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Essential Fatty Acids in Health and Disease

by Alisa G. Woods, PhD

Maybe primitive humans had it better than we think. Sure, they had to forage and struggle just to eat, but what they ate was actually more nutritious than what many modern humans consume daily in industrialized countries like the United States. Even the food in many developing countries today, usually grown locally without advanced agricultural techniques, is more nutritious than the typical American diet. Improved food production in the West has replaced hunting and gathering and traditional farming with simply going to the supermarket. Thus for many, inexpensive food is readily available. Ironically, these advances in convenience and abundance have worsened the typical diet and caused setbacks in health.

Much recent research points toward a specific nutritional problem with modern man’s diet: a lack of essential fatty acids. According to Artemis Simopoulos, M.D., President of the Center for Genetics, Nutrition, and Health in Washington, DC, it is not an overall deficiency of these nutrients that is the problem, but an imbalance of different types of essential fatty acids, due to high amounts of omega-6 and very low amounts of omega-3 fatty acids in the typical modern diet.

According to Simopoulos, “Today’s Western diets are characterized by an increase of energy intake over energy expenditure, high amounts of saturated fat, high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids, high amounts of trans fatty acids, and very low amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. They are [also] very low in antioxidants, and the foods contain less vitamins and minerals than the foods human beings evolved to eat.”

Essential fatty acids are the focus of many current news stories about nutrition, but what are they exactly, and why is it so important to eat enough of them and to keep them in balance?

What are essential fatty acids?
Essential fatty acids include two types: omega-3 and omega-6. They are called “essential” fatty acids because they cannot be naturally produced by the human body, so they have to be consumed as part of the diet. They are polyunsaturated, meaning they have two or more carbon–carbon double bonds in each molecule. Polyunsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature, when refrigerated, and even in the freezer.

Omega-3 fatty acids are named based on their chemical structure. A biochemist would tell you that this means they have their first carbon–carbon double bond between the third and fourth carbon atoms in the molecule. Three types of omega-3 fatty acids important to nutrition exist: Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is produced by leafy green vegetables and can be converted into EPA and DHA by the body. One rich source of ALA that can be purchased in health-food stores or even some supermarkets is flaxseed oil. Canola oil, walnuts, and walnut oil also contain ALA. EPA and DHA can be consumed directly by eating fish and certain other sea creatures, or by taking fish oil supplements.

Omega-6 fatty acids are also named based on their chemical structure, with the first of their carbon–carbon double bonds between the sixth and seventh carbon atoms. They are formed from linoleic acid (LA), which can be consumed from cereals, eggs, poultry, vegetable oils, whole-grain breads, baked products, and margarine. The body can convert LA into gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) and then into arachidonic acid (AA). GLA can also be directly obtained from plant oils such as evening primrose oil, borage oil, black currant oil, and hempseed oil. It is also present in human breast milk. AA can be obtained from meat, some seaweeds, egg yolks, and shrimp. It is also found in small amounts in human breast milk and cow’s milk.

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