Most health and fitness professionals have come to accept the premise that more omega-3 fatty acids in the diet can help control inflammation and heart health. However, the picture gets muddied when we consider that the average American ingests more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3s, which may spell trouble for heart health. Balancing this omega fatty acid ratio plays a key role for our personal training clients as they strive to achieve maximal health and longevity benefits from these nutritional compounds.

Health Benefits of Omega-3

It may help clients to understand just how much omega-3 fatty acids contribute, not only to overall well-being but also in terms of combatting many significant health concerns. Nutritional and/or supplemental omega-3 might help in the following ways ~

  • may help treat and/or prevent depression/anxiety
  • the omega-3 fatty acid known as DHA, a major structural component of the retina, may help prevent macular degeneration, a serious condition that may lead to vision impairment/ blindness.
  • may help reduce symptoms of ADHD in children.
  • may offer numerous benefits for individuals living with metabolic syndrome, including improvements in blood sugar levels as well as mitigating several heart disease risk factors.
  • may help treat and/or prevent several autoimmune diseases, including type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, and psoriasis.
  • omega-3 consumption seems to improve symptoms of mental disorders, as these individuals often present with lower circulating levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
  • may decrease the risk of some types of cancer, including colon, prostate, and breast cancer.
  • linked to a lower risk of asthma in children.
  • may help reduce liver fat in people diagnosed with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
  • DHA may improve quality and quantity of sleep

The “SAD” State of our Dietary Habits

In modern society, our Westernized Standard American Diet (SAD) reflects lower consumption of the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid DHA when compared to our traditional, hunter-gatherer ancestors. The omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of the SAD diet varies anywhere from 10:1 to 25:1, whereas the ratio of the long-ago foragers’ diet brings the balance closer to 1:1 to 2:1. This means we currently consume 10 to 25 times more omega-6 than omega-3’s when our intake should more closely approximate an equal ratio.

Our typical eating habits, as a society in general, lead us to stray significantly far away from the ideal omega fatty acid ratio range. We might keep in mind, however — and remind clients when appropriate —that optimizing the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio possibly ranks as the single most important thing we can do to support our overall health.

Health Hazards of an Imbalanced Omega Fatty Acid Ratio

Excessive amounts of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids and/or a very high omega-6:omega-3 ratio can promote the evolution of many serious health issues, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, inflammatory/autoimmune diseases, Alzheimer’s disease, and diabetes. An increased level of omega-3 and/or a low omega-6: omega-3 ratio seems to reduce these deleterious health effects.

The omega-3s derived from fish oil, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), excel at reducing problematic inflammation. A recent study published in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity found that Omega-3 fish oil supplements lowered inflammation in healthy (but still overweight) adults. Over four months, participants in this protocol received either a daily dose of 1.25 to 2.5mg omega-3 supplement, or a placebo pill filled with the types of fats typically associated with the Standard American Diet.

The low-dose group saw a 10% percent decrease in circulating levels of an inflammatory marker known as interleukin-6 (IL-6), while the high-dose group saw an even more dramatic improvement, a decrease of 12%. Those taking the placebo saw a 36 % increase. Levels of another inflammation marker, tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha), also decreased in the omega-3 group as compared to the placebo sector.

Co-author Ron Glaser stated, “You need this good inflammation for an initial response, but if it stays up, and inflammation becomes chronic, then you’ve got a problem. Our research and studies done by others have shown that these two cytokines are clearly related to overall health—and when they’re elevated in the blood that is not good for overall health. So, the more ways we can find to lower them, the better.”

Omega-3’s, plentiful in fish, flax seeds, and walnuts, help to reduce inflammation in the body. They also help protect the heart from lapsing into erratic rhythms, inhibit the formation of blood clots, and reduce the body’s level of triglycerides, the most common of fat-carrying particles in the bloodstream. Omega-6’s, found in dairy products, eggs, beef, chicken, and pork, contribute to building up “good” cholesterol (HDL) while helping diminish “bad” cholesterol (LDL). While we can see the benefits of each, the balance remains important. Scientists suspect that a distorted ratio of polyunsaturated fatty acids ranks as one of the most damaging aspects of today’s Westernized meal plan.

Careful Nutritional Planning to Optimize Omega Fatty Acids

Research indicates that the average American consumer ingests large amounts of processed seed-derived and vegetable oils, many of which pack a significant omega-6 punch. These fats can potentially alter the health of the body’s cell membranes. In addition to sidestepping these oils for cooking or in recipes, experts stress the importance of also watching the consumption of processed foods that may contain sunflower, corn, soybean, cottonseed, and peanut oils.

Today’s cattle farmers typically opt for grain-based feed for their cows, which often contains both corn and soy. This not only knocks down the omega-3 content of the resulting meat products; the quantity of omega-6 in the meat becomes overly dominant. Grass-fed cattle meat surpasses grain-fed in terms of quality and has begun to make a more prominent appearance on grocery shelves and on restaurant menus.

When purchasing eggs, paying attention to the type of feed used by chicken farmers can make a big health difference. Consumers might seek out those labeled as “Organic” or “Omega-3 enriched” which indicate that the hens consumed feed without soy or corn.

The Opposing Viewpoint

As is often the case in the scientific world, opinions and data outcomes vary on just about any topic, as we see in any omega discussion. It seems somehow counterintuitive, but six randomized trials all showed that replacing saturated fats with omega-6 as opposed to omega-3 fats lowered the risk of a cardiac event by a whopping 24%.

