The diet of our ancestors was less dense in calories, being higher in fiber, rich in fruits, vegetables, lean meat, and fish. As a result, the diet was lower in total fat and saturated fat, but contained equal amounts of n-6 and n-3 essential fatty acids. Linoleic acid (LA) is the major n-6 fatty acid, and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is the major n-3 fatty acid.

In the body, LA is metabolized to arachidonic acid (AA), and ALA is metabolized to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The ratio of n-6 to n-3 essential fatty acids was 1 to 2:1 with higher levels of the longer-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), such as EPA, DHA, and AA, than today's diet. Today this ratio is about 10 to 1:20 to 25 to 1, indicating that Western diets are deficient in n-3 fatty acids compared with the diet on which humans evolved and their genetic patterns were established.

The n-3 and n-6 EPA are not interconvertible in the human body and are important components of practically all cell membranes. The N-6 and n-3 fatty acids influence eicosanoid metabolism, gene expression, and intercellular cell-to-cell communication.

The PUFA composition of cell membranes is, to a great extent, dependent on dietary intake. Therefore, appropriate amounts of dietary n-6 and n-3 fatty acids need to be considered in making dietary recommendations. These two classes of PUFA should be distinguished because they are metabolically and functionally distinct and have opposing physiological functions; their balance is important for homeostasis and normal development.

Studies with nonhuman primates and human newborns indicate that DHA is essential for the normal functional development of the retina and brain, particularly in premature infants. A balanced n-6/n-3 ratio in the diet is essential for normal growth and development and should lead to decreases in cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases and improve mental health.

Although a recommended dietary allowance for essential fatty acids does not exist, an adequate intake (AI) has been estimated for n-6 and n-3 essential fatty acids by an international scientific working group. For Western societies, it will be necessary to decrease the intake of n-6 fatty acids and increase the intake of n-3 fatty acids.

The food industry is already taking steps to return n-3 essential fatty acids to the food supply by enriching various foods with n-3 fatty acids. To obtain the recommended AI, it will be necessary to consider the issues involved in enriching the food supply with n-3 PUFA in terms of dosage, safety, and sources of n-3 fatty acids.