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PUFA Foods and Sources – Nutritional Wolves in Sheeps Clothing

PUFA foods and sources - PUFAs masquerade as healthy fats but nutritional wolves in sheep's clothing. Omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory

Death and disease by PUFA

Death by PUFA - It's the excess of omega-6 fatty acids that result in diseaseAll PUFA are not created equal and although many have been discovered to be extremely bad for us, in excess, there are a few well-known super supplements that actually fall under the category of PUFA. We’ll get into that shortly.

Most things are more complex than simple black and white and PUFA are no different. In fact, small amounts (and/or proportional amounts) of the so-called “bad” PUFA are actually essential for human health and are very beneficial.

Excessive amounts, however, lead to nasty diseases like arthritis, Crohn’s disease and even colorectal cancer. As with most health repercussions we’ve endured as a consequence of being hopelessly ignorant, while wielding the power to manipulate nature, we have once again catastrophically disrupted a dietary balance.

Many of us have never heard of PUFA, let alone know what foods they’re hiding in. I’ll explain what PUFA is/are, examine the sources of PUFA and discuss common foods they are hidden in. We’ll also distinguish between “good” and “bad” PUFA while explaining the importance of their proper balance.

PUFAs are found in many of our foods but we must understand them before we eliminate them

PUFA sources - vegetable oil such as this corn oil

  • Cooking oils
  • Nuts / Seeds
  • Mayonnaise
  • Salad dressings
  • Fried foods
  • Chips
  • Fatty fish
  • Peanuts/peanut butter
  • Processed foods
  • Soy/soy products
  • Health supplements

… and the list goes on

What in the heck is a PUFA?

A PUFA is a polyunsaturated fatty acid. Vegetable oils are their most common source.

Even if we aren’t cooking with these vegetable oils they are still contained in a majority of the packaged foods we buy.

“Good” PUFA

Fish oil contains omega-3 fatty acids which are good PUFAOmega-3 fatty acids and many other essential fatty acids are actually polyunsaturated fatty acids. These are the healthy fats found in fish oil, with EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) being the most popular and beneficial that we know of. They are anti-inflammatory, cardioprotective, brain healthy and help maintain good hair, skin and nails among other things.

“Bad” PUFA

Cooking with vegetable oil is bad for your health as it increases levels of dietary omega-6 into your dietOmega-6 fatty acids are the big bad wolves hiding out in sheep’s clothing. Once put on a pedestal and touted as the answer for heart disease, these fatty acids are proving to be an all-out disaster to our health. They single-handedly can be attributed to a whole host of nasty conditions and diseases. When consumed in excess they are pro-inflammatory substances that result in atherosclerosis, asthma, arthritis (and other inflammatory autoimmune disorders), vascular disease, thrombosis, and tumor proliferation.

PUFA - The amount of omega-6 and omega-3 in percentages of various oils both vegetable and fish

Technology and the advent of vegetable oils

Vegetable oil factoryThe progress of technology and medicinal science has afforded us many revolutionary breakthroughs that have helped us increase our lifespans and quality of life but we also have been introduced to many unnatural things.

Cottonseed oil is a good example. Would you sit down and start eating cotton seeds? You probably didn’t even know they were edible. No you wouldn’t and neither would your ancestors. Well, cottonseed oil is in about everything that has a wrapper on it and it’s 50% omega-6 fatty acids as you see from the table above.

Modern technology has the power to extract compounds that we then eat in concentrations that our species has never been accustomed to. Sometimes these discoveries are beneficial but many times they result in unintended consequences.

We must consume the proper ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids to avoid disease

Omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids should be at a 1 to 1 dietary intake ratioAnthropological research has been accumulated to suggest that in terms of our evolutionary dietary adaptation, our ancestors ate a diet that was close to 1:1 or an equal amount of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids. Today the average western diet is said to have a ratio of around 15:1!

The balance of these two fatty acids is terribly off. A study reported the abatement of various diseases and cancers occuring after subjects omega-6 to omega-3 ratio fell below certain levels. [1] Here is a quote from the study:

Excessive amounts of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) and a very high omega-6/omega-3 ratio, as is found in today’s Western diets, promote the pathogenesis of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, whereas increased levels of omega-3 PUFA (a low omega-6/omega-3 ratio) exert suppressive effects.

Omega-6 PUFA are pro-inflammatory and numerous published scientific studies point to their disastrous cascade of illness and malady.

