Omega-6 fatty acids are a type of fat that is present in certain foods and supplements. Omega-6 fatty acids occur naturally in certain plant foods, such as vegetables and nuts. Some vegetable oils, including soybean oil, contain high amounts of these fats.
Omega-6 fatty acids are a type of essential fatty acid (EFA) belonging to the same family as omega-3 fatty acids.
EFAs are fats that the body needs but cannot make on its own. Therefore, people must get EFAs by eating the foods that contain them or taking supplements.
This article looks at how omega-6 fatty acids function in the body, their benefits, and their food sources.
Omega-6 fats belong to a group of unsaturated fats known as polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs).
Omega-3s and omega-9s are other types of PUFAs that people commonly get through their diet.
Some research suggests that early humans consumed equal amounts of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in their diets and that this was beneficial to their health.
However, nowadays, many people in the U.S. eat far more omega-6s than omega-3s. Researchers believe that the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats in a typical Western diet is 20-to-1 or higher.
Omega-6 fats are common in processed foods such as cookies and crackers, as well as in fast food and fried foods.
Potential health problems
Some studies suggest that consuming too many omega-6 fats could lead to certain health problems.
A 2018 study found an association between a higher dietary intake of omega-6 fats and inflammation that caused tissue damage and disease.
The Arthritis Foundation say that omega-6 fatty acids may trigger the body’s production of pro-inflammatory substances, potentially worsening symptoms in people with arthritis.
Other research has linked diets high in omega-6 fats to obesity.
However, not all experts agree on whether omega-6 fats are harmful, with some stating that human studies on obesity and omega-6 intake are limited and inconclusive.
There have also been some positive research findings. For example, a review of 30 studies found that higher levels of omega-6 fats in the body were linked to a lower risk of heart disease.
With the conflicting and inconclusive information about omega-6 fats, how do people decide how many to eat?
A person may consider following the recommendations of health authorities on the adequate intake (AI) of omega-6 fatty acids and unsaturated fats in general.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) list the AIs for linoleic acid, which is a type of omega-6 fatty acid. These are as follows:
- Females aged 19–50: 12 grams (g) per day
- Females aged 51 and older: 11 g per day
- Males aged 19–50: 17 g per day
- Males aged 51 and older: 14 g per day
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offer some advice on consuming unsaturated fats, but they do not provide specific guidance on omega-6 fatty acids.
The USDA guidelines recommend:
- Females aged 19–30: 6 teaspoons (tsp) per day
- Females aged 31 and older: 5 tsp per day
- Males aged 19–30: 7 tsp per day
- Males aged 31 and older: 6 tsp per day
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that people limit saturated fat to less than 10% of their daily calories. They also advise people to avoid trans fats altogether.
People aiming to increase their intake of healthful fats should adjust the ratio of fats in their diet by increasing their consumption of omega-3 fats and monounsaturated fats, which are another type of heart-healthy fat.
Some research suggests that eating more omega-6 fats and not enough omega-3 fats can potentially lead to health problems.
Some of the foods that have higher amounts of omega-6 fatty acids include:
It is important to remember that some of these foods, especially the oils with the highest omega-6 content, contain little to no omega-3 fatty acids.
It is also important to note that many fried and processed foods contain corn, cottonseed, or soybean oil. If a person eats a lot of these foods, their omega-6 intake may be much higher than their omega-3 intake.
People may take supplements that contain omega-6, omega-3, or a combination of omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9. These supplements often contain fish oil, flaxseed oil, or borage seed oil.
There is no definitive research to confirm whether these oil supplements are helpful or harmful.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health say that omega-3 supplements do not reduce the risk of heart disease. However, they may help with symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and may also help lower triglyceride levels.
As researchers have not widely studied these supplements, it is best for a person to ask their doctor before taking any type of fatty acid supplement.
Although omega-6 fats are a type of heart-healthy unsaturated fat, people should consume them in moderation. As with all fats, omega-6 has 9 calories per gram and can lead to an excessive calorie intake if people eat too many foods containing them.
At the same time, a person should try to limit or avoid fried and processed foods.
Most people may benefit from eating a balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, as well as monounsaturated fats.
If a person has questions about a healthful diet or is interested in taking supplements, they should speak with a doctor about the best choices for them.