Most of us know omega-3 fatty acids as "good," omega-6 fatty acids as "bad," and omega-9 fatty acids as the fats we are not sure about. All three kinds of polyunsaturated fatty acids play a role in good health. The key is getting them in the right amounts.
What Is a Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid?
A molecule of a polyunsaturated fatty acid, chemically speaking, is a fat that has double bonds from at least two carbon atoms allowing it to slip and slide freely over other fat molecules at room temperature.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids are liquids at room temperature. And because they have double carbon bonds that can receive additional atoms, they are less likely to be attacked by free radicals. It's possible to store them with less deterioration than, say, leaving a stick of butter out on your kitchen table for a week.
What Are Omega-3, -6, and -9 Fatty Acids?
The omega-3, -6, and -9 fatty acids are a special group of molecules that have double bonds of carbon at the third, sixth, or ninth carbon in the chain that makes of the fat. Since many of the chemical reactions in the body involve "snipping" fatty acids into their constituent parts, the placement of the bond determines how the molecule will react with other nutrients.
Omega-3 fatty acids are turned into hormones that regulate inflammation. Omega-6 fatty acids are turned into hormones that cause inflammation. Omega-9 fatty acids don't turn into either anti-inflammatory or pro-inflammatory hormones, but they are useful for lowering blood pressure and for stopping the progression of cancer.
Where Do We Get Omega -3, -6, and -9 in Our Diets?
Omega-3 essential fatty acids are abundant in certain cold-water fish, in the microalgae that these cold-water fish eat, and in certain plant oils, especially flaxseed and walnut oil. (More about omega-3 food sources)
The best source of omega-9 fatty acids, which are not "essential," that is, we can live if we don't get them from our diets, is olive oil. Omega-9 fatty acids are also found in chicken fat, turkey fat, poppyseed oil, sea buckthorn oil, and lard. The fat in our own bodies is made up mostly of omega-9 fatty acids.
Do We Need Omega -3, -6, or -9 Supplements?
Since omega-9's make up most of our belly fat, it is a very rare individual who benefits from omega-9 supplementation!
Some women who have breast cancer, however, may benefit from small amounts of the oleic acid in olive oil.
Omega-6's are essential to human nutrition, but most people in developed countries are not deficient in them. It's actually hard to avoid getting too much omega-6 in most diets.
The omega-3's are the best fatty acids to supplement. They are essential to human health, and they are deficient in most diets.
Fish oil supplements and microalgae supplements are the best way to get these essential fatty acids.
Flaxseed oil will work only if you otherwise follow a low-fat diet so you do not get too much omega-6.