Spotlight on: essential fatty acids

Essential fatty acids are aptly named because they are essential for our overall health and wellbeing. There are two types – alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3) and linoleic acid (omega-6) – which our bodies cannot make, so they need to be consumed through our diet.

“As one of the key building blocks for our bodies, they are necessary components of our cells,” says Marta Anhelush, BioCare Clinical Nutrition Manager (www.biocare.co.uk). “They form the basis of many biochemical reactions that support our physiology, and can be used to create energy.”

Did you know?

Several clinical studies suggest that diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids may help to lower blood pressure in people with hypertension.

The ideal ratio

“As well as ensuring our bodies are getting enough essential fatty acids, it is important that the ratio of fatty acids is correct,” explains nutritionist Kim Pearson (www.kim-pearson.com). “This is because much of the population consumes a disproportionate intake of omega-6 fatty acids over omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-6 essential fatty acids, of which most of us consume an abundance, are found in many vegetable oils, so as well as finding them in healthy sources such as nuts, they are widely consumed via processed foods.”

Kim continues: “Essential omega-3 fatty acids (alpha-linolenic acid or ALA) are less easy to come by. They are found in sources including flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts, while long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA and docosahexaenoic acid or DHA) can be produced by our bodies from ALA, but the best food sources are oily fish. This is why fish oil is regarded as one of the best sources of omega-3. It already contains EPA and DHA and does not rely on the body to covert it from ALA, unlike plant sources of omega-3.

The ideal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 intake is 1 to between 1 and 3, with some of the Western population currently averaging closer to 1:16. This skewed ratio comes with an increase in risk of serious diseases including cardiovascular disease, which is why it is advisable to monitor your omega-6 intake and consider supplementing your omega-3 intake for optimum health.”

Nerve and brain function

“We need these fats for healthy nerve and brain function, and to carry and store essential fat-soluble vitamins,” says nutritionist Amanda Hamilton (www.amandahamilton.com). “Omega-3 fatty acids in particular are highly concentrated in the brain and appear to be important for brain memory, performance and behavioural function – it’s not surprising that many people will start focusing on consuming these fats during school or university exams.”

Nutritionist Fiona Lawson (www.fionalawson.co.uk) adds: “A well-designed study found that people who ate fish regularly had more grey matter. This is worth knowing, because the grey matter in our brains controls decision making, emotion and memory. Oily fish, including salmon, mackerel and sardines, might be the smartest choice of all. This is because the fatty acids found in these types of fish help to fight cognition-damaging inflammation. To support your brain, aim for at least three portions of oily fish per week.”

Are you deficient?

Symptoms of omega-3 fatty acid deficiency include:

  • Fatigue
  • Poor memory
  • Heart problems
  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Poor circulation

Skin function

“Essential fats play a critical role in normal skin function and appearance, playing a role in structural integrity and barrier function of the skin,” says Amanda. “If you are deficient in essential fatty acids, your skin can easily lose its lustre and feel dry or you may notice small bumps on the back of upper arms or cracking on fingertips or heels.”

Reducing inflammation

“As part of our inflammatory response, which is a natural process in response to injury or infection, the fatty acids found within our cells are converted to ‘messenger’ molecules called eicosanoids,” explains Marta. “Depending on which essential fat these molecules originate from, their functionality can differ greatly. In general, the role of these molecules involves the initiation or inhibition of inflammation, allergic and other immune responses, as well as controlling blood pressure (BP), blood flow, pain perception, and regulating cell growth. Although there is a lot of overlap, generally omega-3 fats (especially EPA and DHA) are considered more anti-inflammatory. Most omega-6 fatty acids found in nuts and seeds are also quite anti-inflammatory, whereas the omega-6 arachidonic acid (AA), which is found in meat (especially pork) is thought to be pro-inflammatory. That’s why we tend to encourage people to increase their intake of the anti-inflammatory oils, in relation to the more pro-inflammatory ones. Omega-3 fats have also been extensively researched for their role in reducing inflammation in conditions such as asthma, arthritis, cardiovascular disease and so on.”

Choosing a supplement

“When choosing an essential fatty acid supplement, it’s important that it is natural, pure, sustainably sourced and effective,” says Marta. “Fish oils are by far the best way of increasing your omega-3 intake, but if you are vegan or vegetarian, you can supplement with flaxseed oil, which is a good source of the omega-3 fat alpha linolenic acid (ALA). Another, excellent vegan source of omega-3 is algal oil, which provides EPA and DHA that are lacking in a plant-based diet.”

Top food sources

“Here are some foods which contains omega-3,” says Henrietta Norton, co-founder of Wild Nutrition (www.wildnutrition.com)

  • Oily fish (salmon, trout, tuna, mackerel)
  • Nuts and seeds (chia seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts, hemp seeds)
  • Vegetables (broccoli, spinach, cauliflower)
  • Eggs from chickens who consume omega-3-rich foods (i.e. grass and other plants).
  • Animals (e.g. cows) reared on a grass-fed diet

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