Between nut flours, nut butters, and handfuls of whole tree nuts, Paleo eaters often rely heavily on these plant-based proteins for snacks, meals, baking, and more. But are you creating another health concern by consuming too many?
Here’s how eating too many nuts, or eating them too often, can mess with your omega-3-to-omega-6 ratio—and why it matters.
Aiming for a 1:1 Balance
Omega-3 fatty acids, found in foods like wild-caught seafood and grass-fed beef, are revered for their anti-inflammatory benefits, while omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory.
Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are essential for health, but they function in a tango-like relationship that requires a specific balance to support optimal wellness. When the ratio is askew, the pro-inflammatory effects of omega-6s aren’t tempered by omega-3s, and systemic inflammation can set in. (1) Not coincidentally, many of today’s chronic health problems are rooted in inflammation.
Research suggests that, in the Paleolithic era, seafood was so abundant that omega-3s were consumed in an approximate ratio of 1:1 with omega-6 fatty acids. Today, it is common for one’s omega-6 to omega-3 ratio to be closer to 12:1 or even 25:1. (2) This shocking uptick in omega-6 consumption occurred when the Industrial Revolution hijacked food production, society largely abandoned hunting and gathering, farms were displaced by factories, and a culture of busyness began to encourage snacking on convenience foods.
Adopting a Paleo diet automatically cuts down on our intake of damaged omega-6s like trans-fats and vegetable oils. Yet it’s still easy enough to slip into a fatty-acid imbalance by snacking on too many nuts, some of which, like walnuts, have a high omega-6 content.
The Function of Omega-3s and Omega-6s
While it’s easy to consider omega-6 the enemy, it’s important to know that we actually need omega-6 fatty acids for processes such as energy creation, hormone production, brain function, muscle-protein synthesis, and immune-system regulation.
Omega-3s fulfill integral functions when it comes to making hormones and maintaining cell membranes. They also function to protect the body from the inflammatory effects of omega-6 fatty acids and other assaults, so it makes sense that deficiencies in the diet can result in autoimmune disorders, eczema, and even cancer. (3) Omega-3s also support cardiovascular function and mental health. (4, 5)
Practical Ways to Balance Fatty Acids
While it’s clear that the ratio between omega-3s and omega-6s is important, the question still remains: how much of each do you need to keep them in balance?
Instead of counting macros or calculating your fatty-acid ratio—which can lead to complications and even obsession—simply being aware of what you’re eating can make a huge difference. If you eat nuts and seeds on a daily basis, but not seafood, consider adding more fatty seafood like anchovies, sardines, and sockeye salmon to your daily diet, or consume nuts less frequently. If your overall fatty-acid intake is low, it won’t take much seafood to reach the proper ratio.
If you dislike seafood, focus on adding other omega-3 sources into your rotation: grass-fed beef, pastured eggs, or even grass-fed butter. You can also supplement with cod-liver oil, although dietary balance is always preferable to supplemental intake.
You can also reduce omega-6s in your diet by making nut-free swaps, like baking with cassava flour instead of almond flour, or smearing guacamole on your next Paleo-friendly, low-carb snack instead of nut butter.
The Bottom Line
If you’ve gone Paleo and haven’t seen the transformation you’ve been hoping for, it might be time to optimize your omega-3-to-omega-6 ratio as that potential missing link. Cutting back on nuts in favor of more seafood will help bring your fatty acids back into balance, thus reducing inflammation and boosting your overall health.