Omega-6 fatty acids are essential nutrients for a healthy heart. These heart-healthy fats are found in many foods, particularly vegetable oils, seeds, and nuts. Our body can’t make omega-6s, so we must get them from our diet. —But most of us get more than enough.
Researchers have questioned whether high omega-6 intake can be too much of a good thing. Studies show our bodies convert linolenic acid (LA) — the most common form of omega-6 — into a compound that can promote inflammation and blood vessel tightening.
But recent research indicates this effect is minimal, more likely associated with a diet low in omega-3s — the other group of essential fatty acids we get from foods like fish. Most of us get 14 to 25 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3s.
That doesn’t mean you must cut back on omega-6s, but balancing them better with omega-3s brings the best health benefits.
Why You Need Omega-6s
Omega-6 fatty acids support proper cell function throughout the body. While they’re available in supplement form, most of us get more than enough from our diets. Experts advise you obtain 5-10% of your daily calories from omega-6 fats, or between 11 and 22 grams on average.
Omega-6 fatty acids contribute to health benefits like:
Studies show a link between higher linoleic acid intake — the most common omega-6 — and reduced rates of heart attacks and other heart diseases. Some research shows omega-6s may lower cholesterol, keeping your blood vessels clear from build-up that can cause clots and heart problems.
Omega-6s are essential for maintaining healthy cell structures and processes. Together with omega-3s, they keep cells functioning correctly, limiting cell damage that can lead to health problems or chronic disease.
Potential Anti-Inflammatory Properties
Research shows that our bodies convert linoleic acid into gamma-linoleic acid (GLA,) a compound that may fight inflammation. While inflammation is a healthy bodily response, it can contribute to chronic inflammatory diseases like arthritis over time.
Scientists continue to study this effect and its potential to treat inflammation. But any link relies on a well-balanced diet. To convert omega-6s into their anti-inflammatory forms, our bodies need enough nutrients like magnesium and zinc, and vitamins C, B3, and B6.
Foods With Omega-6s
Many foods have omega-6 fatty acids, including most processed foods made with vegetable oils, like packaged snacks, frozen pizza, and fast food. These foods' abundance in the average diet contributes to omega-6 and omega-3 imbalances for many of us.
Processed foods generally have high levels of saturated and trans fats. So while omega-6s are essential to good health, the source matters. Limit your intake of processed foods and try these more nutritious omega-6-rich alternatives:
Safflower oil is a common cooking oil with 12.7 grams of omega-6s per tablespoon. It also contains omega-9s like oleic acid, which can help maintain good blood sugar levels and has anti-inflammatory properties.
At 10.8 grams per ounce — about 14 halves — walnuts are an excellent source of omega-6s. They also contain omega-3s, helping you maintain a balance of fatty acids in your diet.
3. Sunflower Seeds
Sunflower seeds are a rich source of many nutrients, like vitamin E and magnesium, and of protein. They also have 9.3 grams of omega-6s per ounce. If you sprinkle some on cereal, a salad, or pasta, mix in some flaxseeds or chia seeds to add omega-3s to your meal.
4. Canola Oil
While other vegetable oils like grapeseed, sunflower, and soybean contain more omega-6, canola oil is a more complete source of essential fatty acids. In addition to its 2.66 grams of omega-6 per tablespoon, you get 0.13 grams of omega-3s. You can use canola oil in place of most other cooking oils.
Tofu has 3 grams of omega-6s in each half-cup portion. Since it’s also high in protein, tofu is a great meat alternative for people on a plant-based diet. However, since fish is the best source of certain essential omega-3s, vegetarians should ensure they’re getting enough to maintain a good fatty acid balance.
One large egg has about 1.8 grams of omega-6s — but this content is concentrated in its yolk, not the whites. While the yolk is high in cholesterol, research shows it has little effect on your blood cholesterol levels. Unless advised otherwise by your doctor, an egg a day can be a great source of protein and important nutrients like fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals.
Mayonnaise is high in saturated fat, so do moderate your portions. But just a tablespoon offers 5.4 grams of omega-6, and it has some omega-3 content as well. Mix it with some canned tuna — an excellent source of omega-3s — to help meet your day’s fatty acid requirements.
Nuts like almonds are heart-healthy, in part thanks to their fatty acid content. They have 3.7 grams of omega-6s per ounce, about 24 almonds. But nuts have many calories per serving, so moderate your portions to avoid unwanted weight gain.