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What are Essential Fatty Acids?

Fatty Acids

Essential fatty acids are a type of fat that the body needs; however, the only way to produce them is by eating foods or supplements that contain linolenic and linoleic acid[1]. These fats help the body manufacture the important, essential fatty acids known as omega-3 and omega-6.

The main function of these two fatty acids is to maintain the body's skin and tissue healthy. A deficiency in fatty acids can cause several different health issues. The immune system, circulatory system, and other important parts of the body can suffer abnormal changes if adequate amounts of fatty acids are not provided[2].

Omega-6 Fatty Acids

Obtaining omega-6 fatty acids is not usually difficult to do, as they can be found in vegetables, nuts, grains, seeds, corn oil, soybean oil, sesame oil, sunflower oil, and cottonseed oil. More rare types of omega-6 fatty acids can be found in other oils such as; hemp oil, black currant oil, borage oil, and evening primrose oil. Since these oils are often times hard to find, sticking to supplements may be a good alternative[3].

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Fish and other types of meat contain omega-3 fatty acids, but there are other food sources available that can provide you with the necessary omega-3 fatty acids. Vegetarians should have no problem getting their daily dose of omega-3 fatty acids, as they are found in various vegetables, seeds, fruits, nuts, and beans. Flaxseed oil is especially known to provide the best source of alpha-linolenic acid, a type of omega-3 essential fatty acid.

In general, large quantities of omega-3 acids can be obtained through oils including; soybean oil and wheat germ oil. While sunflower, corn, nut, and seed oils usually contain smaller amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, they also include omega-6 acids and can provide you with a good source of both essential fatty acids[4].

Fatty Acid Supplements

Today, the majority of people lack omega-3 fatty acids, whereas omega-6 fatty acids are overly consumed. Most people are not aware that the standard ratio for omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids is 4-5 to 1. That means that for every omega-3 that is ingested, four or five of omega-6 should be consumed. Currently, people in the U.S. maintain a diet that includes 10-20 omega-6 acids to 1 omega-3 fatty acids[5].

Besides being necessary for your overall health, an imbalance or deficiency of essential fatty acids can greatly damage your body systems. Hormones, which are directly involved in adolescents and puberty, and natural chemicals found in the body can also be altered and cause several health problems[6]-[7].

One way to assure that you are including adequate amounts of fatty acids in your diet is by taking a supplement. As stated by the University of Maryland Medical Center, when taking a fish oil supplement it is important to consume 2 to 4 times more of omega-6 than omega-3. While essential fatty acids can be easily purchased over the counter, talking to your doctor is advised. He will be able to evaluate your health and determine whether supplements are the right choice for you[8].

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essential_fatty_acid
  2. http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/infocenter/othernuts/omega3fa/
  3. http://nutritiondata.self.com/foods-000141000000000000000-w.html
  4. http://www.webmd.com/diet/your-omega-3-family-shopping-list
  5. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/07/100726221737.htm
  6. Colquhoun I, Bunday S. A lack of essential fatty acids as a possible cause of hyperactivity in children. Med Hypotheses. 1981 May;7(5):673-9.
  7. Smith SS, Neuringer M, Ojeda SR. Essential fatty acid deficiency delays the onset of puberty...Endocrinology. 1989 Sep;125(3):1650-9.
  8. http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/omega-3-000316.htm