A good friend of mine who is a vegetarian wondered if meat eaters — like me — generally have higher levels of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats in their systems than vegetarians do. I concluded that vegetarians on the whole probably do consume less omega-6s. I thought that this may go a long way to explaining why vegetarians are often pretty healthy people who sometimes are able to control their diabetes well even while they abstain from fish, which would provide them with anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats.
But now I’ve reviewed the evidence below. My conclusion is that it depends.
The first step to getting the omegas in balance, as I reviewed in my previous article here, “Cutting Back on Omega-6.” The key is to eat less of those foods high in absolute amounts of that fat.
We get the highest levels of omega-6 fats from the standard cooking oils — soybean, corn, canola, and cottonseed. We had good alternatives to those oils so they have little redeeming value.
Then come the tree nuts and ground nuts, which do have redeeming value. So we have to be ambivalent about them, and therefore the wisest course may be to eat them in moderation.
In terms of omega-6 levels, after those two food groups come meat. But not all meat and not just the meat we commonly demonize as the “red meat.”
KIM-2 show both the omega-3 and omega-6 composition of literally hundreds of cuts of meat. Let’s start with an iconic cut of red meat, a nice juicy steak (as a meat eater I consider it “nice,” although vegetarians don’t). A 3 oz. serving of a porterhouse steak provides 574 mg of omega 6 and 278 mg of omega 3. In fact, that’s not a high absolute amount compared to what we get from the four standard cooking oils and from nuts. And the ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 is a perfectly adequate 2:1.
On the other hand, 3 oz. of a tenderloin steak provides 460 mg of omega 6 and only 34 mg of omega 3 — a terrible ratio of the two omega but not too much omega-6 to worry about. If instead, we go for the basic ground beef (approximately 23 percent fat), we will get 671 mg of omega 6 in a 3 oz serving and just 102 mg of omega-3. That’s a load of omega-6, although we can reduce it by buying a lower fat offering. Indeed, a 3 oz. serving of 95 percent lean ground beef has only 255 mg of omega-6 and 45 mg of omega-3.
One big question is how much less omega-6 you can get from grass-fed beef. Unfortunately, we don’t have any updates of KIM-2 since 2004. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Nutrient Database shows omega-6 and omega-3 data for grass-fed ground beef as well as grass-fed strip steaks. After making the tedious conversions that using the USDA database requires, we find that 3 oz. of ground beef with 13 percent fat has just 162 mg of omega-6 and 74 mg of omega-3. This is a low level of omega-3 as well as an excellent ratio of these two fatty acids. This fact reinforces my decision to eat only beef that has been grass-fed.
Unfortunately, poultry has higher levels of omega-6. For example, one-half of a roasted chicken breast with bone and skin removed has 559 mg of omega-6 and 60 mg of omega-3. But a roasted chicken leg with bone and skin removed has 1,663 mg of omega-6 and 162 mg of omega-3. This is the price we pay for flavorful juicy dark chicken meat.
Turkey has less omega-6. For example, one-half of a roasted turkey breast with bone and skin removed — which is of course a lot more food than half of a chicken breast — has 520 mg of omega-6 and 61 mg of omega-3. But a roasted turkey leg with bone and skin removed has a huge 2,351 mg of omega-6 and 179 mg of omega-3.
All of these levels are for regular grain-fed poultry. Organic poultry may or may not be better. If you can get it, chickens and turkeys fed largely on a natural diet will undoubtedly have less omega-6 and more omega-3. But we don’t yet have comparable statistics.
Thanks for coming this far with me through this maze of numbers. They do show that most of the meat we consume contributes to the overwhelming level of omega-6 fats in the typical American diet. While a vegetarian diet avoids this overload, consuming only grass-fed beef can be just as healthy.
This article is based on an earlier version of my article published by HealthCentral.