This is a story about the omega family. A group of unsaturated fatty acids of which omega-3 and 6 are "essential fatty acids" which means that we need to get them from food as our body can't make them on its own. So let's meet omega-3 and 6 and understand why it is essential for us to balance these two sides of the omega family. There's a little bit of science you need to know but don't worry it's just a little bit and not complex at all.
The most important omega-3 fats are Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA) Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) and Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA). Omega-3 fats are considered anti-inflammatory doing things that include opening up our blood vessels, lowering inflammation, preventing blood coagulation and clumping, decreasing pain and dilating airwaves. The key things to remember from this science portion is DHA & EPA are the most important omega-3 fats.
While Omega-6 is the opposite it constricts blood vessels, increases inflammation, causes blood clotting, increases pain and constricts airways.
Now this doesn't make Omega-6 the bad boy of the family because without it we would not heal from injury or recover from a training session.
So where does the problem lie? it is about the balance, we need to have a good omega-6 to omega-3 ratio and the modern diet does not have that. In the past research studies have estimated that humans ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 ranged between 2:1 and 8:1, this is healthy. With our modern diet we are battling a ratios of between 10:1 and 20:1.
Remember omega-6 and omega-3 are "essential fatty acids" this means that we can't make them within our body naturally, which we can do with most nutrients that we need to live. We need to get them from an outside source.
Let's look at omega-6 first. We get omega-6 from olive oil, sunflower oil, butter and its also high in most processed foods.
One reason omega-3 fats are so important is that they keep our cell membranes more fluid which provides several benefits. For example when brain cell membranes are relatively fluid messages can be transmitted more easily. Getting enough EPA/DHA (those important omega-3 fats) early in life helps with brain development and getting it later in life helps slow neurodegenerative disorders.
We get omega-3 from oily fish; mackerel, tuna and sardines. You can also get omega-3 from plant based food; flaxseed, walnuts and chia seeds. The oily fish is the better source as we can digest it easier and fish are high in DHA and EPA which are the essential fatty acids that we are after. Plant based food has more ALA in it, which we can convert to DHA and EPA but we can't convert it all and so weight for weight oily fish is better.
As most of us don't eat enough oily fish in order to counter the volume and the number of sources we are getting omega-6 from it is advisable to take a supplement. This also has its own quandaries so it is up to you to decide which supplement is best for you. If you are taking a supplement read the label make sure it has both DHA and EPA.
Fish oil supplements: these are very common and can be found online, in heath food shops or supermarkets. One issue with fish oil is that it can become rancid from oxygenation anywhere in the production process. This massively decreases the potency of the supplement. Also with the worlds fish stocks getting lower and over fishing being a global issue the fish supplement industry is adding to this problem.
Krill oil supplements: Krill oil has been found to have high levels of DHA and EPA and is less likely to be effected by oxygenation in the production process. The issue of over fishing is still there as krill is one of the main sources of food for other fish, whales etc. But it is slightly better than the oily fish.
Algae supplements: Algae is the source that the krill and the fish get their DHA and EPA from and we can digest it easily, but as it is farmed it comes with a higher price. This source is also the best if you are Vegan or Vegetarian.
So it is down to the individual to choose which source is the best for them. Ideally you will get it from a number of sources, including whole foods like fish, seeds and nuts as well as some supplements.
You may also see omega-9 as a supplement we don't need this as it is not an essential fatty acid so we can make it internally for ourselves, is is also in olive oil etc.
The bottom line is you need to balance your omega-3 intake against the amount of omega-6 that you are getting from so many other sources in our diet and choose the sources that work best for you.