What Makes Essential Fatty Acids Essential for Health?

by Dr. David Williams
Filed Under: General Health
Last Reviewed 02/06/2014

Learn how to take omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids for best health

The diet of our ancestors included a good balance of fats and oils from both animals and plants. Unfortunately, our society seems to have developed an unhealthy fear of meat over the past 50 years or so, and we no longer get the combination of essential fatty acids we need for complete health.

In biological terms, an "essential" compound is one that your body can't make on its own and that you need to get from your diet. Using that definition, there are two truly essential fatty acids:

  • Omega-3 linolenic acid
  • Omega-6 linoleic acid

Your body uses enzymatic processes to turn linolenic acid and linoleic acid into other fatty acids. Two of those are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). In scientific circles, these have become known as essential fatty acids, or EFAs, so when I talk about EFAs in general, I’ll be referring to EPA and DHA.

Your body then uses the EFAs to manage myriad functions. For example, alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3, is converted into EPA, DHA, and subsequently eicosanoids that help prevent atherosclerosis (hardening of blood vessels).

How Do We Get EFAs?

The following are sources for EFAs:

  • Flax
  • Pumpkin
  • Black currant seed oils
  • Dark green leafy vegetables
  • Hemp
  • Fish provides a direct source of the alpha-linolenic acid "conversion products" EPA and DHA, since fish have already manufactured these two omega-3s from their food. Make these foods part of your diet so you’re not deficient in omega-3s.
  • Omega-6 linoleic acid is easy to get, because linoleic acid occurs naturally in almost all nuts and seeds, as well as in vegetable oils—including safflower, sunflower, corn, and soy.

Eat Your EFAs in the Correct Ratio

For best health, omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids should be eaten in the same ratio that our ancestors consumed them: 4:1 omega-6s to omega-3s. The ratio common in today's American diet, however, ranges anywhere from 20:1 to 25:1.

Although most physicians are oblivious to the fact, some very common and serious health problems can now be directly linked to the overwhelming shortage of omega-3 fatty acids in our diet. A short list of the problems includes:

If you don't restore a healthy balance of EFAs in your diet, you face a greatly increased risk of suffering from one or more of these problems. Therefore, it's important that you analyze the foods you eat for their oil type and content, and limit your use of processed foods. Also, increase your intake of foods rich in omega-3s to offset the omega-6s diets. Finally, consider adding fresh-ground flaxseed and an EFA supplement as additional means to improve the balance of EFAs in your diet.

More Dr. Williams Advice on Nutritional Support and Overall Wellness

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