Marketers want us to buy their products and supplements. Essential fatty acids, as their name suggests, are essential, making them marketing gold.
Goods are promoted with terms such as “high in polyunsaturated fats, low in saturates” or “contains omega-3!” with happy, smiley people on the packaging.
The truth is, unless their product is oily fish, you’re probably not getting enough omega-3.
Worse still, if it’s high in polyunsaturated fats, you might be undoing omega-3’s substantial health benefits.
What are Essential Fatty Acids?
Certain fats are essential for our bodies to function optimally. While the body can produce some, others must come from your diet. For this reason, they are classed as essential.1
When considering our fat intake, we will often hear the terms saturated and unsaturated. Essential fatty acids (EFA) are unsaturated fats, found in the polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) group.
These EFAs can be broken down into two types:
Linoleic Fatty Acids (also known as Omega-6)
Linoleic acid is well-known for its ability to lower LDL cholesterol (that’s the bad one).2 It’s found in foods such as leafy vegetables, grains, seed and oils such as sunflower, corn, safflower and poppy seed.
These products tend to be promoted as high in polyunsaturated, low in saturated fats.
Alpha-Linolenic Acid (better known as Omega-3)
Products advertised as being high in omega-3 are often high in Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Technically, the marketers are not lying to you – their product does indeed contain omega-3. However, the body must convert ALA into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These are the forms which show the biggest health benefits in studies. Foods such as seeds, nuts, flaxseed oil, and tofu are high in ALA.
Unfortunately, the process for converting ALA is slow. Our best option is to consume foods which naturally contain higher levels of EPA and DHA. Oily fish, such as salmon, sardines, anchovies and swordfish, are the best sources.
Health Benefits of Essential Fatty Acids
1. Better Than Ibuprofen for Pain Relief
It might be hard to believe, but the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3 are better than ibuprofen.3
Many studies have highlighted the pain-killing anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3, most notably in those experiencing menstrual cramps.
2. Improved Body Composition
Improved body composition benefits us all. Rather than concentrate solely on adequate protein intake, you should look to include fish oil, or vegan omega-3 supplements in your diet.
One study found six weeks of fish oil supplementation increased lean mass while decreasing fat.4 Reasons include a reduction in cortisol levels and improved protein synthesis.
3. Lowers the Risk of Breast Cancer & Heart Disease
By reducing the levels of LDL cholesterol (the bad one) and improving insulin sensitivity, essential fatty acids can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.5
In addition, omega-3 fatty acids have been associated with a decreased risk of breast cancer.6
4. Reduced Oxidative Stress
Oxidative stress is essentially what causes us to age. We all want to look (and feel) younger for longer.
The good news is that the process can be slowed with the help of omega-3 fatty acids.7
5. Healthier Joints
Not only have EFAs shown success in treating psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, and other autoimmune diseases, but they have proved highly effective in combatting arthritis and joint pain.8,9,10
Again, the anti-inflammatory effects of EFAs are at work here. This makes them an important part of any diet, especially for those involved in strenuous exercise which adds stress to the joints.
6. Healthy Development of Babies
Pregnant or breastfeeding women must pay special attention to both the benefits and risks of EFAs. While healthy brain development of a fetus relies on adequate omega-3 intake (DHA, in particular)11 consuming too much fish can be detrimental.
The pollutants in fish (notably, mercury) can negatively affect the baby’s development. For this reason, pregnant women should limit their intake of oily fish to two portions per week and cut out swordfish (which is very high in mercury) altogether.
While omega-3 essential fatty acids have shown extensive benefits in scientific studies, the other widely promoted EFA – omega-6, displays opposite properties. This means that while looking to increase your intake of “good” fats, you should also ensure the ratio is in-check, too. If not, the positive attributes of omega-3 may be cancelled out.
The ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is between 1:1 and 4:1.12 While aiming for your RDA of omega-3 (about 1.6 grams for males and 1.1 grams for females), levels of omega-6 should be no higher than 6.4 and 4.4 grams per day, respectively.
Even those eating oily fish need to be careful, too. In addition to being high in mercury, they also contain high levels of vitamin A; excessive intake of which can lead to hypervitaminosis A.