Yet another study, the results of which appeared in the American Journal of Clinical Medicine, revealed that simply replacing saturated fats in one’s diet with any polyunsaturated fats – omega-6 or omega-3 – could reduce the risk of heart disease. Does this speak of a referendum on the evils of saturated fat, or more along the lines of extolling the virtues of omega-6?

According to the American Heart Association, the need to cut back on omega-6 consumption does not seem dire. A science advisory board spent two years studying omega-6 consumption as it related to cardiovascular health. Expert panelists included nine independent research scientists from all over the US, three of whom hailed from Harvard University. They concluded that purposeful avoidance of omega-6 fatty acids to improve one’s omega-fatty acid ratio might backfire.

An article published in the journal Circulation back in 2009 quoted Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard’s Brigham Women’s Hospital: “Omega-6 fats are not only safe but they are also beneficial for the heart and circulation,” says the coauthor. The American Heart Association findings revealed that rates of heart disease lessened as consumption of omega-6 fatty acids increased.

While we can ideally try to bring these fats into a better balance, the expert opinion now states that we should accomplish this not by drastically reducing consumption of healthy omega-6 fats, but rather by incorporating additional sources of omega-3 fatty acids.

Enter Omega-9 Fatty Acids

As we can tell from the information above, research on the health benefits of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids leaves little doubt as to their importance in one’s diet. However, omega-9 fatty acids have recently garnered a great deal of attention due to newly emerging studies uncovering the biological benefits and risks.

Omega-9 fats, considered “nonessential fats” since the human body can manufacture them, fall under the classification of monounsaturated, meaning they contain only a single double bond, located nine carbons from the omega end of the molecule.

Oleic acid ranks as the most common omega-9 fatty acid as well as the most ubiquitous in today’s diet. Consuming foods rich in omega-9 fatty acids in place of other types of fat may offer certain health benefits. Various animal and plant sources, including olive oil, cod oil, corn oil, and palm oil, boast high levels of oleic acid. The often-cited Mediterranean diet supports liberal use of olive oil, one of the best sources of oleic acid. In addition, oleic acid exists endogenously as a component of hormones production and cellular membranes.

Anti-inflammatory and Anti-cancer benefits

A diet rich in oleic acid offers some encouraging news for those individuals living with inflammatory-related disorders. Oleic acid modulates the immune system by activating various immune-competent cell pathways. Oleic acid likewise demonstrates the ability to inhibit cellular proliferation in several tumor cell lines, most notably the overexpression of HER2, a well-known oncogene involved in the development and metastasis of numerous human cancers. Within a cancer cell, oleic acid plays a significant role in the intracellular calcium-signaling pathways related to cell growth and apoptosis.

At this time, clinical studies into the anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer capabilities of omega-9 fatty acids other than oleic acid still remain scarce. Further research will hopefully provide more conclusive data about their therapeutic value in both of these widespread disorders.


Nutritionally Ubiquitous

Common nutritional sources of omega-9 fatty acids abound on our supermarket shelves. Foods rich in omega 9 fatty acids include:

  • Avocados and avocado oil
  • Almonds and almond oil
  • Pecans
  • Cashews
  • Hazelnuts
  • Rapeseed
  • Mustard seed
  • Olives
  • Macadamia nuts
  • One or two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil per day provides enough oleic acid for adults. However, this dosage should be divided up throughout the day. It is much more beneficial to the body to take olive oil like a time-released supplement rather than consuming the entire daily amount in a single dosage.


A Note Regarding Supplementation

Many health-forward individuals opt for supplementation of omega fatty acids for a variety of reasons. Combined omega-3-6-9 supplements have gained in popularity, but they generally provide no additional benefit over taking omega-3 alone. If a client shows an interest in consuming omega-9 in supplement form, professionals suggest choosing a supplement that also contains omega-3 fatty acids.

Ultimately, the correct ratio of omega-3s, 6s, and 9s in one’s diet remains the key to optimal health; overconsumption would likely trigger adverse side effects.


Avoiding Excesses

If an individual consumes too much omega-9 oil for the body to break down, which would occur in the presence of a diet rich in fats and cholesterol, a build-up of oil occurs, made worse in the absence of sufficient amounts of omega-3. Such conditions can significantly increase the risk of obesity as well as cardiovascular diseases.

Once again, we can see the importance of a proper delicate balance of omegas in the body. Not only might an excess of omega-9 fatty acids affect weight/heart health, such a situation may place one’s body under an increased amount of pressure to even try to continue to function properly.


Optimal Balancing Act

As health professionals, personal trainers must always recognize the importance of clearly conveying information to our clients. The omega group of fatty acids often causes confusion. Any oil or fat (saturated or unsaturated) can cause health issues if over-consumed regularly, negatively impacting organs, blood sugar, and even cholesterol. Therefore, like calories in general, balancing intake of oils and fats remains key; they can offer great health benefits to the body if consumed correctly as a part of a varied diet.

While we may never re-establish the ideal omega fatty acid ratio that perhaps our forefathers took for granted, striving for a more ideal balance continues to prove immensely critical for our overall health. How would you guide your clients on this topic?


Cathleen Kronemer

Cathleen Kronemer is an NFPT CEC writer and a member of the NFPT Certification Council Board. Cathleen is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, ACE-Certified Health Coach, former competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for over three decades. Feel free to contact her at She welcomes your feedback and your comments!