As a cyclist, you don’t want to eat anything that has the potential to cause inflammation (since too much can lead to injuries or even arthritis in the long run). Omega-6 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat, have a reputation for doing just that.
But don’t believe everything you hear—omega-6s are actually an unsaturated “good” fat, and while you shouldn’t go overboard, some healthy fat is necessary in your diet. Plus, this type of fat is present in many foods, so avoiding it entirely is nearly impossible.
To help you understand how this lesser-known unsaturated fat can impact performance, recovery, and overall health, we spoke with Angie Asche MS, RD, CSSD, owner of Eleat Sports Nutrition, LLC, Jenna Braddock, MSH, RD, CSSD, a sports dietitian in Florida, and Jyrki Virtanen, Ph.D., associate professor of nutrition and public health at the University of Eastern Finland, to get all the details.
What Are Omega-6s?
Omega-6 fatty acids are a member of the polyunsaturated fats family, which are essential for brain function, cell growth, and heart health (such as controlling your blood sugar, reducing your diabetes risk, and lowering your blood pressure).
“They are essential, meaning your body cannot produce them on its own, so you must consume them through food,” Asche says.
Sources of omega-6 fats include corn oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil and seeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, animal fat, eggs, and some grains.
How Are Omega-6s Different From Omega-3s, and What Are Their Benefits?
Many foods rich in healthy fats, like most nuts and seeds, contain both omega-6s and omega-3s. Omega-6s are more prevalent in certain kinds of oils, such as safflower oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, soybean oil, while omega-3s are abundant in olive oil and fatty fish.
As it turns out, omega-3s and omega-6s are actually quite similar. “These two fats differ by the location of their double bonds in relation to the end of the molecule,” Braddock says.
That sounds a lot like high school chemistry, but the main difference is how they react in the body. “Simply put, omega-6s play a role in initiating the inflammatory response, and omega-3s help to put an end to it,” she says.
Both omega-6s and omega-3s are precursors to fat-signaling molecules (called eicosanoids), which play an important role in the regulation of inflammation.
The most common type of omega-6 is linoleic acid. The body breaks down linoleic acid one of two ways: It can be converted into compounds that promote inflammation or compounds that alleviate inflammation. In contrast, a type of omega-3s called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) produces a different type of compound that only inhibits inflammation.
However, there’s very little evidence that the amount of omega-6s we get from our diets is enough to actually promote inflammation, according to Virtanen. In fact, much more is needed to do so.
What’s more, a review of more than 30 studies of more than 60,000 people found an association between a high omega-6 levels from blood or tissue biomarkers and a reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases and ischemic stroke (a type of stroke occurs when an artery that supplies blood to the brain is blocked).
Another review of observational studies showed that a higher intake of omega-6, as compared to a diet high in saturated fat or refined carbohydrates, is associated with a reduced risk of developing cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. The review also suggests that small doses of omega-6 may reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.
As Asche notes, “both of these fatty acids are essential nutrients that play a crucial role in heart health and inflammation, and they should be a part of your diet.”
How Often Should You Eat Omega-6s?
According to the National Academy of Medicine (formerly called the Institute of Medicine), the adequate intake (AI) for omega-6 is 17 grams per day for men and 12 grams per day for women. Omega-6 is not directly listed on food labels so you’re likely not tracking your intake each day, but this number is noteworthy because it suggests that taking in some omega-6 each day is recommended.
“Rather than avoiding omega-6s completely, it’s more about creating a balanced ratio between omega-6s and omega-3s,” Asche says.
The problem, according to Braddock, is not really the omega-6s themselves, but rather that most people following a western diet are not eating enough omega-3s. Although both omega-3s and omega-6s are found in healthy whole foods, like nuts and seeds, omega-6s are more prevalent in inexpensive oils used in processed and fried foods. Unfortunately, the standard American diet makes it much easier to get plenty of omega-6 from packaged and fast food, but it can take a bit more work to include healthy whole foods in the daily diet.
Asche states that a diet high in processed or fast food with large amounts of vegetable oils will result in a very high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, which could be detrimental to overall health.
“It’s estimated that most people are eating a 10:1 or even 20:1 ratio omega-6s to omega-3s, while the ideal range is 4:1 or 1:1,” says Braddock.
So, it’s best to limit your omega-6 consumption to nutrient-dense whole foods, like nuts and seeds, and limit your consumption of inexpensive oils or fast, fried foods.
If you don’t eat fish at least twice per week, chances are that you may be lacking in a certain form of omega-3, but it’s highly unlikely that you’re not getting enough of omega-6. If you’re taking a supplement with all three omegas—3, 6, and 9—you may be taking in more than you need. As you now know, you can get plenty of omega-6 from the diet and omega-9 is a nonessential unsaturated, meaning the body can produce ample amounts on its own. You’re probably better off sticking to an omega-3 supplement, but make sure you consult your doctor or a dietitian before starting a supplement routine.
To get the 17 grams of omega-6 recommended for men or the 12 grams recommended for women, mix and match these whole food sources:
Walnuts (1 ounce) = 11 grams
Grapeseed oil (1 tablespoon) = 9 grams
Pumpkin seeds (1 ounce) = 6 grams
Sunflower seeds (1 ounce) = 9 grams
Soybean oil (1 tablespoon) = 7 grams
The Bottom Line
Asche suggests getting your omega-6s from whole nuts and seeds, such as walnuts, sunflower seeds, pistachios, almonds, and hemp seeds to get a wider range of nutrients such as fiber, omega-3s, vitamin E, and magnesium.
In the end, both omega-3s and omega-6s are beneficial to cyclists and can even promote healthy inflammation (yes, short-term inflammation can be a beneficial healing response). But, like most things in the nutrition world, the key is moderation and choosing whole foods.
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