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).
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.
An essential fatty acids deficiency can lead to symptoms like:
Dull, patchy skin
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.
Omega-3, in particular, has been shown to reduce triglycerides, blood pressure and the buildup of plaque in the arteries.
Studies show that omega-6 fatty acids may also lower some heart disease risk factors, such as blood pressure, total cholesterol and bad LDL cholesterol.
2. Protect Your Brain
Some promising research has found a link between essential fatty acid intake and brain health, showing that it may help improve cognition and could even prevent certain neurological disorders.
Several studies have found that omega-3 fatty acid consumption is tied to a decreased risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. One study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine even found that a higher intake of fish, which is high in omega-3 fatty acids, is associated with more gray matter in the brain. This is a type of brain tissue involved in memory formation, sensory perception and decision making.
3. Fight Depression
In addition to keeping your brain healthy, essential fatty acids can also positively affect your mental health as well. One analysis of clinical trials looked at 19 studies on the effects of omega-3 fatty acids on depression and showed that supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids was effective at treating symptoms of depression.
Omega-3 fatty acids have also been shown to aid in the treatment of other mental health issues like bipolar disorder and anxiety.
4. Relieve Inflammation
Inflammation is a normal immune response designed to help protect your body against infection. Chronic inflammation, however, has been linked to a slew of problems like heart disease, cancer and autoimmune problems.
Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids may help reduce harmful inflammation. One study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that taking omega-3 fatty acids for six weeks helped decrease the levels of several markers of inflammation in the blood.
Another study conducted at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center compared the effects of ibuprofen, an anti-inflammatory drug, with omega-3 fatty acid supplementation and showed that they were comparable in their ability to reduce pain and inflammation.
Essential fatty acids may be especially helpful in the treatment of conditions that are caused by inflammation like asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.