What do essential fatty acids do?
Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are groups of polyunsaturated fatty acids (often referred to as PUFAs). They are components of our cell membranes and play a role in several vital functions. Two, in particular—alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3, and linoleic acid (LA), an omega-6—get converted into other fatty acids and are especially important. But our bodies cannot make them on their own, which makes these nutrients essential to our diets.
Omega-3s are involved in the regulation of blood sugar, immune function and hormone metabolism, and they are key to eye and brain health. We synthesize ALA into the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentanoic acid and docosahexanoic acid, better known as EPA and DHA, which are precursors of hormone-like substances called prostaglandins. These reduce inflammation, making them useful in your body’s management of conditions like rheumatoid arthritis. They also lower the risk of heart disease by affecting the ability of platelets to clot (much like aspirin), reducing blood pressure and lowering triglyceride levels.
Although scientists thought, until recently, that omega-6s increase unhealthy inflammation, the most recent research does not support this. In fact, omega-6s appear to reduce inflammation and benefit heart health when combined with omega-3s. However, as you’ll see below, a proper balance of the two is essential.
How much essential fatty acids do you need?
Although both are vital to our bodies’ functioning, most of us get more omega-6s than we need and not enough omega-3s. The ratio is important, since having too much linoleic acid limits how much DHA and EPA our bodies can synthesize from alpha-linoleic acid. An ideal ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s is around 2:1, but the ratio in the typical Western diet is roughly 15:1.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that we increase the amount of omega-3s in our diets because of their heart and brain benefits. Most of us should shoot for about 500 mg per day (about two servings of fatty fish per week satisfies this).
Where can you get essential fatty acids?
Omega-6s are abundant in nuts, seeds and vegetable oils like corn, sunflower, safflower and soybean oils. But again, you’re probably already getting enough of them already. It’s a good idea to opt for clean, healthy sources—specifically expeller-pressed and organic vegetable oils—when you do eat them.
More: Choosing the Best Oil
Fatty fish is the best source of the omega-3s EPA and DHA, which is one reason why you should aim to get two servings of it a week. Walnuts, flaxseed, flaxseed oil and canola oil are good sources of ALA that the body converts (somewhat inefficiently) into EPA and DHA.
If you don’t eat fish or other foods with that are rich in omega-3s, fish oil or vegetarian supplements with ALA are an option. Fish oil supplements are usually not recommended for people who are on blood thinners or men who have prostate cancer.
Some of our favorite foods that are rich in omega-3s:
Omega-3 fatty acids (g)
|Flaxseed oil, cold pressed||1 tbsp||7.1|
|Atlantic mackerel||4 oz||2.2|
|Walnut oil, cold-pressed||1 tbsp||1.4|
|Canola oil, cold-pressed, organic||1 tbsp||1.3|
|Rainbow trout||4 oz||1.2|
|Soybeans, cooked, organic||3.5 oz||0.5|
|Chunk light tuna||4 oz||0.3|
|Tofu, firm, organic||6 oz||0.3|
|Dark green vegetables, raw||½-1 cup||0.1|
You can look up the essential fatty acid content of other foods by referencing the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference.