What is Essential?

Omega fatty acids

There is a lot of talk about ESSENTIAL fats and how one must get these in their diet… But there is also a lot of confusion as to which fats are actually ‘essential’ and just how much one needs.

So – a brief background:

There are many different forms of unsaturated fats – omega 3,omega 6 and omega 9. These are NOT all ‘essential’, the body can make most of them as long as the ‘essential fat’ intake is adequate. And if we were going to break it down – the ‘traditional’ essential fats would be:

  • ALA (Alpha-Linolenic Acid) > an omega-3 fat
  • LA (Linoleic Acid) > an omega-6 fat

As the body can not make these two fats, without adequate intake in your diet, you become deficient in them and this causes disease (hence the term essential).

However, if we then have a closer look at these groups, it could be argued that there is a greater need for other fats in the diet too…

More Important omega-3 fatty Acids:

In addition to ALA (an omega-3 fat found mostly in plant sources like flax and walnuts there are two more omega-3 fats which I consider ‘essential’, and these are the omega fats from fish: Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).

Reason being is that although only ALA can not be made by the body, DHA and EPA are very poorly converted in the body, and most people are left ‘deficient’.

The omega-3′s EPA and DHA are extremely important for normal health in the body.

  • They are essential in brain development and function as you get older
  • They help in joint lubrication and reduce the risk of arthritis
  • They can decrease cardiovascular disease such as high blood pressure and heart disease
  • They are essential for your skin and hair
  • They are essential in maintaining healthy kidney function
  • They help protect your intestines and there have been links to decreasing cancer rates (eg: gastrointestinal cancer)

The other thing to note about omega-3 fats are that they have been linked with improved insulin sensitivity, weight, and body composition!

There are many more readily available sources of omega-6 fatty acids and some common times include:

  • Linoleic acid (LA), found in sunflowers, soybean oils and sesame seeds
  • Gamma-linolenic Acid (GLA), which is found in things like primrose oil
  • And Arachidonic Acid (AA), which is the one that is found in animal sources like meat, milk, eggs etc….

As mentioned above, Linoleic acid is the only essential omega-6 (the others can be formed in the body).

Omega-6s, in contrast to omega-3 fats, (esp AA) if excessive in intake will increase inflammatory markers in the body. This is because Arachadonic Acid acts as the pre-curser for a series of molecules involved in inflammation (the Series Two Prostaglandins). These can cause things including:

  • Increasing your chances of blood clots
  • Increasing the signs of inflammatory disease like arthritis etc etc. (just on a side note – this is what some anti-inflammatory drugs (known as NSAID’s) act to prevent being formed…).

Don’t think they are all bad! Omega-6 is needed too. They help for the conversion of ALA to DHA/ EPA (specifically, LA is needed). They too have help in decreasing cholesterol… And remember that it IS important our bodies can react to injury through inflammation when needed, as well as being needed to stimulate cell repair and are important in wound healing etc.

But it is just that too much is not a good thing. So – people who supplement with forms of Omega-6 fats might want to step back and take note! Due to the wide range of foods from which you can get omega-6, you probably don’t need to take more.

Also important is the ratio of omega fats in ones diet > During our evolution our diets had ratios of around 1:1 to 4:1 (omega 6 : omega 3 due), nowadays the ratio is more like 20:1 (omega 6: omega 3) AND, on top of this, most of that omega 3 we do get is from ALA – NOT DHA and EPA! One has to either supplement with fish oils and/or be very ‘diet aware’ of their daily intake ratios.

”Take away message – you have to have a good ratio of both! – that means not too much omega 6′s AND not too much omega 3′s.”