Omega-3 Fatty Acids vs. Omega-6 Fatty Acids

By: Diana Orchant, Functional Medicine Registered Dietitian.

We hear a lot about healthy fats, but what’s the difference between these healthy and not-so-healthy fats? We’re here to break down the difference between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids- terms you hear often, but now you can become an expert!

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty oils are essential, polyunsaturated fatty acids. They cannot be produced by the body and must be acquired through diet (foods with omega-3 / omega-6) or supplementation. However, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids can have different effects on the body’s inflammatory pathways. Omega-6 fatty acids can upregulate inflammatory pathways when consumed in excess while Omega-3 fatty acids downregulate these pathways as they have anti-inflammatory effects on the body.

Although both are essential, the Standard American Diet contains far more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids. For optimal health, the ideal ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids is less than 3:1. Moderate inflammation is indicated when this ratio is greater than 5 and severe inflammation is indicated when this ratio is greater than 10¹. What does this mean? More of the good stuff and less of the bad: think more 3’s, less 6’s. More on that below.

Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and can be found in nuts, seeds, algae, flaxseed, enriched eggs, fish, and fish oil supplements¹. The most common types of omega-3s are EPA, DHA, and ALA. Omega-3s have been shown to decrease the production of inflammatory cytokines, such as TNF- α, IL-1β, and IL-6. However, to fight active inflammation, the dosage must be at least 2g of EPA + DHA per day². These healthy fats can not only help with satiety but can also help lower serum cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Omega-3’s can be helpful in managing autoimmune diseases and painful conditions by calming the body’s inflammatory response. Additionally, our brain is made up of mostly fat and water, and we need omega-3 fatty acids to fuel our neurocognitive health and mental status. Seasonal depression anyone? Get in some of those good, healthy fats to fire up your brain!

Omega-6 fatty acids are generally pro-inflammatory and largely come from vegetable oils and grains. While some omega-6 fatty acids are necessary, the majority of Americans consume Omega-6 oils in excess. The issue arises when the omega-6: omega-3 ratio is out of balance¹. An example of this can be seen in a study comparing corn oil (high in omega-6 fatty acids) to olive oil (high in omega-3 fatty acids). When corn oil is consumed, it provokes an inflammatory response, producing inflammatory cytokines in the liver. Conversely, olive oil, high in omega-3 fatty acids, did not negatively impact the liver in this way³.

Head into your kitchen and look closely at the foods you’re eating. A lot of foods contain ingredients that are high in Omega-6 oils and should be minimized. The chart below highlights this in more depth:

Foods High in Omega-6 Fatty Acids:

  • Vegetable oils: Canola, corn, cottonseed, grapeseed, peanut, soy
  • Partially hydrogenated oils
  • Dairy products
  • Processed and red meats

Foods High in Omega-3 Fatty Acids:

  • Fatty fish: Salmon, Spanish, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, herring
  • Avocado and avocado oil
  • Nuts: Almonds, walnuts, cashews, pistachios, macadamia, brazil
  • Seeds: Chia, hemp, flax, pumpkin, sesame
  • Extra virgin olive oil and olives
  • Algae

While we encourage you to aim to decrease the Omega-6 rich foods, Omega-3 benefits to the body are seen when Omega-3 foods are consumed daily. The average individual should aim for at least 2-3 servings per day, but for more personalized nutrition, reach out to us by phone or fill out the form below.


  1. Simopoulos, A. P. (2002). The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, 56(8), 365-379.
  2. Calder, P. C. (2017). Omega-3 fatty acids and inflammatory processes: from molecules to man. Biochemical Society Transactions, 45(5), 1105–1115.
  3. Rusyn, I., Bradham, C. A., Cohn, L., Schoonhoven, R., Swenberg, J. A., Brenner, D. A., & Thurman, R. G. (1999). Corn oil rapidly activates nuclear factor-kappaB in hepatic Kupffer cells by oxidant-dependent mechanisms. Carcinogenesis, 20(11), 2095–2100.

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