The three main omega fatty acids are called omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9
The omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and the omega-6 linoleic acid (LA) are both essential fatty acids, meaning your body can’t make them and you must get them from food
The omega-9 oleic acid is non-essential, meaning your body can produce it, but you can also get it from food
The key is consuming the right balance of omega-3 omega-6, and omega-9 to support your overall health and wellbeing
You’ve probably heard about the fatty acids called omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9. While they differ in chemical structure, these mono- and polyunsaturated fats all play important roles in proper body functioning. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids provide structural support to your body’s cell membranes, supporting their fluidity and flexibility which is necessary for cells to function and communicate effectively. For example, the omega-3s EPA and DHA are found in large quantities in your brain and eyes, and support your body’s eyes, brain and heart health. Because these fatty acids are vital to your health, it’s important that you get enough of them in the right balance.
But what’s the difference between omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9? Is one better than the other? Which foods provide the best sources of these fatty acids? And what are the benefits of each?
What’s the Difference Between Omega-3, Omega-6, and Omega-9?
Without getting into a detailed chemistry lesson, the omegas omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9 fatty acids differ in their chemical structure and physical properties. Omega-3s and omega-6s are polyunsaturated fatty acids, meaning they have more than one double bond. Omega-9s are monounsaturated fatty acids, which means they have one double bond. Unfortunately, humans lack the enzymes necessary to insert a double bond in polyunsaturated fats like ALA and LA, which make them essential fatty acids and can only be obtained through food or supplements. Similarly, the omega-3s EPA and DHA can be made in the body through ALA, but the conversion rate is very low,1,2 therefore EPA and DHA should be consumed through food or supplements to achieve the desired levels in the body. Let’s break down some of the specific omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids our bodies need:
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA): This essential polyunsaturated fatty acid is found in flaxseeds, walnuts and their oils.
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA): This long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid is primarily found in seafood like salmon, oysters, and crab. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): Like EPA, this long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid is primarily found in seafood. Good sources include salmon, tuna and sardines.
Is Omega-3 the same as fish oil? Because fish oil is an excellent source of the omega-3s EPA and DHA, sometimes the names are used interchangeably. But all seafood and even algae contain the omega-3s EPA and DHA in varying amounts.
Linolenic acid (LA): This essential polyunsaturated fatty acid is primarily found in vegetable oils, nuts and seeds.
Oleic acid (OA): This monounsaturated fatty acid is found in avocados, olives and olive oil.
These polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are the healthy fats that you should focus on daily, and you should limit or avoid saturated fats and trans fats like butter, shortening and lard.3
Omega 3 Sources and Benefits
Omega-3 Food Sources
Your best bet for getting adequate amounts of omega-3s lies in the sea, especially oily, cold-water fish. But you can also find omega-3s in non-seafood and plant sources as well.4
Omega-3 fortified foods (like eggs, yogurt, juices, and milk)
Heart Health Support
Research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids may reduce your risk of heart disease.5,6 According to the most comprehensive review to date of the omega-3s EPA and DHA and their relationship to coronary heart disease—EPA and DHA intake may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, especially for those who are considered to be in a “higher risk population” such as those with higher blood triglyceride levels or low HDL (good) cholesterol.7 There is so much evidence on EPA and DHA and heart health, the FDA has issued a Qualified Health Claim, stating “Supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. (See nutrition information for total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol content).”
Brain and Eye Health Support
Omega-3s are found in large quantities in the brain and eyes. In fact, DHA is the most abundant fatty acid found in both your brain and eyes. In your brain, DHA helps neurons transmit messages that allows your body to communicate and function normally. In your eyes, DHA plays an important role in allowing you to see clearly in different lighting conditions.
Omega 6 Sources and Benefits
Omega-6 Food Sources
Look to healthy sources for getting adequate amounts of omega-6, especially plant-based foods.4
Nuts and seeds: pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts
Meat, eggs, and dairy products
Like omega-3s, omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids like LA are important to cell membrane structure and function. While replacing saturated fats in your diet with unsaturated fatty acids is a healthy choice, taking too much omega-6 fatty acids may be detrimental to your health. Thanks to the Western diet, most Americans typically consume too much omega-6s compared to omega-3s from vegetable oils and processed foods, with an out-of-proportion ratio of 20:1.8 Ideally, aim for a omega-6:omega-3 ratio of 1:1, or a maximum ratio of 5:1.9 The key is to increase the amount of omega-3s in your diet and also replace vegetable oils with olive oil, which is a rich source of omega-9 fatty acids. The reason? A more balanced ratio provides anti-inflammatory benefits, while an unbalanced ratio can be pro-inflammatory.10
Omega 9 Sources and Benefits
Omega-9 Food Sources
Look to healthy sources for getting enough omega-9, especially plant-based foods.4
Nuts and seeds: almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pine nuts, rapeseed, sunflower seeds
Support heart health. When you replace saturated fats like butter with oils rich in omega-9 like olive oil, you are reducing your cholesterol intake and increasing the ”good” (HDL) cholesterol and lowering the “bad” (LDL) cholesterol.
Do I Need Omega-3, Omega-6, and Omega-9?
Now that you’ve got a better understanding of all three main omegas—including food sources and health benefits—you know you need these fatty acids in your diet, as they all play important functions in the body. Focusing on these healthy fats instead of saturated fats is also good for your heart health as well. The trick is to consume these fatty acids in the right ratio. Most Americans eat 14 to 25 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids.11 The best way to balance out your omega consumption is not by cutting back on healthy omega-6 fats, but by increasing your consumption of omega-3s. If you don’t eat a lot of cold-water fatty fish, talk to your doctor about fish oil supplements or omega-3 supplements.
The Bottom Line
To function properly, your body needs the omegas omega-3, omega-6. and omega-9 fatty acids. Your body can’t produce omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids, so you must get them from food or supplements Because your body can make omega-9, it’s considered a non-essential fatty acid—but it’s still important for health reasons. Research shows that omega 3-6-9 benefits your health, especially in their ability to support heart health, as focusing on these healthy fats instead of saturated fats reduces your intake of dietary cholesterol. You need all three of these healthy, unsaturated fats, but the key is consuming the right balance of omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9.
Continue to check back on the Nature Made blog for the latest science-backed articles to help you take ownership of your health.
Journal of Lipids. “Overconsumption of Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFAs) versus Deficiency of Omega-3 PUFAs in Modern-Day Diets: The Disturbing Factor for Their “Balanced Antagonistic Metabolic Functions” in the Human Body.” March 17, 2021. Accessed on: April 20, 2021. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7990530/
Lisa Beach is a seasoned journalist whose work has been published in The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, Eating Well, Parents, AARP’s Disrupt Aging, Optimum Wellness, and dozens more. She also writes for a variety of health/wellness-focused brands. Check out her writer’s website at www.LisaBeachWrites.com.
As a member of the Medical and Scientific Communications team, Sandra educates healthcare professionals and consumers on nutrition, supplements, and related health concerns. Prior to joining Pharmavite, Sandra worked as a clinical dietitian at University of Chicago Medicine in the inpatient and outpatient settings. Sandra received her Bachelor of Science degree in Nutritional Science, with minors in Spanish and Chemistry from the University of Arizona in Tucson, AZ. She earned her Master of Science degree in Clinical Nutrition from RUSH University in Chicago, IL. As part of her Master’s program, Sandra performed research on physical activity participation and correlates in urban Hispanic women.