When it comes to nutrition that helps you stay healthy and young for as long as possible, many think of vitamins. Other nutrients are just as important as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. They influence silent inflammation, the cause of widespread diseases and signs of aging.

Common diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes , arteriosclerosis, some types of cancer, but also signs of aging, have something in common: They are partly based on so-called silent inflammation. These are inflammations without acute signs of inflammation, but recognizable in the blood by a slight increase in inflammation markers.

“With classic chronic inflammation, such as inflammatory bowel disease or rheumatic disease, the patient has pain and fever , i.e. clear signs, but not with silent inflammations such as obesity and type 2 diabetes,” explains study doctor Stefan Kabisch in more detail.

These silent inflammations can occur anywhere in the body, “for example in the brain there are also connections with the development of dementia , or fatty liver can turn into fatty liver inflammation,” adds the expert from the German Institute for Nutritional Research Potsdam-Rehbrücke, Clinical Working Group Nutrition.

Silent inflammations promote illness and typical signs of aging

Why silent inflammations favor chronic diseases, accelerate the aging process and demonstrably cost years of life: Among other things, they are related to shortened telomeres, the end sequences of the chromosomes. Telomeres are considered a mirror of biological age – they are long in young people and shorten as they age.

Diet helps determine the risk of silent inflammation

Inflammation, especially silent inflammation, is also dependent on nutrition. This means that the right meal plan can reduce the risk of inflammation – and thus perhaps also the risk of many diseases, but also premature signs of old age and a shorter life expectancy.

“A lot of nutritional factors have an effect on inflammatory processes,” explains Stefan Kabisch. Dietary fiber from grains, vegetables and polyphenols, i.e. certain secondary plant substances, such as in fruit and wine, have anti-inflammatory effects. The scientist names sugar and saturated fatty acids as drivers of inflammation.

Unsaturated fatty acids – but not all of them are beneficial to health

Saturated fat has long been known to increase unfavorable blood lipids such as LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. “But they are also an important driver of inflammation,” summarizes Stefan Kabisch. Saturated fatty acids are mainly found in animal foods such as meat and sausage, dairy products such as butter and cheese, but also in coconut fat and palm oil. These should therefore only be consumed very little.

In contrast, unsaturated fatty acids are considered healthier. The most important unsaturated fatty acids are:

  • monounsaturated fatty acids (e.g. in olive oil)
  • Trans fats, i.e. unsaturated fats with one or more double bonds (naturally in meat and dairy products, but also artificially produced when vegetable fat is hardened), are known to be unhealthy
  • polyunsaturated fatty acids such as omega-3 fatty acids (fatty fish, linseed oil, hemp oil, in small amounts in rapeseed oil) and
  • other polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acids (sunflower oil, soybean oil, corn seed oil, pumpkin seed oil, but also meat and sausage)

“We can almost certainly regard the omega-3 fatty acids as the healthiest,” says the expert. Biochemistry shows that enzymes in the body convert them to anti-inflammatory tissue hormones.

It is a little different with omega-6 fatty acids. “In contrast to the omega-3 fatty acids, they are precursors of inflammation-promoting substances, and although they are converted by the same enzymes as the omega-3 fatty acids, they become inflammatory hormones,” warns Stefan Kabisch. Although they are also polyunsaturated fatty acids, they tend to turn into something bad, as biochemical studies show. There are hardly any studies that compare the effects of omega-3 fatty acids in humans with that of omega-6 fatty acids in the diet.

Omega-6 to Omega-3 in the ideal ratio for health and a long life

What does this mean for the daily diet? In general, we take in much more omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acids. Therefore, consumers should make sure that they consume enough omega-3 and not too much omega-6. Stefan Kabisch recommends: “The ideal ratio is currently 5: 1, ie 5 parts omega-6 to one part omega-3.” This means that the effects of the anti-inflammatory and inflammatory hormones are in balance.

At the moment, however, the ratio for most Germans would be around 15: 1. So the omega-6 intake is three times higher than it would be good. One of the reasons for this is that numerous ready-made foods, processed foods and fast foods are prepared with (inexpensive) vegetable oils such as sunflower oil and foods rich in omega-3s (linseed oil, oily fish) are barely consumed.

Using fatty acids intelligently – just two rules

In practice, it can be difficult to calculate this ratio of fatty acids on the basis of the foods consumed, to bring it into the correct ratio and to integrate it into a daily menu. “But you can start with simple, clear rules that apply correctly to all parts of the metabolism,” suggests the expert. His tips:

1. Reduce saturated fatty acids, i.e. avoid meat, sausage, but also coconut and palm oil as much as possible. Even if these vegetable fats are still considered healthy by many consumers: They are saturated fatty acids and are therefore hardly inferior to butter and lard.

2. Eat fish twice a week because of the polyunsaturated cheap omega-3 fatty acids. But that should be a really fatty fish, not pangasius, but salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring. If vegetable oils are used in the kitchen , the following applies: the higher the proportion of unsaturated fatty acids, the more heat-labile the oil is. That means, for example, linseed and walnut oil only for the cold kitchen, hemp and rapeseed oil for stewing and cooking and olive and sunflower oil for cooking and frying. 

Is it an option to take supplements then? “There is no evidence of a health-relevant benefit for food supplements with omega-3 fatty acids,  explains the expert.

Organic meat and fatty acids

On the subject of meat: It should also depend on the form of production – organic meat and meat from species-appropriate husbandry can provide fatty acids in a more favorable ratio than conventional goods. According to the expert, species-appropriate or inappropriate to species hardly influence the fatty acid pattern. It could be different with organic. If the fatty acid in the feed is favorable, it also works in the meat. However, the effect would not be very pronounced. “In connection with omega-6 / omega-3 content, organic does not make linseed oil from beef”, he cushions expectations that are too high.

Don’t forget vitamins and fiber

The composition of the fats in food is therefore very important in order to avoid silent inflammation and in this way a number of diseases and aging symptoms. But that alone is not enough. In addition, other measures are important to prevent silent inflammation, and there are two main ones:

1. Eat a diet rich in vegetables and eat some fruit every day – this provides vitamins A, C and E, which act as free radical scavengers, as well as polyphenols. “Vegetables play an active role here and can do much more than just fill the stomach with low calories. Fruit supplements the vitamin requirement ”, emphasizes the researcher.

2. Consume whole grain products – they not only cause the blood sugar level to rise slowly, so that food cravings do not occur and sustained satiety occurs. “Above all, the fiber in cereals can have an anti-inflammatory effect,” emphasizes the expert. Why they can do this is not entirely clear, but large studies show a measurable link between high-fiber diets and health, as well as low-fiber diets, inflammatory diseases, and even cancer.

If you want to stay healthy and grow old as healthy as possible, you should therefore eat in a way that does not promote inflammation. You can do this with the right ratio of fatty acids, vitamins and fiber.