What are essential fatty acids?
Essential fatty acids are just that, essential. This means that we need to obtain these fats from our diet as our body does not produce them. EFAs play a big role in the promotion of health and the prevention of chronic disease and should be emphasized in any balanced diet. Studies have shown that increasing essential fatty acids in the diet can help prevent certain diseases, prolong quality of life, improve mental and physical performance, and support a healthy body composition.
The essential fatty acids
Linoleic acid (omega 6 fatty acid) and alpha-linolenic acid (omega 3 fatty acid) make up the essential fatty acids that are critical for proper development and body functions.
Linoleic acid can break down into arachidonic acids which can act as pro or anti-inflammatory compounds in the body.
Alpha-linolenic acid is predominantly made up of the fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), known for their benefits of lowering inflammation and improving cognitive function. These fats have several main functions in the body ranging from energy production, oxygen transfer, hemoglobin production, and making up cell membranes. Benefits of EFAs include improving skin health, ensuring proper cell signaling and nerve functioning, supporting mood and brain function, boosting immunity, and decreasing inflammation.
Where can you obtain these fats from your diet?
Omega 6 rich foods
- Flaxseed and flaxseed oil
- Soybean oil
- Sunflower oil
- Safflower oil
- Hempseed and hempseed oil
- Pumpkin seeds
Omega 3 rich foods
- Flaxseed and flaxseed oil
- Chia seeds
- Fatty fish (wild salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies…)
Essential fatty acids are commonly deficient in the Western diet, especially omega 3 fats, and this stems from several reasons. First, the Standard North American diet provides an overabundance of omega 6 compared to omega 3 fats which can contribute to increased inflammation and oxidative damage. It is estimated that our modern diet consists of a ratio close to 20:1 omega 6 to omega 3 whereas it should ideally sit around 2:1. Omega 6 fats are found abundantly in processed and fast foods, vegetable oils, and soy so your best bet is to focus on whole foods and make sure you are including omega 3 rich foods daily to keep this ratio balanced. Looking to boost your omega 3 intake? Check out some of our top tips for choosing a good quality supplement to make sure you are getting the nutrition you need at the best quality.
Choosing an Omega 3 supplement
Not all omega 3 supplements are created equal. Poor quality products can promote oxidation in the body through processing, rancidity, or poor sourcing. This can lead to inflammation and lower nutrient content which is why consumer knowledge matters!
You can find omega 3 supplements in vegan form in algae or animal-form in fish or krill.
- Triglyceride form, the natural form that is more easily digested and absorbed in the body than the ethyl ester form.
- Third-party testing to ensure the product is free of contaminants and heavy metals.
- A concentrated dose of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Look for at least 1gram of EPA + DHA per day.
- Wild fish like wild Alaskan salmon and arctic cod, or smaller fish like anchovies, sardines, and mackerel which contain lower levels of toxins than bigger fish. Avoid factory-farmed fish at all costs.
Laurence Annez is a Certified Nutritional Practitioner and Health Coach, specializing in PCOS and women's hormones. She also holds a degree in Creative Writing and has extensive experience writing on health and wellness topics. Laurence's mission is to inspire and motivate individuals to take control of their own health and reach their ultimate health goals.