The human body is made up of trillions of cells and these cells need a constant supply of nutrients to function and remain healthy.
Fats are an important component of a healthy and balanced diet, unfortunately they do have a bad reputation due to various popularized negative health effects associated with excessive intake of non-essential fatty acids.
Why do we need essential fatty acids in the diet?
EFAs are fatty acids that are essential for healthy and normal functioning of the cells in the human body.
Our body can synthesize majority of fats it needs from regular diets and these fatty acids are called non-essential fatty acids. EFAs are an essential component of a balanced diet because the human body cannot produce them on their own.
Types of Essential fatty acids
The two known Essential fatty acids (EFAs) for humans are Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. These two EFAs need to coexist in a perfect balance in order to provide full benefits for the human body. Omega-9 fatty acids are not EFAs because the body can synthesize them from other unsaturated fatty acids and carbohydrates.
Omega-3 fatty acid
Omega-3 fatty acid is a type of polyunsaturated fat. Basically there two main sources of Omega-3 fatty acids and they are plants based and animal based.
To get maximum benefit of omega-3 from plant based oil, one has to prepare them before consumption and this is not practical for obvious reasons.
Other, alternative would be to get processed oils from a commercial manufacturer, but you have to be careful and make sure that the oil is fresh and not damaged due to oxidation when exposed to air and does not turn rancid.
The following are three types of omega 3 fatty acids that are essential for good health.
Alpha-Linoleic Acid (ALA)
This is the most abundant type of omega 3 EFAs found in nature and is usually found in plant based foods. Our body needs to convert ALA into Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) in order to be useful in the human body.
We have special enzymes that can help in this process. However, the conversion process by these enzymes are very slow and inefficient. Only a fraction of ALA (1% - 10%) can be converted to EPA and the process of deriving DHA is even more limited (0.5–5%).
The conversion from ALA to EPA to DHA is also dependent on the availability of other nutrients like vitamin B6, B7, magnesium, copper, Iron and Zinc. It is important to note that the required enzyme used for the converting ALA to EPA and DHA can become less effective as we grow older. Other health conditions like diabetics and obesity can also reduce the effectiveness of this enzymes. Therefore, it is important to consume food that contain EPA and DHA.
Any ALA that is not converted to EPA or DHA is utilized by the body in a similar manner like any other fats for storage or energy.
What are good sources of Alpha-Linoleic Acid (ALA)?
Seed oils like flaxseed oil and canola oil (rapeseed) are rich sources of ALA. Other sources include pumpkin seed oil, Perilla seed oil, soybean oil, walnut oil, walnuts, soy and tofu.
Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)
EPA is an Omega-3 fatty acid usually found in seafood. It has numerous health benefits and a diet rich in EPA can help improve overall health. EPA helps in the formation of signaling molecules called eicosanoids, which play an important role in reducing inflammation.
What are the Health benefits of a diet rich in EPA?
Heart health: EPA can improve the health of individuals with heart disease and can also reduce the risk of developing heart diseases in healthy individuals.
Research has shown that EPA can help reduce overall risk of developing risk of heart disease by lowering the risk of developing blood clots, lowering blood pressure, reducing triglycerides (a type of fat in blood)
Other health conditions: Studies have shown that EPA can reduce the symptoms of depression, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Menopause, Lupus. It can also help in improving lung and kidney diseases. type 2 diabetes.
What are good sources of Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)?
Mackerel, herring, tuna, halibut, salmon. Other sources include cod liver oil and algae. Small amounts can also be found in meat and dairy.
Breast feed babies can get the required amounts of EPH from the mother’s milk, if the mother is eating a diet rich in EPA.
It is important to note that pregnant women should carefully regulate the amount of sea food rich in EPA because of possibility that these fishes may contain higher amounts of mercury.
Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)
DHA is an Omega-3 fatty acid found in seafood, fish oil supplements and algae.
What are the Health benefits of a diet rich in DHA?
