For decades, dietary fat has been plagued by a bad reputation, as reduced fat products reached the shelves and low fat diets were the center of attention. However, dietary fat and the benefits of essential fatty acids are two fundamental components of good health. Fat plays a role in almost every aspect of health, even the same cells that make up your body. Fortunately, it is easy to get the fat you need, and your body can even create its own fatty acids to prevent deficiency. However, there are certain types of fatty acids that you must follow during your diet since your body cannot produce them. Known as essential fatty acids, consuming enough healthy fats in your diet is crucial to maintaining optimal health and preventing deficiency.
What are the Essential Fatty Acids?
You’ve probably heard a lot about fatty acids saturated and unsaturated fatty acids and their health effects. But what exactly are fatty acids, and why do we need them? There are many types of fatty acids; they all vary according to the amount of carbon atoms and hydrogen bonds they contain. Your body needs these different types of fatty acids, as they provide energy, form cell membranes, help absorb certain vitamins and minerals, and even produce important hormones. Your body can get most of the fatty acids it needs from other fats. However, there are two types of fatty acids that your body cannot synthesize: linoleic acid (omega-6 fatty acid) and alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3 fatty acid). Alpha-linolenic acid is converted in the body to the active forms of omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid are considered essential fatty acids because you must obtain them through your diet since your body cannot create them.
Why Do You Need Essential Fatty Acids?
Essential fatty acids affect many aspects of health. The functions of essential fatty acids include improved immunity, cell signaling, mood and brain health, as well as decreased inflammation. Some research shows that increasing the intake of the benefits of essential fatty acids could improve physical and mental performance, help treat some diseases, promote mental health and improve body composition.
An essential fatty acid deficiency can cause symptoms such as:
- Dry Skin
- Scaly skin
- Fragile nails
- Dry mouth
- Dull and uneven skin
- Excessive thirst
- Finger tips or cracked heels
In addition to preventing deficiency, getting enough essential fatty acids in your diet can also have a lot of health benefits.
Benefits of Essential Fatty Acids:
1. Promote Heart Health:
Essential fatty acids are well known for their role in preventing heart disease by reducing risk factors and maintaining a healthy and strong heart. In fact, a higher intake of essential fatty acids has been associated with a lower risk of heart disease.
“The Omega-3 in particular has been shown to reduce triglycerides, blood pressure and plaque buildup in the arteries”.
Studies show that omega-6 fatty acids can also lower some risk factors for heart disease, such as blood pressure, total cholesterol and bad LDL cholesterol.
2. Protect Your Brain:
Some promising research has found a link between the intake of essential fatty acids and brain health, which shows that it can help improve cognition and may even prevent certain neurological disorders. Several studies have found that the consumption of omega-3 fatty acids is linked to a lower risk of cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease . One study found that higher consumption of fish, which is high in omega-3 fatty acids, is associated with more gray matter in the brain; this is a type of brain tissue involved in memory formation, sensory perception and decision making.
3. Fight Against Depression:
In addition to keeping your brain healthy, the benefits of essential fatty acids can also positively affect your mental health. An analysis of clinical trials analyzed 19 studies on the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on depression and showed that supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids was effective in the treatment of depression symptoms. It has also been shown that omega 3 fatty acids help in the treatment of other mental health problems such as bipolar disorder and anxiety.
4. Relieve Inflammation:
Inflammation is a normal immune response designed to help protect your body against infections; Chronic inflammation , however, has been linked to a number of problems such as heart disease, cancer and autoimmune problems. Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce harmful inflammation. One study found that taking omega-3 fatty acids for six weeks helped lower the levels of several markers of inflammation in the blood. Another study conducted at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center compared the effects of ibuprofen , an anti-inflammatory medication, with omega-3 fatty acid supplements and showed that they were comparable in their ability to reduce pain and inflammation. Essential fatty acids can be especially useful in the treatment of conditions caused by inflammation such as asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.
5. Reduce Joint Pain:
Arthritis is a disease of the joints that can cause pain, stiffness and swelling; It can affect anyone regardless of their age or sex, but it is more likely to affect older adults. In fact, almost 50 percent of American adults over 65 have been told they have a form of arthritis. It has been shown that the benefits of essential fatty acids help in the treatment of arthritis by relieving joint pain. In one study, 40 patients with rheumatoid arthritis received evening primrose oil or a placebo for six months. Evening primrose oil contains gamma-linolenic acid, a fatty acid that is made of linoleic acid in the body; Compared to the placebo group, those who received evening primrose oil had significant reductions in pain, morning stiffness and joint tenderness. In another study conducted by the Arthritis and Metabolic Bone Diseases Research Unit in Belgium, participants with rheumatoid arthritis were supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids for one year, which reduced both joint pain and the use of antiarthritic medications.
