Food With Essential Fatty Acids


Food With Essential Fatty Acids. Essential fatty acids are essentially fats that are necessary for the body. They’re essential because the body cannot produce them, hence the name “essential”. There are two families of essential fatty acids and they have a number of different health benefits. Here’s a look at foods with essential fatty acids.

Food With Essential Fatty Acids

These eight foods are some of the best sources of healthy fatty acids:

1. Fish

Two of the omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic (EPA) and docosahexaenoic (DHA), are known as the” marine fatty acids” because they occur almost exclusively in fish. The best sources are salmon, herring, sardines, and other fatty fish.

2. Flaxseed Oil

Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is another essential fatty acid. The recommended amount of ALA ranges from 0.5 to 1.6 grams (g), depending upon age and sex. One tablespoon of flaxseed oil contains over 7g of ALA. To get the full benefit of ALA, it needs to be converted into EPA and DHA, and the body doesn’t do that efficiently. Flaxseed oil is good for you, but still not as good as fatty fish.

3. Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

Olive oil is high in monounsaturated fatty acids, making it a good dietary substitution for unhealthier saturated fat. Extra-virgin olive oil is minimally processed without using chemicals or heat. It is one part of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet.

4. Chia Seeds

Tiny black chia seeds are rich in omega-3s, and they also contain protein and fiber. Unlike some seeds, they release their nutrients without being crushed.

5. Walnuts

Walnuts pack a double punch, as they contain both omega-3s and omega-6s. One ounce of walnuts contains about 2.5g of ALA, which is about twice the average recommended daily intake. Still, you should consume walnuts in moderation as they contain about 185 calories per ounce (about seven nuts).

6. Canola Oil

Canola oil is lower in saturated fat than other commonly used cooking oils. One tablespoon of canola oil contains more than 1g of ALA. It is a highly processed oil, but food purists can look for the cold-pressed version.

7. Sunflower Oil

While it has always been considered a source of healthy unsaturated fats, sunflower oil is now available in a high-oleic version, which has a healthier fat profile than olive oil. All types of sunflower oil also contain more Vitamin E than any other oil. Vitamin E is an antioxidant that fights inflammation. It may help protect the body from cardiovascular disease, cancer, eye disorders, and cognitive decline.

8. Avocados

Avocados are a good source of monounsaturated oils, and they contain a wide spectrum of other nutrients as well. They are a high-calorie food, with just half an avocado containing about 161 calories.

Why You Need Fatty Acids

Although all fats are built of fatty acids, most discussion of fatty acids centers around the polyunsaturated and monounsaturated types. The omega-3s and omega-6s are especially important. They are known as essential fatty acids because the body cannot manufacture them. They must be consumed in food. 

Most foods contain a mixture of fats. Even foods that contain healthy fatty acids may contain some saturated fats. Read labels and choose foods with the best ratio of healthy fats and unhealthy fats. 

 It’s also important to remember that all fats are high in calories and should be used sparingly. Otherwise, they may lead to obesity and the associated health challenges.

If you are wondering whether you get enough “good” fatty acids in your diet, the answer is not simple. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines contain no guidelines for most fatty acids. There is a recommendation for linolenic acid (an omega-3) and for linoleic acid (an omega-6) for children and young adults. For most people, the goal should be a well-balanced diet in which healthy fatty acids have taken the place of most saturated fats. 

The benefits of fatty acids are found mainly in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats:

Heart Health

One of the best things you can do for your heart is to replace saturated fats in your diet with unsaturated fats. Healthier fats reduce your cholesterol levels and cut your risk of heart attack and stroke.

The American Heart Association recommends that people limit their intake of saturated fats to less than 7% of their caloric intake and their intake of trans fats to less than 1%.

Skin Health

Omega-3s and omega-6s are both necessary for skin health. They keep skin elastic and reduce the effect of UV rays on the skin. They also help the skin function as a barrier, keeping moisture in and irritants out. A deficiency of omega fatty acids may cause various skin conditions.

Brain Health

Fatty fish is one of the best sources of omega-3s. Older adults who eat a lot of fish show less cognitive decline than those who eat a diet high in saturated fats.  

Healthy Pregnancies

Pregnant women need a good supply of omega-3s to ensure normal development of their babies. Omega-3s are especially important for fetal development of the brain and eyes. These essential fatty acids may also prevent depression during pregnancy and the postpartum period.