DHA plays an important role in the growth and development of brain, central nervous system and vision. It is very useful during the early 6 months of infant development. DHA may also help in reducing the risk of Age-related vision loss.
Some studies have shown DHA may help reduce symptoms associated with depression, type 2 diabetes and Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), while other studies have refuted these claims.
What are good sources of Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)?
Food rich in EPA like sea food, algae, cod liver oil also are good sources of DHA. Breastfed babies can get sufficient DHA through breast milk if the mother is healthy and has a diet with sufficient DHA.
How to avoid mercury contamination while taking EPA and DHA?
A safer alternative would be to take fish oil supplements that contain EPA and DHA. It also important to make sure by checking the product labels that the manufacturer is controlling the purity and screening for mercury contamination.
Before starting the supplement, it is important to consult with your doctor to take into consideration possible risk factors associated with the supplements.
Are fish oil supplements safe source of Omega 3 EPA and DHA?
What are the other types of Omega-3 fatty acids?
There are a total of 11 Omega-3 fatty acids including ALA, EPA and DHA.
Other not essential Omega-3 fatty acids are Docosapentaenoic acid (DPA), Eicosatetraenoic acid (ETA), Eicosatrienoic acid (ETE), Heneicosapentaenoic acid (HPA), Hexadecatrienoic acid (HTA), Stearidonic acid (SDA), Tetracosahexaenoic acid and Tetracosapentaenoic acid.
Omega-6 fatty acid
Like Omega 3, Omega-6 fatty acids are also essential fatty acids. Both these EFAs together play very important roles in maintaining good health.
Omega 6 helps in regulating metabolism, maintain health of bones and reproductive system. They also help in hair growth and maintaining a healthy skin.
Most modern diet contains more than sufficient amounts of Omega-6 fatty acids. Therefore, no additional supplements or dietary planning is required for Omega-6 dietary intake.
There are two types of essential omega 6 fatty acids.
Linoleic Acid (LA)
Linoleic Acid (LA) is the basis for synthesis of other types of omega-6 fatty acid by the human body. Various types of vegetable oils like corn oil, safflower oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil and grape seed oil are rich sources of Linoleic Acid. They are essential for the synthesis of cell membranes and important hormones.
Gamma-Linolenic Acid (GLA)
Linoleic Acid (LA) is converted into Gamma-Linolenic Acid (GLA) in the human body which is further broken down into arachidonic acid (AA). GLA is helpful in reducing inflammation.
What are the other types of Omega-6 fatty acids?
There are a total of 11 Omega-6 fatty acids including LA and GLA. Other not essential Omega-6 fatty acids are Adrenic acid, Arachidonic acid (AA), Calendic acid, Dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid (DGLA), Docosadienoic acid, Docosapentaenoic acid, Eicosadienoic acid, Tetracosatetraenoic acid and Tetracosapentaenoic acid.
Ratio between Omega-3 fatty acid and Omega-6 fatty acid
It is very important to maintain a proper balance between Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids in order to get maximum health benefits from these EFAs.
It is recommended that the ratio of Omega-3 and Omega-6 intakes should be maintained between 1:1 and 1:4 range. Unfortunately, a typical western diet consists of 10 to 50 times more Omega 6 in comparison with Omega 3.
Mediterranean diet has a good balance between Omega-3 and Omega-6 and is considered as one of the healthiest diet in the world.
What happens if there is excess Omega 6 when compared to Omega 3?
Inflammation is an important protective mechanism which keeps the body safe from infections and injuries. When omega 3 and 6 are consumed in a balanced proportion, they help in the regulation of inflammatory process within the body.
However, excessive omega 6 consumption aggravates the inflammatory processes, which in turn leads to low level chronic inflammation and this is the basis for many chronic diseases like rheumatoid arthritis or other skin disorders.
High levels of omega-6 fatty acids in diet also interferes with the enzymes that convert ALA to EPA and DHA.