Fatty acids are the basic structural units of lipids, which are dietary fats. The body can synthesize many fatty acids, but those that cannot be manufactured in adequate amounts must be obtained from the diet. These are called essential fatty acids (EFAs).
Fatty acids are classified as saturated, monosaturated or polyunsaturated – depending on the amount of hydrogen in the basic carbon chain of the molecule.
(The process of ‘hydrogenation’ – hydrogenated vegetable oil – involves adding hydrogen to the molecule to make a polyunsaturated, liquid oil, into a saturated, solid oil, such as margarine).
Many nutritionists and scientists report Americans consume too much omega-6 fatty acids and under-consume omega-3 fatty acids. (The terms omega-3 and omega-6 refer to the location of the first double bond in the carbon atom of the fatty acid molecule.) Including more omega-3-rich foods such as fish in the diet and decreasing the consumption of omega-6 foods such as some hydrogenated oils, may help maintain proper hormonal balance and overall health and wellness.
Essential fatty acids offer profound benefits. They help:
- Influence hormone production, immunity and cardiovascular health.
- Maintain the structure and function of the cellular and sub-cellular membranes.
- Regulate cholesterol transport, degradation and removal from the body.
- Influence prostaglandins – hormone-like substances that promote smooth muscle contractions, regulate blood pressure, regulate gastric secretions, and impact other hormones – through a series of enzyme-dependent reactions.
- Support normal growth, especially of blood vessels and nerves.
- Keep skin and other tissue youthful and supple by lubricating abilities.
EFAs are most abundant in fish oils and unadulterated seed oils, such as canola, sunflower and safflower oils. Flaxseed oil is an exceptional oil, containing both omega-3 and omega-6 in appreciable amounts. Cold saltwater fatty fish – such as herring, haddock, cod, mackerel, and salmon – are also rich in omega-3 polyunsaturates and serve as the source of fish oil supplements.
The most important fatty acids are linoleic acid, linolenic acid, gamma linolenic acid (GLA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Omega 6 and omega 3 oils may not be suitable for individuals taking anti-blood clotting drugs such as Warfarin, Coumarin and Heparin.
GLA (Evening Primrose Oil) may not be suitable for people suffering from epilepsy. Fish oils may not be suitable for people allergic to fish.