Omega-6 / omega-3 ratio

Most of us already know that the intake of omega-6 fatty acids in the American diet has gone overboard, much at the expense of the omega-3 fraction. This occurred as a result of the misguided advice of the 1970s and 1980s to eat polyunsaturated oils like corn, sunflower, and safflower, because of their presumed cholesterol-reducing properties compared to saturated fats. However, more recent examinations of this advice have suggested that the omega-6 fraction of oils present in polyunsaturated oils may amplify arachidonic acid and other inflammatory patterns despite the reduction in cholesterol (total and LDL).

Dr. Artemis Simopoulos of the Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health in Washington, D.C. has written extensively on the role of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in diet.

In a review entitled The Importance of the Omega-6/Omega-3 Fatty Acid Ratio in Cadiovacular Disease and Other Chronic Disease , Dr. Simopoulos collects the following comparison of omega-6 to omega-3 ratios from various populations:

Paleolithic humans 0.79
Greece (prior to 1960) 1.00-2.00
Current Japan 4.00
Current India, rural 5-6.1
Current United Kindom and northern Europe 15.00
Current United States 16.74
Current India, urban 38-50

(The numbers refer to the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 intake.)

If we believe the observations of Dr. Loren Cordain and others, while paleolithic man died of trauma and infectious diseases, they did not die of heart disease. Paleolithic human intake of omega-3 exceeded that of omega-6.

Likewise, the traditionally low cardiac event regions of the world like Japan and Greece have less omega-3 intake than Paleolithic man, but still many times more than the U.S. and U.K.

Worst of all with an enormous preponderance of omega-6 over omega-3 are urban Indians, who experience among the highest rates of heart disease in the world.

Just for perspective, let's assume you eat an 1800 calorie per day diet, of which 30% of calories come from fat. This would amount to 540 calories per day from fat. With 9 calories per gram of fat, this means that there are 60 grams, or 60,000 mg, of fat in your diet per day.

Paleolithic man has been found to have existed on a diet consisting of 21% of calories from fats. Again assuming an 1800 calorie per day diet, that comes to 42 grams of fat per day (42,000 mg).

If we were to try to recreate the Paleolithic fat composition of diet, we would ingest 21,000 mg of omega-3 fatty acids (EPA, DHA, linolenic acid) per day. Even recreating a Japanese experience with a 4:1 ratio, it would mean 8400 mg of omega-3 per day. (Curiously, this does not agree with all estimates of Japanese intake of omega-3s.)

No matter how you look at it, cultures with lower rates of cardiovascular disease take in greater--much greater--quantities of omega-3 fatty acids.

So don't complain about your six fish oil capsules (usually containing 6000 mg of total oil, 1800 mg omega-3s)!

Comments (11) -

  • Anonymous

    8/6/2008 11:49:00 PM |

    In your example calculations you assume the entire daily intake of fat is Omega-3/6.  I was under the impression it's about 1/3 of a persons fat intake, with the rest being saturated, mono unsaturated, etc.

  • Andrew

    8/7/2008 1:34:00 AM |

    Just curious . . . you say 30% of calories from fat, but what are the other percentages?  I know you dislike wheat (as do I), so where do the carb calories come from?

  • Ross

    8/7/2008 4:21:00 AM |

    Two comments.  

    First, there's no way on this green earth that the typical paleo diet was limited to 21% of calories from fat.  They ate very few carbs and favored the fatty portions of the game animals they hunted.  The lean portions didn't have enough fat-soluble vitamins and were often fed to animals or discarded.

    Second, the amount of polyunsaturated fatty acids in most of those historical diets isn't 100% of fat calories.  The fat fraction of calories includes fully saturated (FSFA), monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA), and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA).  The ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 is only concerned with those two groups of PUFA in the diet.  

    Of the fraction of PUFA in the diet, some will be Omega-3, Omega-6, and Omega-9 fatty acids.  So it all depends on the fraction of fatty acids that are PUFA.  Fish oils are about 25% PUFA.  Grain-fed animal fats are 5-15% PUFA.  Grass-fed animal fats are 1-2% PUFA.  Modern vegetable oils are from 40-80% PUFA.  Tropical oils (coconut, palm) are 10-20% PUFA.

    In my paleo-modeled diet, I'm consuming 60% of my 3000 daily calories from grass-fed animal fats, so 0.6-1.2% of 2500 calories in fat weighs 2.0-4.0g.  Since grass-fed meat PUFA's are 3:1 w-6:w-3, I need to take in an extra 1000-2000mg of Omega-3's to restore a 1:1 balance between Omega-3 and Omage-6 fatty acids.

    For people with smaller fat intakes, just staying away from processed vegetable oils (replaced by foods with lower Omega-6 levels) would reduce the amount of supplemental Omega-3's needed to rebalance the PUFA intake.

  • Gyan

    8/7/2008 4:38:00 AM |

    I am an urban Indian but we do not consume any vegetable oil but only small amounts of rapeseed oil and our omega-6/omega-3 ratio must be close to 2:1.
    Urban Indians have just been brain-washed by Doctors and Advertisements for seed oils and more educated they are, more likely they to overconsume seed oils.

  • Susan

    8/7/2008 12:21:00 PM |

    Thought you might be interested in this short omega-3 video:

  • Gyan

    8/8/2008 4:29:00 AM |

    What do you think of Dr Lands and his model that relates CHD mortality with %n-6
    in tissue HUFA ie AA/(EPA+DHA+AA) in tissues.

    It is at

  • Red Sphynx

    8/8/2008 8:00:00 PM |

    Is the ratio of short-chain ω-3 / -6 really important? (linoleic vs linolenic) Or is it just the ratio of the long-chains (arachidonic vs EPA/DHA)?

    You tell us that flax oil doesn't make much difference because the body can't efficiently lengthen its short ω-3's into EPA.  But then doesn't it follow that large amounts short ω-6 don't make much difference either?  It's the same inefficient pathway.

  • John

    10/27/2008 12:33:00 AM |

    OH, I'm not's only human to do so though..the same way when we were kids and did everything we could to run away from mom and that spoonful of cough medicine.

    We've grown up now and chase ourselves with that spoon.. I used to take Cod liver oil though I imagine that is different.  Now I take a rather pleasant supplement by Neurovi , it's very high quality and sits well with my stomach lol.  Plus it contains just the right amount of DHA to EPA..I've tried limiting Omega 6 intake but it is sometimes difficult so hopefully I can help my body by giving it more of the "good stuff".

  • Anne

    3/1/2009 10:01:00 AM |

    The omega 3 is essential for our organism. But they too often make defect in our plate. A deficiency that can have numerous consequences on health:  cardiovascular unrests, depress, problems of vision. Zoom on the risks of a deficit in omega 3.

  • Anonymous

    3/3/2009 8:10:00 PM |

    i read ,the scientific calculation by dr david sim cardiologist and vascular ,which he proofs that we need 10 times as much omega 6 then omega 3

  • buy jeans

    11/3/2010 6:52:57 PM |

    Worst of all with an enormous preponderance of omega-6 over omega-3 are urban Indians, who experience among the highest rates of heart disease in the world.