Essential fatty acids are fatty acids necessary for cellular function. They are essential constituents of all cell membranes and control the passage of compounds in and out of cells.
Essential fatty acids are classified into two groups: omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. The human body needs both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, but twice the amount of omega-3s compared to omega-6s for a ratio of 2 to 1.
Healthy essential omega-3 fatty acids must be supplied in the diet and supplements since the body cannot make them.
What are some essential differences between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids?
Today in the United States and other parts of Western culture, many people eat much more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids. The standard American diet contains higher amounts of omega-6s versus omega-3s. Unfortunately, most forms of omega-6 fatty acids are unhealthy. Omega-6 fatty acids must be consumed in moderation. In contrast, omega-3 fatty acids have significant health benefits, especially related to cancer prevention and control.
What are the potential health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids?
- Provides a major cellular energy source
- Reduces inflammation
- Lowers blood pressure and improves heart health
- Improves brain health
- Determines the integrity of nerve tissue
- Supports nervous system function
- Inhibits tumor growth
What foods contain omega-3 fatty acids?
Cold water fish, flax, hempseed oil, grass-fed meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs contain omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are in free-range animals that are grass-fed or have their feed supplemented in eggs with flaxseeds. This provides a balance between healthy levels of omega-3s and omega-6s. If animals eat corn and soy, the amounts of pro-inflammatory omega-6s are high. Small amounts of omega-3 fatty acids are also in healthy oils, black walnuts, and leafy greens. Organic foods support health benefits from these and other foods.
Caution: Many fish contain high levels of toxins such as mercury. Generally, the bigger the fish, the more toxins, and the smaller the fish, the less toxins. Deepwater, northern ocean fish are best, including salmon, cod, haddock, mackerel, and sardines.
What are the potential harms from omega-6 fatty acids?
- Suppresses the immune system
- Promotes inflammation
- Promotes blood clotting
- Stimulates the formation of new blood vessels supporting cancer growth
- Stimulates the production of tumor-promoting growth factors, and activates a cancer-promoting gene called ras-p21 associated with uncontrolled cell replication and tumor growth
What foods contain omega-6 fatty acids?
Commercially raised meat, poultry, dairy and eggs, as well as vegetable oils made of corn, soy, vegetable, safflower, peanut, and sunflower. Chickens fed with corn or soy produce eggs with high pro-inflammatory omega-6s.
Learn more about other cancer-promoting foods in Foods to Avoid.
For More Information
- Life Over Cancer by Keith Block, MD
- Anticancer by David Servan-Schreiber MD, PhD
- The Definitive Guide to Cancer, 3rd Edition: An Integrative Approach to Prevention, Treatment, and Healing by Lise Alschuler, ND and Karolyn A. Gazella
- Linus Pauling Institute Essential Fatty Acids
- Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine Essential Fatty Acids