Essential Fatty Acids: What Makes These Healthy Fats So Essential?

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Essential fatty acids - Dr. Axe

By Rachael Link, MS, RD

For decades, dietary fat has been plagued with a bad reputation as reduced-fat products hit the shelves and low-fat diets took center stage. However, dietary fat as well as essential fatty acids are two critical components of good health.

Fat plays a role in just about every aspect of health, right down to the very cells that make up your body. Fortunately, it’s easy to get the fat that you need, and your body is even able to create its own fatty acids to prevent deficiency.

There are certain types of fatty acids, however, that you must get through your diet as your body is not able to produce them. Known as essential fatty acids, getting enough of these healthy fats in your diet is crucial to maintaining optimal heath and preventing deficiency.

What Are Essential Fatty Acids?

You’ve probably heard quite a bit about saturated fatty acids and unsaturated fatty acids as well as their effects on health. But what are fatty acids exactly, and why do we need them?

There are many types of fatty acids, all varying by the number of carbon atoms and hydrogen bonds that they contain. Your body needs these different types of fatty acids as they provide energy, make up the cell membranes, help absorb certain vitamins and minerals, and even produce important hormones.

Your body is able to make most of the fatty acids it needs from other fats. However, there are two types of fatty acids that your body is unable to synthesize: linoleic acid (omega-6 fatty acid) and alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3 fatty acid).

Alpha-linolenic acid is converted in the body to the active forms of omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).

Linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid are considered essential fatty acids because you need to obtain them through your diet since your body can’t create them.

Why Do You Need Essential Fatty Acids?

Essential fatty acids affect many aspects of health. Functions of essential fatty acids include improving immunity, cell signaling, mood and brain health, plus decreasing inflammation.

Some research shows that increasing your intake of essential fatty acids could enhance mental and physical performance, help treat some diseases, promote mental health, and improve body composition. (1)

An essential fatty acids deficiency can lead to symptoms like:

  • Dry skin
  • Dandruff
  • Scaly skin
  • Brittle fingernails
  • Dry mouth
  • Dull, patchy skin
  • Excessive thirst
  • Cracked fingertips or heels

In addition to preventing deficiency, getting enough essential fatty acids in your diet can also come with a whole host of benefits to your health.

Benefits of Essential Fatty Acids

1. Promote Heart Health

Essential fatty acids are well-known for their role in preventing heart disease by reducing risk factors and keeping your heart healthy and strong. In fact, a higher intake of essential fatty acids has been associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. (2, 3)

Omega-3, in particular, has been shown to reduce…

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