If you’re like most people, you are probably wondering, “What are essential fatty acids?” Or, “How could something with the word ‘fat’ in it be good for me?” The short answer is essential fatty acids (or EFA’s) are essential because our bodies alone cannot produce them – they must be obtained through our diet. EFA’s are long molecules that are used in the construction of the walls of our cells, known as the cell membranes. The cell membranes are critical for both nutritional processes and the excretion of toxic waste products. Without EFA’s, the body cannot make or repair cell membranes correctly. EFA’s also regulate bodily functions such as blood pressure, clotting, fertility, heart rate and immunity. For these reasons, they are often referred to as “good fats”.
Now that you know a little more about essential fatty acids, you may wonder, “Are there different types of EFA’s?” And if so, “What are the differences?”
There are two main classes of EFA’s in our diet – omega-3 and omega-6. The diet of our ancestors was very different from the diet we eat today. It was much lower in calories, higher in fiber, and richer in fruits, vegetables, lean meat and fish. It was also lower in overall total fat and contained equal amounts of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Today, however, the typical Western diet contains 10 to 25 times more omega-6 than omega-3, making the typical Western diet appallingly deficient in omega-3’s.
This is important because EFA’s are not all created equal: omega-3 and omega-6 have very different and opposing functions. Omega-3’s are necessary for proper cell membrane construction and keep the membrane flexible and supple. This is particularly important in red blood cells. In 2004, the FDA stated that consumption of omega-3’s may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, and they have been shown to reduce blood pressure and blood triglyceride levels. Omega-3’s have been studied for their beneficial role in brain and mood disorders, such as Parkinson’s and ADHA. Omega-6’s also have some benefits, such as supporting healthy skin and kidneys, but not nearly that of omega-3’s. Furthermore, too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3 has been shown to cause serious health problems, such as heart attack, arthritis, inflammation, mood disorders, obesity and cancer. Not only that, excessive omega-6 will compete with omega-3, thus increasing the deficiency of omega-3. Researchers now know that a proper balance of omega-6 and omega-3 EFA’s is critically important in development, decreasing chronic disease and improving mental function.
You can increase your consumption of omega-3 EPA and DHA by eating more cold water fish or taking a fish oil supplement. For vegans and vegetarians, walnuts, hemp, flaxseed and canola oil provide omega-3 ALA and GLA, important building blocks for EPA and DHA.
Simopoulos AP. Human requirement for N-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. The Center for Genetics Nutrition and Health, Washington
Schmitz G, Ecker J. The opposing effects of n-3 and n-6 fatty acids. Prog Lipid Res. 2008 Mar; 47(2):147-55.
American Heart Association: www.americanheart.org