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