Last Updated on January 31, 2023 by Andre Panagos M.D.
What are fatty acids?
Fatty acids, more commonly referred to as “fats”, are macro nutrients that have an effect on cell membrane flexibility and receptor sensitivity, modulate gene expression and serve as precursors of hormone-like compounds called prostaglandins and pro-inflammatory compounds called leukotrienes. They are divided into three general categories.
|Saturated Fat||Solid at room temperature. Found in high proportions in animal fat products such as dairy, chocolate, meat and poultry skin. It is also found in tropical oils such as coconut and palm oils.|
|Monounsaturated Fat||Liquid at room temperature. Most are in the form of omega-9 fatty acids. Found in avocados, canola oil, olive oil, seeds and nuts.|
|Polyunsaturated Fat||Liquid in room temperature. Subdivided into omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Dietary sources include flax seed, hemp seed, purslane, walnuts and fatty fish.|
What are essential fatty acids?
Your body can synthesize all but two of the fats it needs from your diet. Linoleic and Linolenic acids are the two fatty acids essential to your health that your body cannot make, so they must be obtained directly from foods or purified supplements. These are referred to as essential fatty acids and they are the parent compounds of many omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, respectively.
What are omega-6 fatty acids?
Omega-6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated essential fatty acids that are derived from linoleic acid. These fats are found in seeds, nuts, grains, dairy, grain-fed livestock and vegetable oils (corn, safflower, soybean, cottonseed, sesame, sunflower). Omega-6 fatty acids are abundant in the standard western diet due to their stability and long shelf life so they are the primary fat found in processed foods. They are the precursors of pro-inflammatory compounds.
What are omega-3 fatty acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated essential fatty acids that are derived from linolenic acid. The three fatty acid derivatives involved in human physiology are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). They are plentiful in unprocessed foods, fatty fish and in the meat of grass-fed livestock. Omega-3 fatty acids act as anti-inflammatory agents.
What is the role of omega-6 fatty acids and why are they so important?
Not all omega-6 fatty acids behave the same. Most of the omega-6 fatty acids consumed in the standard western diet promote inflammation. Inflammation is often thought of as a bad thing, however it is an important part of your immune system’s complex and protective response against harmful viruses and bacteria.
What is the role of omega-3 fatty acids and why are they so important?
Omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties. They have been shown to be beneficial for the prevention and treatment of a wide range of illnesses including cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, autoimmune disorders and cancer.
What are the dangers of omega-3 fatty acid deficiency?
An omega-3 fatty acid deficiency (as well as omega-6 fatty acid deficiency) can lead to a host of symptoms and disorders including joint pain, dry skin, brittle nails and hair, fatigue, mood changes, organ damage and impaired immune function.
What should my omega-6:omega-3 fatty acid ratio be?
This is a tricky question because it is not the level of omega-3 fatty acids that matters, but rather the ratio and balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. The ideal ratio should be between 1-4:1 (omega-6:omega-3). Unfortunately, the standard American diet has a ratio of omega-6:omega-3 between 10:1 and 25:1. The average intake of omega-3 fatty acids has decreased to less than 20% of what it was 150 years ago. About 95-99% of the population gets omega-3 fatty acids at a level that is less than that required for good health (Kaur N, et. al. 2014). Diets too high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids and too low in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids lead to chronic inflammation, hypertension, and the promotion of blood clots. This increases the risk of serious medical conditions such as heart attack, stroke, inflammatory and autoimmune disorders as well as cancer.
How can I maintain a healthy balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids?
As with any nutritional deficiency, it is important to correct it through diet. It is possible to obtain your entire omega-3 and omega-6 requirements from diet alone without supplementation. But as the standard American diet is abundant in omega-6 fatty acids, one should simultaneously also focus on limiting processed foods, vegetable oils and conventional grain-fed livestock while improving omega-3 fatty acid intake.
It is important to keep in mind that when discussing one nutrient, you cannot ignore others as they are all connected in ways we still do not fully understand. Make sure you have adequate magnesium, zinc, vitamin C and the B vitamins in your diet to ensure that your body will properly utilize the essential fatty acids.
Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
|Dietary sources||Fatty fish (i.e. salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring)|
Meat (100% grass-fed and pasture-raised beef and chicken)
Certain nuts and seeds (i.e. flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts)
Certain vegetables (i.e. soybeans, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, spinach)
Switching to a Mediterranean diet
|Supplements||Remember to discuss appropriate dosing with your physician. |
In general, 2,000-3,000 milligrams of total omega-3 fatty acids taken twice daily with food can be helpful.
Gaby, Alan. “A Review of the Fundamentals of Diet.” Global Advances in Health and Medicine 2.1 (2013): 58-63. Print.
“Gamma-linolenic Acid.” University of Maryland Medical Center. Web. 18 Jan. 2015. <http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/gammalinolenic-acid#ixzz3JdSfuETk>.
Kaur, Narinder et al. Essential Fatty Acids as Functional Components of Foods – A Review. J Food Sci Technol (October 2014). 51(10):2289-2303.
Vasquez Alex. Integrative Orthopedics. Portland,OR: Integrative and Biological Medicine Research and Consulting, 2012, Print.