Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) are good fats, they are called essential, because they are needed for many metabolic processes, but can not be synthesized in the body, they need to be ingested, taken in with food, or in form of supplements.
When they were discovered in 1923, they were designated “Vitamin F”, but later research revealed that they are better classified as fats.
There are two types of Essential Fatty Acids, Omega-3 and Omega-6. There is also Omega-9, but it is not essential, as it can be made in the body from other fatty acids.
These two types of fatty acids are converted in the body into several other types, there are actually 11 different types of Omega-3 fatty acids. The nomenclature can be confusing and the non-scientific approach is to simplify them to Omega-3 and 6.
The chart below provides a little more detail:
Omega-6 is found in vegetable oils, like sunflower, safflower, corn, peanut, canola and olive oils. The typical American diet is rich in these oils and most people take in excessive amounts of Omega-6.
On the other hand, 90% of the population is deficient of Omega-3. The main sources of Omega-3 are fatty fish, flax seeds, chia seeds, leafy vegetables and walnuts.
Deficiency is linked to many diseases: diabetes, atherosclerosis, cancer, mental disorders, hypertension, eczema, PMS, osteoporosis, immune dysfunction and inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Omega-3 is anti-inflammatory, it is involved in the formation of cell membranes, assist in improving circulation and the uptake of oxygen. Both are necessary for the normal function of all tissues of the body, but Omega-6 is pro inflammatory.
The daily recommended Omega-3 intake is 1.1 grams for women and 1.6 grams for men.
The proper ratio of the two is also important, because they are competing for the same enzymes and too much Omega-6 will inhibit Omega-3. The ratio of 2 to 1 (Omega-6 to Omega-3) is recommended.
The standard American diet contains a ratio, as high as 25 to 1. This is due to a high fat intake, which are bad fats, along with the abundance of processed foods.
Fish is the most commonly cited Omega-3 source, two servings of fish is recommended weekly for sufficient intake. As a supplement, fish oil has been a popular choice.
However, it is better to obtain Omega-3 from plants. The essential fatty acid molecules in fish are unstable and decompose fast. That is why fish spoils fast and fish oil supplements are often smelly.
The oil starts oxidizing as soon as the fish is caught and once it is rancid, it’s harmful. The chart below illustrates healthy and toxic levels.
In addition, fish contains mercury and other toxins, saturated fat, cholesterol and lacks fiber.
Flax seeds are a great source of Omega-3. One tablespoon contains the daily recommended amount. It is better to take it ground, to release the nutrients. A tablespoon a day can be added to one of your meals.
Same goes for chia seeds, although those aren’t usually sold ground. Walnuts are also rich in good fats.
6 walnut halves contain the suggested daily amount, 1 oz. has over 4 grams of Omega-3.
There are also plant based Omega-3 supplements, made from algae oil.
The fatty acid molecules in plants are more stable and the body is also better able to convert them into the other, so-called long chained fatty acids.
Green vegetables have a higher Omega-3, content, than Omega-6.
For example, 1 oz. of raw spinach has 7 milligrams of Omega-6 and 39 milligrams of Omega-3, the ratio is nearly 1 to 6!