  • Colorectal Cancer – An epidemiological study showed omega-6 PUFA increased colorectal tumorgenesis and inhibited the cancer attenuating effects of omega-3 PUFA [2]
  • Crohn’s Disease – Japanese study showed increase of Crohn’s  with increased dietary intake of omega-6 PUFA [3]
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis – A study demonstrated increasing omega-3 while decreasing omega-6 PUFA decreased RA symptoms as well as c-reactive protein and soluble tumor necrosis factor receptor p-55 (binds the inflammatory tumor necrosis factor/TNF-a) [4]
  • Breast Cancer – An epidemiological study concluded that postmenopausal women had a statistically significance higher incidence of breast cancer in association with a higher omega-6 PUFA diet [5]
  • Cardiovascular disease, mental illness, type-II diabetes – A study correlated a high omega-6, low omega-3 PUFA diet with a higher risk of these common health conditions the western world suffers from. It also was linked to obesity, metabolic disorders and more [6]

Omega-3 intake (such as from fish oil) decreases harmful effect of omega-6 PUFA

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids compete with each other for the same rate-limiting enzymes. So by increasing your omega-3 fatty acids such as those from fish oil (DHA and EPA) you can neutralize the inflammatory potential of the omega-6 fatty acids you eat. Omega-3 fatty acids are not only extremely beneficial to heart health and other bodily functions, they also “crowd out” the negative effects of omega-6 fatty acids. [7]

British Medical Journal reevaluates old cardiovascular study and finds increased risk of death with vegetable oil participants

British Medical Journal just reevaluated the Sidney Heart Diet Study and found that there was an increase in mortality for safflower oil participantsAround this time last year (February 2013), the British Medical Journal published a meta-analysis that reevaluated the Sydney Diet Heart Study that was conducted between 1966 and 1973. [8] The original study used the end-point of LDL cholesterol reduction as a marker for improved cardiovascular health but didn’t use their data to conclude if they actually did improve cardiovascular outcomes.

As it turns out, the subjects that had their animal fat intake replaced with safflower oil and safflower oil based margarine (AKA vegetable oil / bad PUFA), did see a reduction in total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, as would be expected. However, what the British Medical Journal actually discovered when reevaluating the data, was that this did NOT actually improve cardiovascular outcomes.

In fact, when compared to the control group that stuck to eating animal based fat, it showed these vegetable oil participants had an:

  • Increased risk of death (from any cause)
  • Increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease

How to decrease bad PUFA?

  1. By avoiding processed foods and going for more whole foods based approach to our nutrition we can cut out a lot of omega-6 fatty acids lurking in processed foodsLess Processed Foods – Next time you are in the grocery store look at the back of a candy bar, cereal bar or anything in a box or package for that matter. You more than likely will see cottonseed oil, soybean oil, safflower oil or corn oil. All are huge carriers of omega-6 bad PUFA. Cut these products out of your diet.
  2. Increase Fish Oil / Omega-3 – Omega-3 fatty acids are very beneficial to your health, protecting and fortifying your heart, brain, skin,eyes and nails but it also offsets bad PUFA (omega-6).
  3. More Whole Foods – Whole foods are fruits, vegetables, cultured/fermented foods and things that have no or minimal processing. Straight from the tree to the table.
  4. Nuts in Moderation – Many nuts including walnuts, peanuts, sunflower seeds have a high amount of omega-6 PUFA in them but they are within a whole food. They are balanced with fat, protein, carbohydrates and antioxidants. However, these were meant to be more snacks and less of an entire meal. Enjoy a handful here and there but don’t gorge yourself.
  5. Use Cooking Oils with Low Omega-6 – Avoid cooking with cottonseed, safflower, corn, peanut, soybean, sunflower, sesame, walnut oils. Instead use butter, coconut oil and olive oil. Canola oil is okay; it contains omega-6 fatty acids but is only at about a 2:1 (omega-6 to omega-3) ratio, which isn’t too bad. Use it sparingly. If trying to heal an inflammatory disease I recommend cutting canola altogether.

Caveat: Healthier Foods that Contain Omega-6

Healthy superfoods contain omega-6 but are often offset proteins, fats, carbohydrates and antioxidantsEven healthier foods can have high amounts of omega-6. It’s important to not automatically chuck all these out the window just because of the omega-6 content but I think they’re also important to be aware of.

  • Avocados
  • Eggs (which also have omega-3)
  • Chicken
  • Pork

These foods are also providing an enormous amount of other well-balanced nutrients. The important thing is to balance your diet with plenty of omega-3 fatty acids that you can get from:

  • Kiwi fruit are relatively high in good omega-3 PUFASalmon and other fatty fish (wild)
  • Fish oil
  • Flaxseed oil
  • Strawberries
  • Kiwi fruit
  • Broccoli
  • Krill oil
  • Calamari oil

About Doctor Scott Health

Dr. Scott McLeod, PharmD is an independent researcher, health advocate and author living in Santa Barbara, CA. For more information about Scott and Doctor Scott Health please visit the 'About' section, here.


  1. I’ve always wondered how much omega 3 and 6 are in my food, so I love the chart. I saved it to my pinterest board. Thanks!

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