The importance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids

The beneficial effects of consuming omega-3 fatty acids are well publicised, but omega-6 fatty acids feature far less in the news. So what are fatty acids and why is it important that we get the balance right?

Understanding omega-3 and omega-6 structure

About 90% of our dietary fats come in the form of triglycerides, which are made up of fatty acids and glycerol (figure 1). Fatty acids consist of a chain of carbon atoms, with a methyl group at one end and an acid group at the other. Each carbon atom has a number of hydrogen atoms attached to it – the exact number of hydrogen atoms on each carbon depends on whether the fat is saturated or unsaturated. Saturated fatty acids contain the maximum level of hydrogen atoms possible, while in unsaturated fatty acids, some of the hydrogen atoms are missing and have been replaced with double bonds between the carbon atoms.

Structure of a triglyceride and saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids

Figure 1.  Structure of a triglyceride and saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids.

The fat is termed “monounsaturated” if there is one double bond, and “polyunsaturated” if there are two or more double bonds. The omega-3 and omega-6 are fatty acids both types of polyunsaturated fat. The difference is in where the first of the double bonds occurs. In omega-3 fatty acids, the first double bond occurs on the third carbon atom, but in omega-6 fatty acids, the first double bond is on the sixth carbon atom, counting from the methyl end (denoted as omega) (figure 2).

Structure of an omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid

Figure 2. Structure of an omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid.

Omega-3 and omega-6 in the body

Both omega-3 (ω-3) and omega-6 (ω-6) fatty acids are important components of cell membranes and are precursors to many other substances in the body such as those involved in regulating blood pressure and inflammatory responses. There is increasing support for omega-3 fatty acids in protecting against fatal heart disease and it is known that they have anti-inflammatory effects, which may be important in this and other diseases. There is also growing interest in the role of omega-3 fatty acids in the prevention of diabetes and certain types of cancer.

The human body is capable of producing all the fatty acids it needs, except for two: linoleic acid (LA) – an omega-6 fatty acid, and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) – an omega-3 fatty acid. These have to be consumed from the diet and are termed “essential fatty acids”. Both of these fatty acids are needed for growth and repair but can also be used to make other fatty acids. For example, the omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), can be synthesised from ALA. However, as conversion is limited, it is recommended that sources of these are also included in the diet. ALA and LA are found in plant and seed oils. Although the levels of LA are usually much higher than those of ALA, rapeseed oil and walnut oil are very good sources of the latter. EPA and DHA are found in oily fish (e.g., salmon, mackerel, herring). AA can be obtained from animal sources, such as meat and egg yolk.

The omega-3/omega-6 ratio

In the human body, LA and ALA compete for metabolism by the enzyme delta-6-desaturase. It has been suggested that this is important for health, as high intake of LA would reduce the amount of delta-6-desaturase available for the metabolism of ALA, which may increase the risk of heart disease. This was supported by data showing that over the last 150 years, intakes of omega-6 have increased and intakes of omega-3 have decreased in parallel with the increase in heart disease. Thus, the concept of an “ideal” ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the diet was developed.

However, the ratio that is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease has not yet been identified and some experts now suggest that the ratio is less important – what we should be more concerned with is the absolute levels of intake. A workshop report on this area concluded that simply increasing the amount of ALA, EPA and DHA in the diet would achieve the desired increase in levels of these fatty acids in the body’s tissues, and that decreasing the intake of LA and AA was not necessary.3 Furthermore, the ratio method does not distinguish between those diets that are adequate in both omega-6 and omega-3, and those diets that are deficient in both of these.


The European Food Safety Authority proposed adequate intake for LA and ALA at 4 and 0.5 percent of total energy, respectively. For EPA and DHA, adequate intake was set at 250 mg a day. It was also observed that the average intake of total omega-3 across Europe ranged from approximately 0.7 to 1.3 percent total energy. For EPA and DHA the mean intake was found to be between 20 mg to 40 mg per day, and less than 100mg to 130 mg per day, respectively.

Intakes are too low in most cases and increasing our consumption of omega-3 rich foods would be beneficial to most people. This may be achieved for example by eating fatty fish once or twice a week and by occasionally replacing sunflower oil with rapeseed oil.

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