With the sheer amount of micro and macro nutrients to account for in our diet, it is impossible to get everything spot on. While omega-3 has proven health benefits, getting a healthy dose of EPA and DHA can be tricky – especially for vegetarians and vegans.
It is also important not to fall into the trap that clever marketers set when stating their product is high in omega-3. Unless the product they sell is actually oily fish, or eggs from chickens fed an algae diet, you’re likely getting a dose of the hard-to-convert ALA.
If you can eat up to four portions of oily fish per week, or two if you are pregnant. This reduces to one portion if consuming swordfish (due to high levels of mercury). Pregnant women should avoid swordfish altogether.13 Vegetarians should look for eggs from chickens fed an algae diet, and Vegans are limited to algae supplements if they want decent levels of EPA and DHA.
Be sure to limit oils high in linoleic acid (omega-6). These are the ones you’ll find promoted as being high in polyunsaturated fats. Corn and sunflower oil are the biggest culprits and are widely used in fast food and convenience meals. If possible, change to canola oil for cooking, which has the optimum ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of around 2.2:1
- Holick, Michael F., M. E. Shils, M. Shike, A. C. Ross, B. Caballero, and R. J. Cousins. "Modern nutrition in health and disease." OJME 10th edition (2006): 329-345.
- Rassias, G., M. Kestin, and P. J. Nestel. "Linoleic acid lowers LDL cholesterol without a proportionate displacement of saturated fatty acid." European journal of clinical nutrition 45, no. 6 (1991): 315-320.
- Zafari, Mandana, Fereshteh Behmanesh, and Azar Agha Mohammadi. "Comparison of the effect of fish oil and ibuprofen on treatment of severe pain in primary dysmenorrhea." Caspian journal of internal medicine 2, no. 3 (2011): 279.
- Noreen, Eric E., Michael J. Sass, Megan L. Crowe, Vanessa A. Pabon, Josef Brandauer, and Lindsay K. Averill. "Effects of supplemental fish oil on resting metabolic rate, body composition, and salivary cortisol in healthy adults." Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 7, no. 1 (2010): 31.
- Farvid, Maryam S., Ming Ding, An Pan, Qi Sun, Stephanie E. Chiuve, Lyn M. Steffen, Walter C. Willett, and Frank B. Hu. "Dietary linoleic acid and risk of coronary heart disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies." Circulation (2014): CIRCULATIONAHA-114.
- Thiébaut, Anne, Véronique Chajès, Mariette Gerber, Marie‐Christine Boutron‐Ruault, Virginie Joulin, Gilbert Lenoir, Franco Berrino, Elio Riboli, Jacques Bénichou, and Françoise Clavel‐Chapelon. "Dietary intakes of ω‐6 and ω‐3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and the risk of breast cancer." International Journal of Cancer 124, no. 4 (2009): 924-931.
- Mori, Trevor A., Ian B. Puddey, Valerie Burke, Kevin D. Croft, David W. Dunstan, Jennifer H. Rivera, and Lawrence J. Beilin. "Effect of ω3 fatty acids on oxidative stress in humans: GC–MS measurement of urinary F2-isoprostane excretion." Redox Report 5, no. 1 (2000): 45-46.
- Bittiner, S. B., I. Cartwright, W. F. G. Tucker, and S. S. Bleehen. "A double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled trial of fish oil in psoriasis." The Lancet 331, no. 8582 (1988): 378-380.
- Borlak, J. T., and V. A. Welch. "Health implications of fatty acids." Arzneimittel-Forschung 44, no. 8 (1994): 976-981.
- Moghaddami, Mahin, Michael James, Susanna Proudman, and Leslie G. Cleland. "Synovial fluid and plasma n3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in patients with inflammatory arthritis." Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids 97 (2015): 7-12.
- Coletta, Jaclyn M., Stacey J. Bell, and Ashley S. Roman. "Omega-3 fatty acids and pregnancy." Reviews in obstetrics and gynecology 3, no. 4 (2010): 163.
- Simopoulos, Artemis P. "Essential fatty acids in health and chronic disease." The American journal of clinical nutrition 70, no. 3 (1999): 560s-569s.