Omega-6 Fatty Acids – Helpful or Harmful

There is plenty of research to support the benefits of adding omega-3 fatty acids to our diets to improve heart health but what about omega-6 fatty acids? Recently there has been some debate about the health effects of omega-6 fatty acids, some suggest that they may promote inflammation and increase cardiovascular risk?

Omega-6 fatty acids are found in nuts, seeds and vegetable oils. Linoleic acid is the main omega-6 fatty acid found in foods. Linoleic acid can form arachidonic acid which is involved in the early stages of inflammation (inflammation has been linked to heart disease). But both linoleic and arachidonic acid also are involved in the formation of anti-inflammatory particles. Recent studies have found that people who ate omega-6 fatty acids actually had a lower incidence of heart disease and people with heart disease have lower levels of omega-6 fatty acids in their blood. Omega-6 fatty acids may help lower the risk of heart disease when they are used to replace saturated fats in our diets.

The American Heart Association recommends that adults try to get at least 5 to 10% of their daily calories from omega-6 fatty acids (approximately 12 to 22 grams per day, dependent upon your daily caloric intake).  Most adults are probably already consuming this amount by eating nuts, salad dressing, and from oils. Remember moderation is key. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids should be part of your overally healthy eating plan.

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4 Responses to Omega-6 Fatty Acids – Helpful or Harmful

  1. etribole says:

    In 1999, there was enough scientific evidence of harm from eating excess omega-6 fat, which prompted scientists to recommend an upper limit to no more than 6.7 grams per day (which is a maximum of 3% of fat calories from omega-6 fat).

    Now, ten years later, the American Heart Association is urging people to continue to eat more than double that amount!

    While I would not expect a heart scientist to be an expert on cancer, I would certainly hope that if heart experts are claiming that there is no harm from eating the current high levels of omega-6 fat, that they would use an inter-disciplinary approach to confirm their thinking. That’s not what happened.

    Large studies from the USA, France and Sweden indicate a compelling link between high intakes of omega-6 fat and the development of breast cancer.

    For example, in a case-control study on nearly 1700 women, researchers demonstrated that women with a particular gene, had a two-fold increase in breast cancer risk if they ate high levels of omega-6 fat. Yet, this genotype had no influence on cancer risk, if these women ate a lower omega-6 fat diet.

    Conspicuously absent from AHA’s report were the findings of the famous study, which made the Mediterranean diet a household name—the Lyon Diet Heart study.

    This large study involved two groups patients, who were fed either a Mediterranean diet (low in omega-6 polyunsaturated fat) or a diet advocated by the American Heart Association, with indiscriminate use of polyunsaturated fats.

    The group eating the Mediterranean diet had a striking 70% reduction in all causes of death, including cancer, compared to the group eating the “heart healthy diet”.

    If you interviewed, Michel de Lorgeril, the lead investigator of that famous study, he would likely disagree with AHA’s advisory. Why?

    Because his study was specifically designed to be low in omega-6 fat, to mirror the indigenous mediterranean diet of Crete Islanders, who have a low rate of heart disease.

    These are just a few examples of the problems with AHA’s advisory–there is alot more to this story.
    Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD

    de Lorgeril M et al. Mediterranean Diet, Traditional Risk Factors, and the Rate of Cardiovascular Complications After Myocardial Infarction : Final Report of the Lyon Diet Heart Study Circulation1999;99:779-785 (Free full text)

    de Lorgeril M and Salen P.
    The mediterranean diet: rationale and evidence for its benefit.Curr Atheroscler Rep. 2008 Dec;10(6):518-22.

    Dwyer, James H et al..Arachidonate 5-Lipoxygenase Promoter Genotype, Dietary Arachidonic Acid, and Atherosclerosis. N Engl J Med 2004(350): 29-37. Free Full Text.

    Ghosh S, Novak EM, and Innis, SM. Cardiac proinflammatory pathways are altered with different dietary n-6 linoleic to n-3 {alpha}-linolenic acid ratios in normal, fat-fed pigs. Am J Physiol Heart Circ Physiol (2007)293: H2919-H2927, Free Full Text.

    Harris WS et al. Omega-6 Fatty Acids and Risk for Cardiovascular Disease. A Science Advisory From the American Heart Association Nutrition Subcommittee of the Council on Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Metabolism; Council on Cardiovascular Nursing; and Council on Epidemiology and Prevention. Circulation published January 26, 2009,. Free Full Text. doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.108.191627.

    Hibbeln, JR et al. Healthy intakes of n-3 and n-6 fatty acids: estimations considering worldwide diversity.Am J Clin Nutr 2006 83: S1483-1493. Free Full Text.

    Lai CQ et al.Dietary Intake of n-6 Fatty Acids Modulates Effect of Apolipoprotein A5 Gene on Plasma Fasting Triglycerides,Remnant Lipoprotein Concentrations, and Lipoprotein Particle Size: The Framingham Heart Study.Circulation (2006)113: 2062-2070. Free Full Text.

    Lands WE.Dietary fat and health: the evidence and the politics of prevention: careful use
    of dietary fats can improve life and prevent disease. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2005 Dec;1055:179-92.

    Leaf A.Dietary Prevention of Coronary Heart Disease:The Lyon Diet Heart Study.Circulation 1999;99:733-735. Free Full Text.

    Louheranta, AM et al. Linoleic acid intake and susceptibility of very-low-density and low
    density lipoproteins to oxidation in men. Am J Clin Nutr 1996 63: 698-703. Free Full Text.

    Okuyama. H. Prevention of Coronary Heart Disease From the Cholesterol Hypothesis to omega-6/omega- 3 Balance. World Review of Nutrition and Dietetics (2007)Vol. 96:1-158.

    Ramsden CE, Hibbeln JR, Lands WE. Letter to the Editor re: Linoleic acid and coronary heart disease.Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2009 Jan 13.PMID: 19147338

    Simopoulos AP.The importance of the omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid ratio in cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases.Exp Biol Med (Maywood). 2008 Jun;233(6):674-88.Free Full Text.

    Simopoulos, AP, Leaf A, and Salem N. Workshop on the Essentiality of and Recommended Dietary Intakes for Omega-6 and Omega-3 Fatty Acids.
    J Am Coll Nutr 1999 18: 487-489. (free full text)

    Tribole, E..What happened to do no harm? The issue of dietary omega-6 fatty acids.Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2009 (Vol 80, No 1):78-7. PMID: 19147337.

    Wang J et al. 5-Lipoxygenase and 5-Lipoxygenase-Activating Protein Gene Polymorphisms, Dietary Linoleic Acid, and Risk for Breast Cancer.
    Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev October 1, 2008(17): 2748-2754.

    Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD

  2. heartstrong says:

    Thanks for your interesting and thought provoking comment – I do agree with some of the above information and think more research is needed in this area.

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