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Essential fatty acids

Essential fatty acids or "essential fats" are a kind of poly-unsaturated fatty acids that are dietary essentials in humans required for normal growth in infants and young children. They are also required in adults for normal body homeostasis.

But; before understanding essential fats, please read about FATS;

Dietary fats are composed primarily of fatty acids and cholesterol. Fatty acids are classified primarily based upon their chemical structure as;

  1. Saturated: - SFA (because they have no double bonds in their chain). Examples with more percentage of saturated fats include butter, coconut oil, palm kernel oil, lard-butter etc.

  2. Mono unsaturated: - MUFA (with one double bond in their chain). Examples of oils with more percentage of monounsaturated fats are olive oil, mustard oil etc.

  3. Poly unsaturated: - PUFA (have more than one double bond in their chain). Examples of oils with more percentage of poly-unsaturated fats are sunflower oil, safflower oil etc.

  4. Trans fats: - Trans fatty acids (trans fats) are a particular form of unsaturated fats formed during cooking of vegetable oils due to partial hydrogenation, but behave like saturated fats in the body by increasing levels of LDL or bad cholesterol.

And now...What are essential fatty acids?   Why are they so “essential”?

As mentioned above, essential fatty acids are a kind of poly-unsaturated fatty acids that must be present in the food we eat for normal growth and development in infants, young children and adults.

The two most important essential fatty acids are;

  1. Linoleic acid: The principle precursor of omega-6 fatty acids that play role in pro-inflammatory reactions, such as formation thrombus (blood clots), allergic reactions.

  2. Linolenic acid: The precursor of omega-3 fatty acids that is important for growth and development.

Although omega-6 fats are pro-inflammatory, still they are required for normal body functions such as maintaining integrity of cell membranes, healthy skin, kidney function, and to combat against bacteria and viruses. In fact, both omega-6 and omega-3 must be present in the diet for normal body homeostasis. However, the diet must contain desired omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 5:1 to 10:1. This is because, high omega-6 and low omega-3 content as in sesame(43:0), safflower(77:0), sunflower oils (69:1) can predispose to free radical mediated cell injury, impaired immune function, reduced glucose tolerance and diabetes, increased blood clot formations resulting in coronary heart disease and stroke episodes.

So...what cooking oils have favorable omega-6: omega-3 ratio?

Soybean oil (8:1);

olive oil (8:1).

For example, the complete fat profile of Olive oil is here;

?-6         ?-3
?-6 to ?-3 ratio Remarks
Olive oil 14% 77% 8%           1% 8:1 Very good

Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids like ?-linolenic acid, decosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic caid (EPA) should be present in the diet in the range of 0.6 to 1.2 percent of total calories intake. All the omega-3's present in the nature are essentially derived from the plant kingdom such as green algae, blue-green algae, plankton etc. Amphibians like fish are rich in them when they feed on algae and accumulate omega fats in great levels.

Excessive consumption of fish for omega-3's may result in accumulation of heavy metals like mercury, arsenic, cadmium, lead etc. Indeed certain fish are unsuitable for consuption and avoided during pregnancy for the same reason. There exist many plant sources alternatively to fish such as flax seeds, hemp, pumpkin seeds, kiwi fruit, nuts like almond, walnuts are rich in omega-3's.

Health benefits of essential fatty acids

  • Both leinoleic (omega-6) and linolenic acids (omega-3) are building blocks of brain lipids. Therefore, they are absolutely essential for normal fetal and infant brain as well as body growth, and development of visual acuity.

  • These fats along with other fat soluble vitamins like vitamin-A are required by the body for maintenance of healthy skin and mucus membranes.

  • Fats with good omega-6 to omega-3 profile has been proved to reduce LDL OR bad cholesterol and rise HDL or good cholesterol levels; thus, helps to prevent coronary heart disease (CHD) and stroke episodes.

  • Omega-3 fats reduce pro-inflammatory prostaglandins and leukotrienes in the body. Their deficiency may result in co-morbid conditions like dyslexia (difficulty in reading), dysgraphia (difficulty in writing) and attention deficit-hyperactivity disease (ADHD) in children.

Sources of essential fats

Vegetable oils are good sources of essential fats; however, the desired ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 that should be present in them between 5:1 and 10:1.

// The foods rich in essential fats are:

  • Olive oil,
  • Soybean oil,
  • Legumes/pulses,
  • Flax seed, almonds, variety of nuts and seeds
  • Spinach/purslane and many dark green leafy vegetables,
  • fruits; like Kiwi fruit,
  • Organic hen's eggs and
  • Fish.

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