Essential Fatty Acids: The Fats of Life

Just as your body requires complete protein foods to obtain the essential amino acids, it also demands certain types of fat. Along with proteins and carbohydrates, fat is one of the three nutrients used as energy by the body. Our body can easily produce almost all fatty acids with a few exceptions. However, there are some exceptions to this rule. Two such fatty acids are Omega-3 and Omega-6. We call them essential fatty acids (EFAs) and since they cannot be synthesized at appreciable levels by the body they must be supplemented in the diet.

If you do not eat enough of the essential fatty acids … guess what… you’re going to get sick. Your performance in the gym is also going to be poor. What kind of sickness? The list is quite extensive and it depends on your deficiency. It is, therefore, not enough to eat them randomly. You have to eat them every day and you also have to balance the omega-3 with the omega-6.

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are found in everyday oil that you use for cooking, baking, and eating. One of the problems with these oils (among many others) is that they have more omega 6 than omega 3. And, it is the omega 3 that you need more of in your diet.

This article provides some basic facts about the EFAs in general, without making too much distinctions between omega-3 and omega-6. Although it’s obvious that these two EFAs are not the same. Therefore this article focuses more on some common features that more or less apply to all essential fatty acids.

What are essential fatty acids?

In a nutshell, a sub-category of polyunsaturated fats, essential fatty acids (EFAs) are extremely important fats that our body cannot synthesize (produce) at all, or, it has very limited capacity for their production. These fatty acids, therefore, must be provided in the diet. In other words, we must get them through the foods we eat.

There are two essential fatty acids:

  • Linoleic acid – LA (also known as Omega 6), and
  • Alpha linoleic acid – ALA (also known as Omega 3 fatty acid)

omega 3 vs omega 6

These two essential fatty acids our body can then transform into any kind of fat it needs.

Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are the main members of the omega-3 family of fatty acids (in addition to the already mentioned alpha linoleic acid). We consider them to be semi-essential as the body cannot produce them at appreciable levels.

When you eat linoleic acid, your body converts it into a number of other fatty acids, including gammalinolenic acid (GLA) and docosapentanoic acid (DPA).

What are the common physiological functions of the essential fatty acids?

  • Comprising a substantial amount of the lipid material in cell membranes in all tissue types.
  • Forming signaling molecules such as eicosanoids, which regulate inflam­mation, blood clotting, and tissue repair following injury.
  • Serving as antioxidants (numerous human studies have determined that supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids reduces systemic markers of oxi­dative stress).

Health benefits of EFAs

Why do we need EFAs? Essential fatty acids (especially omega-3s) have some significant health advantages. They can reduce inflammation, help prevent cancer growth, and improve brain function (maintaining a healthy central nervous system). Omega 3 fatty acids can actually help combat conditions such as depression, fatigue, joint pain, and even type 2 diabetes. They can also support hair and skin health, heart health, help to regulate blood cholesterol levels and support growth and development in unborn babies.

However, the far most important benefit of EFAs is their capacity to reduce inflammation. You wonder why? Inflammation is the root cause of all chronic disease. If you can reduce inflammation, you can bet your risk of developing chronic disease will freefall.

Best food sources of essential fatty acids

Although plant sources of essential fats, like flaxseeds and tofu, are generally healthy, they aren’t nearly as powerful as fish oil. Fish oils are sources of both EPA and DHA, both of which have anti-inflammatory effects. Knowing that, it’s no wonder that fish oil has been flying off the shelves recently.

Other excellent food sources of EFAs include: salmon, perilla seed oil, hemp oil, chia seeds, walnuts, sardines, cod, mackerel, halibut, trout and eel, pumpkin seeds, nuts, grains, legumes, etc.

Best food sources of essential fatty acids

Infographic by Keir Watson, Rosemary Cottage Clinic; Central n-6 and n-3 pathways from Simopoulos, 2006

Supplements

Of all the supplements on the market, none seem to have the range of claims as essential fats do. Although some of these claims overhype the research, there’s no doubting that fish oil (rich in omega-3) has a mountain of research backing it up as a supplement health miracle.

Typically, vegetarians have a high intake of omega-6 and a much lower intake of omega-3. Vegetarians and non-vegetarians, who rarely eat oily fish, may not consume adequate amounts of the long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids.

It’s a good idea to take vegetarian omega-3 supplements if you don’t get food sources of omega-3s regularly. Opt for supplements made from algae oil – these are better options than those made from flaxseed oil as they contain high levels of both the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA instead of ALA.

The high concentration of omega-3s found in oily fish is due to the algae they consume, which produces the oils.

Do essential fatty acids provide some benefits for athletes and regular exercisers?

What about essential fatty acids and athletic performance?

essential fatty acids and athletic performance

  • EFAs can help burn fat by blocking the enzymes that your body relies on to store fat. This is thanks to omega-3.
  • Recently, linoleic acid (omega-6) has been modified into a structure known as CLA (Conjugated linoleic acid) which is being promoted for its fat burning properties. But, nothing conclusive has been proven yet.
  • Omega-3 helps in making the muscle cells more insulin sensitive. This leads to a greater absorption of glycogen and amino acids into the muscle cells.
  • EFAs provide antioxidants and assist in recovery from exercise, enabling more efficient workouts.
  • EFAs can lead to reduction of inflammation caused by muscular fatigue and overexertion (allows recovery to proceed sooner than normal).
  • Enhanced release of somatotropin in response to normal stimuli (exercise, sleep, recovery) may have anabolic/recovery effects.
  • Improved delivery of oxygen and nutrients to muscles and other tissues from reduced blood viscosity, capillary vasodilation, and increased erythrocyte deformability yielding greater tissue perfusion.

Intake recommendations

In general, people tend to consume more omega 6 essential fatty acids than omega 3.  We tend to get most of our unsaturated fats from margarines and oils, processed foods containing vegetable oils, and oily fish. Experts recommend shifting this balance in favour of omega-3s. So it is important to find quality sources of omega 3 essential fatty acids and incorporate them into your diet regularly.

The right balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids is the most important factor if you are to get enough EPA and DHA. Many experts believe that it is this imbalance of omega-3s to omega-6s that contributes to many health problems, such as heart disease, inflammation, rheumatoid arthritis and pain, even slow post-workout recovery. You should aim to achieve an LA to ALA ratio of around 5 to 1 or even lower, i.e. at least 1 g omega-3s for every 5 g of omega-6s. A high intake of LA interferes with the conversion process of LA to EPA and DHA. The best way to correct this is to eat more oily fish or other ALA-rich foods (see above) or take supplements.

There is no RDA for essential fatty acids. Aim to eat one to two portions of oily fish (sardines, mackerel, salmon) a week or one tablespoon of an omega-3-rich oil (e.g. walnut, flaxseed, rapeseed, pumpkin seed) daily. This should provide around 2–3 g EPA and DHA per week.

Closing thoughts

Obtaining sufficient fat in its healthy form is one of the best keys to good health and well being and a great body. Probably the best type of fat to have in your diet would be omega-3 fatty acids. Alpha-linolenic acid, EPA, and DHA are the main members of the omega-3 family of fatty acids. Both omega-6 (from most vegetable oils and margarines) and omega-3 (from oily fish and certain nuts and seeds) fatty acids are essential for optimizing the multitude of bodily functions. Some of these functions are closely related to both resistance and aerobic exercises and sports performance. However, you should aim to achieve an LA (omega-6) to ALA (omega-3) ratio of around 5 to 1 or even lower, i.e. at least 1 g omega-3s for every 5 g of omega-6s.

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