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Paleo Diet and the Omega 3 to 6 Ratio

The Paleo Diet, also known as the Caveman Diet, is a diet based on the premise that our bodies are genetically programmed to thrive on a diet similar to that of our hunter-gatherer ancestors who lived during the Paleolithic Era, a period lasting around 2.6 million years that ended about 10,000 years ago with the introduction of agriculture and animal husbandry. Proponents of this diet posit that the dietary changes that began with the introduction of agriculture and domestication of animals occurred too recently for the human genome to adapt, and that if you want to enjoy a longer, healthier and more active life, you should try to eat the same way as the Paleolithic people. In a paper by published in the The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Dr. Loran Cordain et al. suggest that the Paleolithic diet likely had a higher omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid ratio, contained more protein, and was more nutrient-dense that modern Western diets. In this article, we will be focusing on the omega-3 content of the Paleo Diet.

Paleo Diet: Omega Ratio

Ratio of Omega-3s and Omega-6s in the Paleolithic Diet

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids that our bodies need for various biological processes. However, having too much of these essential fatty acids can also cause problems. Some experts maintain that this is particularly true for omega-6 fatty acids which factor heavily in the modern Western diet and which have been associated with pro-inflammatory properties (although they may also have anti-inflammatory properties).

Omega-3s, by contrast, are primarily seen as anti-inflammatory fatty acids that may help counteract some of the inflammatory effects of omega-6 fatty acids. According to a paper that appeared in the October 2002 issue of the journal Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 was around 1 to 1 during the Paleolithic Era, while the paper by Dr. Cordain et al. which we mentioned above suggests that the ratio was probably somewhere between 1 to 2 and 1 to 3. In any case, it is clear that our current ratio, which has been estimated to be somewhere between 1 to 14 and 1 to 25, is a far cry from the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio that our Paleolithic ancestors were exposed to.

What Contributed to the Healthy Levels of Omega Fatty Acids in Our Ancestors' Diets

There are a number of factors that contributed to the high omega 3 to 6 ratio (i.e. low omega 6 to 3 ratio) in the Paleolithic diet. In a paper published in the 2001 issue of the journal European Heart Journal Supplements, Dr. Artemis Simopoulos, an international expert on essential fatty acids and the author of The Omega Diet, explains that cereal grains, which were not part of our ancestors' diets during the Paleolithic era, are high in omega-6 fatty acids but low in omega-3fatty acids, particularly in comparison with green leafy vegetables, which played a key role in Paleolithic diets. What's more, both wild edible plants and the meat of wild animals – which were staples in Paleolithic diets – contain significantly more omega-3 fatty acids than the meat and vegetables that we find in the supermarkets.

But what's perhaps the biggest reason for the excessive amounts of omega-6s in modern diets is the introduction of cheap vegetable and seed oils, such as sunflower oil and corn oil, in the 20th century. Most vegetable oils have very low omega-3 to omega-6 ratios, and according to USDA data, 66 percent of all the polyunsaturated fatty acids in the American diet came from salad/cooking oils in 2010, so it is easy to see how these oils are contributing to the skewed omega 3 to 6 ratios in modern diets.

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