Saturated vs Unsaturated Fat (2)

Continuing the conversation from last time, we touched on (but didn't explain) what omega fats are. We often hear about or see products touting"Full of omega-6 fats!" or "Omega-3 for life" or other such things. You may have heard that some omega fats are good for you, and others aren't. What does it all mean???

Well, I'm going to cover a few things in this post: what is an omega fat, what does the omega number mean, and why should you care.

First off, recalling from our last discussion about unsaturated and saturated fats, that unsaturated fats are like roller-coaster cars that have one or more empty seats on them.

Omega fats are a special type of polyunsaturated fat. First some terminology: the alpha-end of the fat like the first car in the train, whereas the omega-end of the fat is the caboose, or the last car in the train. The omega number refers to the number carbon (the train car) from the omega-end that contains the unsaturation (empty seat).


In the above image, the third car from the end has an empty seat (red arrow). This would be an omega-3 fat. If it were the 6th car from the end, it would be an omega-6 fat. The most common are omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9.

So, now you understand what an omega fat is, and what the omega number actually means. Now, for a more important question. Why should I care? It's all just unsaturated fats anyway. Unsaturated fats are healthy for the body, and more must be better, amiright?

The answer is a resounding, "sort of."

Not all fats are made equal, and some are better for you than others.

Omega-6 fats promote inflammation in the body. Inflammation is the basis of almost all disease, at some level. Now, that's not to say that inflammation is bad. The body needs to have the ability to create inflammation. Inflammation involves an increase in blood flow to a damaged body part, which allows the repair crew of the body (cells called fibroblasts, and others) to congregate in the damaged part, and begin the repair process. However, many times, inflammation can become a run-away reaction (like the nuclear reactor meltdown at Chernobyl).

When a body part is damaged, the cells release fatty acids into the surrounding area, which are converted by an enzyme called COX, into special chemicals called "Prostaglandins (Pro-sta-GLAND-ins)." Imagine the COX enzyme like a factory worker, whose job is to separate a product into its individual parts and put them on a conveyer belt. If the fat that was converted was an omega-6 fat, the prostaglandins that are made, promote or increase inflammation. On the other hand, omega-3 fats fight inflammation. If an omega-3 fat is converted into prostaglandins, they will decrease inflammation.

In fact, the way that Tylenoltm, Adviltm, and other NSAID pain-reliever drugs work is by stopping this conversion process by interfering with the COX enzyme. Imagine taking the factory worker I just mentioned, and tying one of her arms behind her back. She can still do her job, but much more slowly.


In your body, you should have about an equal amount of omega-3 and omega-6. Unfortunately, the Standard American Diet (SAD) consists of a ratio of about 20:1 of omega-6 to omega-3 fats. This means that when there is damage to a body part, it is 20 times more likely that an omega-6 fat will be converted into prostaglandins, increasing inflammation, than an omega-3, that will decrease or prevent inflammation.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the reason that you should care about omega fats! Since almost all disease is caused, or at least started by inflammation, and too much omega-6 fat in the diet increases inflammation, then we need to decrease omega-6 intake, while increasing omega-3 intake until they are close to a 1:1 ratio in the body.

To recap, omega fats are special unsaturated fats that contain an unsaturation or empty seat near the omega-end or caboose end of the train car. The position of the unsaturation or empty seat is what determines the omega number. Omega-3 fats fight inflammation, and omega-6 fats promote inflammation. The fats are converted by an enzyme or factory worker into prostaglandins or chemicals that either promote or decrease inflammation. The Standard American Diet consists of a 20:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3, while it should be closer to a 1:1 ratio.

Next time, we'll talk about foods that contain omega-6 and omega-3 fats and how to balance them.

To learn more about nutrition, and healthy eating, call 201-569-1444 and make an appointment with Dr. Stephen Press. You will learn how the effects of diet and exercise, as well as vitamins and supplements can all make a huge difference to your health.