Sources of Essential Fatty Acids:
You can easily meet your essential fatty acid needs through the diet including some servings of healthy oils, nuts and seeds in your day.
Some common sources of linoleic acid include:
- Flaxseed and flaxseed oil
- Soy oil
- Sunflower oil
- Safflower oil
- Hemp seeds and hemp oil
- Pumpkin seeds
Some good sources of alpha-linolenic acid include:
- Perilla oil
- Flaxseed and flaxseed oil
- chia seeds
- Brussels sprouts
Keep in mind that alpha-linolenic acid is converted into DHA and EPA, the active forms of omega-3 fatty acids. You can also include some servings of fatty fish in your diet each week or supplement with fish oil to increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids with DHA and EPA.
Essential Fatty Acids vs. Non-Essential:
- Alpha-linolenic acid and linoleic acid are just two of the many types of fatty acids that your body needs. However, these two stand out because they are the only fatty acids that your body cannot produce on its own using other fats or materials.
- DHA and EPA, for example, are as important and have the same health benefits as alpha-linolenic acid. But because your body can convert alpha-linolenic acid into DHA and EPA, they are considered non-essential fatty acids.
- That is why it is incredibly important to include many essential fatty acids in your diet, since this is the only way to make sure your needs are met.
Healthy Fat vs. Unhealthy Fat
Unfortunately, fat has had a bad reputation over the years. Thanks to its association with heart disease and weight gain, many people tend to stay out of fat altogether. However, a distinction should be made between healthy fats and unhealthy fats. For example, trans fats, which are often found in processed foods and baked goods, have been associated with an increased risk of heart disease. Meanwhile, healthy fats such as monounsaturated fatty acids are actually protective against heart disease and metabolic syndrome, which is a group of conditions that increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. In addition to essential fatty acids, other healthy sources of fats include:
- Fatty fish
- Coconut oil
- Olive oil
Uses of the Benefits of Essential Fatty Acids
Are you looking to increase your intake of essential fatty acids and reap the health benefits of these nutritional fats? No problem! Essential fatty acids are abundant in oils, nuts and seeds, so it is easy to incorporate them into your diet. Try exchanging the oils in your salad dressings or sauces with flaxseed oil , which contains an abundant dose of alpha-linolenic and linoleic acid. Keep in mind that these oils should not be used in cooking at high temperatures because they have a low smoke point and can easily oxidize and form harmful compounds when exposed to heat. You can also try spraying chia seeds, pumpkin seeds or hemp seeds in salads, yogurts or shakes to give your essential fatty acid intake a quick boost. Alternatively, try to include some essential foods rich in fatty acids in your entrances, side dishes or snacks by experimenting with some new recipes.
History of Essential Fatty Acids:
- The importance of dietary fat was not fully realized until the early twentieth century. Until that time, fat was simply seen as a way to increase caloric intake in the diet instead of an important nutrient.
- In 1929 and 1930, husband and wife George and Mildred Burr published two documents that shed light on the importance of dietary fat. They performed a series of tests in which the rats were fed special diets and found that the lack of fatty acids led to deficiency and even death. This made them wonder: What are fatty acids and how are they related to health?
- It was from his discoveries that we learned about the critical role of dietary fat in general health. The Burrs coined the term “essential fatty acid” and discovered the importance of linoleic acid in particular. They noted that the lack of linoleic acid caused flaky loss of skin and water in rats.
- Interestingly, linoleic acid was considered the only essential fatty acid until recently. In fact, until the mid-1990s, linoleic acid was the only type of fatty acid that was required to add to the infant formula.
- Today, researchers continue to learn more about the importance of dietary fat and essential fatty acids, as well as the role they play in promoting optimal health.
Precautions on the Benefits of Essential Fatty Acids:
- Although both alpha-linolenic acid and linoleic acid are important, the ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids should also be considered.
- It is estimated that the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in the modern diet is 20: 1 when ideally it should be closer to 2: 1. This type of imbalance can lead to chronic inflammation, which is at the root of diseases such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes and even cancer.
- Unfortunately, omega-6 fatty acids are often found in unhealthy sources such as processed foods, which have become a staple in the average diet.
- Instead, enjoy a diet rich in whole foods with healthy fats and essential fatty acids to keep your ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in balance and prevent inflammation.
- If you have a disorder that affects absorption, you should check with your doctor to make sure your essential fatty acid and other micronutrient needs are met. For these people, essential fatty acids can also be given through supplements, topical medications or infusion directly into the blood.
Final Reflections on Essential Fatty Acids:
- Essential fatty acids are incredibly important for health and come with a variety of health benefits. Meeting your essential fatty acid needs can keep your brain and heart healthy, fight depression and even reduce inflammation.
- These fatty acids stand out from other types of fat because they cannot be produced in the body and must be obtained through foods with essential fatty acids such as nuts, seeds and oils.
- Of course, it is so important to consider the ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids.