Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Arthur Investigates...Omega 6

Image from Bannerberg and Serhan, 2010
If omega 3s are the heroes in arthritis, then omega 6 is the misunderstood villain of the piece. Omega 6 polyunsaturated fatty acids are commonly found in vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, grains, poultry, eggs and meat. Omega 6 is considered one of the essential fatty acids as the body can't produce them and needs them to function properly. Our brain, skin, bones and metabolism all need some omega 6 to do their jobs.

However, not all omega 6 fatty acids are healthy. In fact too much of them can be bad for you. Western diets usually contain more omega 6 than omega 3, about 15x more,  whereas it is suggested that humans evolved eating a diet of equal amounts. Partly, this is because we eat a lot of processed foods that contain a particular kind of omega 6, called arachidonic acid. This is in foods cooked with vegetable oils (so that's chips and biscuits) and meat. This high ratio of omega 6 fatty acids to omega 3s has been shown to increase the amount of inflammation in the body and is implicated in many chronic conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and, of course, arthritis.

What does this mean for those of us with arthritis? Well, when the body gets arachidonic acid (say from those tasty chips) it is partly turned into inflammatory chemicals called cytokines. These are the same chemicals that are thought to cause some the pain and inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, psoriatic arthritis. They are also present in osteoarthritis and may be involved in the destruction of the joint cartilage and bone. Totally removing omega 6 or arachidonic acid from your diet won't make your arthritis go away but increasing the amount of omega 3 you eat (oily fish) and cutting back on fried and processed foods may help reduce inflammation and will certainly improve your overall health.

Try these diet tips to make sure you get the balance right:

  • Swap corn, sunflower and groundnut (peanut) oil for olive oil
  • Have 2 or 3 portions of oily fish a week (salmon, mackerel, trout and sardines all count) or take an omega-3 supplement (see this post for more info)
  • Switch crisps and chips for air-popped popcorn, crackers and crispbreads
  • Avoid processed foods, especially anything high fat 
  • Have lean cuts of meat and trim off visible fat before cooking
  • Eat nuts and seeds for healthy omega 6s
  • Try these omega 3 rich recipes

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