modern society including cardiovascular disease, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, and cancer. Conversely, consuming a 4-to-1 or 2-to-1 ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s hugely reduces the risk of such diseases.
Omega-6s, thus, are hugely overabundant in most Western diets, and the problem is more than just fried fast foods. We get 70 percent of our fatty acids from oils, shortening and margarine, which are added in to a surprising array of foods available for sale. I expected such ingredients in indulgent, highly processed foods like TastyKakes or Burger King, but as a consumer I was unaware of how many of my dietary staples contained various types of vegetable oil.
I have since become vigilant about avoiding oils high in omega-6 in the foods that I eat on a regular basis. Many brands of seemingly healthier products like salad dressing, hummus, peanut butter, and granola bars have added vegetable oils that can significantly increase our omega-6 to omega-3 ratio without us even noticing.
Unfortunately, specific information about omega-6s and 3s is absent from most nutrition labels. Rather, to stay informed, make a habit of scanning the ingredient lists of the products you regularly buy. Oils highest in omega-6s include those such as sunflower oil, soybean oil, cottonseed oil and corn oil. If you’re going to use oil, I suggest sticking to extra virgin olive oil or unrefined coconut oil, which contain far fewer grams of omega-6 per tablespoon.
Now, omega-6 fatty acids are also found, often in high amounts, in wholesome foods like nuts, seeds and avocados. However, the other nutrients in such foods, such as vitamin E, magnesium and selenium can counter the potentially harmful effects of the omega-6s they contain. For instance, Brazil nuts are high in both omega-6s and selenium, but the nuts still have an overall anti-inflammatory effect because the beneficial effects of selenium on thyroid function outweigh any inflammatory effects of the omega-6s. For most nuts, seeds and vegetables, similar principals hold true. Thus, the omega-6s in whole, plant-based foods can still be cardio-protective and anti-inflammatory. That leaves the 70 percent of fatty acids we get from oils, margarines and shortening as the target of intervention.
So anyway, although my omega-6 to omega-3 discovery led me to give up veganism in favor of eating omega-3 rich fish and eggs — as ethically as possible, I might add — one can still optimize this ratio on a vegan diet if they remain educated and vigilant about their fatty acids.
My vegan experiment, on the other hand, led me to focus on eating foods because they were vegan instead of because they were wholesome.
Whether you’re a vegetarian, vegan, hard-core-carnivore or dairy-free pescetarian, all can benefit from trying to eat a low omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. Read the ingredients in the food you buy to avoid added vegetable oil, stick to cooking with olive or coconut oil, and perhaps keep enjoying your interesting trail mix of soybeans and Craisins coated in sunflower oil just remember: it’s a treat.
Karen Konkoly, ’17, is a columnist for The Brown and White. She can be reached at [email protected].