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Essential Fatty Acids: What You Need to Know (Part 1)
January 20, 2009
When you think about fat (and who doesn’t these days?), you likely think about "good" fats and "bad" fats, or saturated fat and unsaturated fat. And that’s fine. Those of you who have an interest in nutrition might like to know a little more, however, about good fats, beyond what’s generally taught to the average consumer. So, if that’s the case, read on!
What Are Essential Fatty Acids?
Well, as with protein, fat can be broken down into building blocks, too. These are called “essential fatty acids,” or EFA’s for short. EFA’s are polyunsaturated fats, otherwise known as “good fats.”
Essential fatty acids were “discovered,” as the story goes, back in 1929 (eight years after insulin was discovered, by the way) when a husband-and-wife research team observed that the animals in their lab had dry, scaly skin as well as damage to their internal organs (and eventually death) as a result of fatty acid deficiency. Over time, more research led scientists and nutritionists to conclude that certain types of fats are essential to the body; the body can’t make them, and without them, we’d die.
It might help to think of EFA’s almost like vitamins and minerals in that we need these nutrients for health and for survival.
Which Fatty Acids Are “Essential”?
Which Fatty Acids Are Omega-3s and Which Are Omega-6s?
Omega-3 fatty acids:
Omega-6 fatty acids:
Omega-3 Fatty Acids Are Better Than Omega-6 Fatty Acids, Right?
Our Paleolithic ancestors had it right: They ate a diet that was not only much lower in saturated fat than ours is now, but also a diet that was about equal in omega-6’s and omega-3’s; in other words, the ratio was 1:1. Our diet today is more like 15 omega-6’s to 1 omega-3, or 15:1 to 17:1. We eat much less omega-3 fatty acid than we should, in part, because we don’t eat a whole lot of fish, and grains fed to animals are rich in omega-6 fatty acids, which means that meat contains more omega-6’s as well. Even vegetables, eggs, and farm-raised fish contain a higher proportion of omega-6 fatty acids. Some researchers think that we need to aim for a range from 2:1 to 5:1.
Why Does It Matter If We Eat More Omega-6’s Than Omega-3’s?
Bottom line: We need to change our “ratio” of omega-6’s to omega-3’s back to something a little more reasonable and a lot healthier.
More next week!
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