Did you know that certain types of fats are critical for the body to function properly? These fats are beneficial fats and they are otherwise known as Essential Fatty Acids or EFAs. The reason that they are called ‘essential’ is because your body is not able to produce them. Essential fatty acids must come from your diet.
More about EFAs
Essential Fatty Acids are the special kind of good fat. They are needed to maintain the right structure and function of every cell in our bodies and that’s why they are so important for optimal health. EFAs are able to promote the absorption of vitamins and minerals.
Generally speaking, fats or fatty acids fall into two main groups that are called saturated and unsaturated fats. This is dependent on their chemistry.
There are three major classes of unsaturated fatty acids: omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9. The omega-6s and omega-3s are essential. The omega-9 s are thought of as non-essential because the body is able to make them from other fatty acids.
Unsaturated fatty acids are broken down further into monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats. Essential Fatty Acids are considered polyunsaturated.
- Omega 6 fatty acid or linoleic acid (LA), and its derivatives, gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) and arachidonic acid (AA)
- Omega 3 fatty acid or alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and its derivatives, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Supposedly, only LA and ALA are considered absolutely essential. However, the fatty acids that come from them are also generally thought of as essential.
Essential Fatty Acid deficiency has become very common today because of our modern diet and lifestyle choices. Environmental factors are also a huge consideration. Many people are known to have a problem converting LA and ALA to their derivatives.
There are a number of body functions that rely heavily on adequate intake of essential fatty acids. They affect function in all parts of the body. Genrally speaking the recommended requirement is to consume a minimum of between 3% and 5% of calories from Omega 6 and about .5% to 1% from Omega-3 essntial fatty acids. That works out to be about 12 grams of Omega 6 and 3 grams of Omega-3 in a 2000 calorie diet,
A vegetarian diet is often naturally low in fat. That is why it is important to include foods that are rich in essential fatty acids to promote your healthy lifestyle.
Benefits of Essential Fatty Acids
One important role is that they regulate blood clotting. Omega 6 essntial fatty acids promote blood clotting while Omega 3 oil essential fatty acids reduce clotting. The challenge is to achieve a balance between omega 6 and omega 3 EFAs.
They play an important role in regulating blood pressure, liver function and also immune and inflammatory responses. They form healthy cell membranes. They promote healthy thyroid and adrenal gland activity as well as hormone production.
Very important, too, is that they ensure the proper development and functioning of the brain and nervous system.
And now we also know how important essential fatty acids are for the transport and breakdown of cholesterol.
They also support healthy hair and skin.
Food sources of Essential Fatty Acids
Omega 6 LA is found in many vegetables and most vegetable oils – sunflower (65-75%), safflower (79%), evening primrose seed (72%), corn (57%), peanut (31%), canola (19-26%), and olive (8%). LA is found abundantly in food so there is no need to supplement.
Omega 6 derivative GLA is found abundantly in borage (starflower) oil, GLA (20-24%); evening primrose oil (8-10%); and black currant oil (15-17%). Human breast milk is known to have small amounts of GLA and it is also found in some foods, but the typical diet provides very little GLA.
Omega 6 AA is found in high amounts in eggs, fish and meat, AA is also abundant in the food supply and supplementation is not usually necessary.
Omega 3 ALA is found in flax seed (18-22%) and flax seed oil (50-60%), and in small amounts in some nuts, green leafy vegetables, canola, wheat germ and black current seeds.
Omega 3 EPA and DHA are both found in fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and tuna. Fish oils will vary in the amount of EPA and DHA they give depending on the source. Fish oil supplements often contain 18% EPA and 12% DHA, with more concentrated oils containing 30% EPA and 20% DHA.
Ratios of EFAs
Not only is it important to take in good sources of omega-3 and omega-6s in your diet, but it is also important to consume fatty acids in the correct ratio. Omega-6 fatty acids compete with omega-3 fatty acids for use in our bodies and that’s why excessive intake of omega-6 fatty acids can inhibit omega-3s.
Ideally, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids ought to be between 1:1 and 4:1.
Unfortunately, because most Americans eat these fatty acids at a ratio of omega-6:omega-3 between 10:1 and 25:1, they are not able to get the benefits of omega-3s.
This is because we rely on processed foods and oils, so common in our Western diet. It is eat a low-fat diet using only a small amount of processed foods and making sure you eat naturally occurring omega-3 fatty acids. They have found that a lower omega-6:omega-3 ratio is helpful for reducing the risk of many chronic diseases.
Suggested EFA Requirements
Because the typical North American diet contains more trans and saturated fats with less EFA containing seeds, berries and fish, because it is substantially different from the diet of our ancestors and because so many other factors interfere with fatty acid metabolism, we find that most diets may not contain sufficient amount of EFAs. Supplementation is therefore recommended.
Essential Fatt Acids for Pregnancy and Lactation
It is very important to get enough essential fatty acids from dietary sources in pregnancy and lactation. We know from recent research that these fatty acids are necessary for fetal growth and brain development. Essential fatty acids are also essential for infants so as to make sure that their growth and development flourishes, and, in fact, ensure normal functioning of all tissues of the body. Increased omega 3 fatty acid intake in post-natal period immediately after birth, shows association with improved cognitive outcomes.
It is very important, too, that the mother’s diet includes a good supply of omega-3s because the babies get essential fatty acids through breast milk. Pregnant women and lactating mothers may also consider using DHA supplementation.
Conditions helped by EFAs
- Mental Disorder
- Elevated Cholesterol
- Skin Disorder
- Arthritis and joint conditions
- Heart disease
Yes, Essential Fatty Acids are Essential!