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  • Writer's pictureKim Atherton

Essential Fatty Acids (EFA's)

Updated: Dec 2, 2023

Even though it is much maligned, fat is an essential part of our 'balanced diet' as one of our three important macros - fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Fats provides fatty acids that are 'essential' to our health. They are termed 'Essential' Fatty Acids , as our bodies can't make them. We have to get them from food sources, and they play vital roles in keeping us healthy.

What do Dietary Fats do for us?

Let's discuss fats in general before we review Essential Fatty Acids. Fats perform vital functions like:

  • They help our body absorb vitamins that require fat to become soluble for absorption (fat soluble vitamins). These are Vitamins A, E, D, and K

  • They provide a source of cholesterol which is important for the production of Vitamin D, our sex hormones, and our adrenal hormones like cortisol, cortisone, aldosterone. Cholesterol also maintains our cell membranes which are vital for our health. Cholesterol also makes bile salts that digest dietary fats.

  • They provide sources of Omega 3 and Omega 6 Essential Fatty Acids that we cannot produce ourselves.

Different Types of Fat

Fat can be broken down into Saturated fats, Monounsaturated Fats, Polyunsaturated Fats, and Trans Fats. The below graphic describes them in detail and for the chemistry nerds out there, describes how they get their names from the ways they are constructed.

A table of saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and trans fats.
Saturated, Monounsaturated, Polyunsaturated, and Trans Fats differences.

Examples of Different Types of Dietary Fat

Classification of Fatty Acid

Omega type


Monounsaturated Fatty Acids

Omega 9

Olive oil, avocado oil, some nuts, almond butter

Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids

Omega 3

Oily Fish, Fish oils, Walnuts are an excellent nut source, Flaxseed (or Linseeds) are an excellent seed source, Chia seeds, Sesame seeds, Soybean, Green leafy vegetables, avocado.

Omega 6

Meat, poultry, eggs, vegetable oils, most nuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds

Saturated Fatty Acids

Animal fats, meats, cheese, dairy

Trans Fats

Artificial sources like margarine, fried foods, cakes, commercially baked goods etc

What are Essential Fatty Acids (EFA's)

Essential Fatty Acids (EFA's) are fats that can't be made by the body in sufficient amounts to be beneficial. We must eat them in the form of Polyunsaturated fats.

Polyunsaturated Fats provide Omega 3 and Omega 6 Essential Fatty Acids.

Pathways showing Omega 3 and Omega 6 pathway breakdown products
The end products of the Omega 3 and Omega 6 Pathways

The end products of Omega 3 and Omega 6 metabolism, are compounds called eicosanoids, of which there are 4 classes listed below.

Eicosanoids from Omega 3 sources are anti-inflammatory, while eicosanoids from Omega 6 sources are pro inflammatory.

Pro-inflammatory responses participate in immune responses to injury and infections, but the response needs to be at 'appropriate' times, and not for chronic low grade inflammation commonly from our lifestyle and food choices.

Anti-inflammatory responses are vital for lowering blood pressure, preventing blood clotting, protecting against irregular heart beats, and reducing inflammation.

Additionally, Omega 3 acts to tone down Omega 6.

The 4 Classes of eicosanoids are:

  1. Prostaglandins (PG) - producing hormone-like behaviour at sites of injury

  2. Prostacyclins (PC) - promoting vasodilation and inhibits platelet aggregation

  3. Thromboxanes (TX) - promoting vasoconstriction and platelet aggregation

  4. Leukotrienes (LT) - playing a role in allergic disease, like asthma

The anti-inflammatory Omega 3 end products are:

  • EPA - Eicosapentaenoic acid which helps in cardiovascular health

  • DHA - Docosahexaenoic acid which is essential for brain or neurological health

Fun fact: Anti-inflammatory medications act by blocking receptors on the right-hand side of the diagram above, under arachidonic acid. Aspirin and NSAID's like Nurofen block COX receptors and Ventolin blocks LOX receptors. In this way they are blocking the pro-inflammatory pathways.

Essential Fatty Acid Deficiency

Certain conditions can become evident if we don't have diets providing essential fatty acids. Issues can occur with:

  • Skin lesions and dry, scaly skin rashes

  • Neurological and cognition issues

  • Vision issues

  • Reproductive issues

  • Growth issues

  • Susceptibility to infection

  • Poor wound healing

  • Chronic fat malabsorption

  • Pro-inflammatory conditions

Testing for Essential Fatty Acids

To determine if your diet is balanced as far as Essential Fatty Acids are concerned, we can order an Omega 3 index test, which looks at the composition of Omega's in our red blood cell membranes. It is calculated as the percentage of:

(Omega 3 EPA + Omega 3 DHA)/ Total Fatty Acids expressed as a percentage

If you eat a lot of meat, and don't like oily fish, then please consider adding walnuts and linseeds to your diet to boost your Omega 3 levels - they are essential fatty acids for your health.

If you would like to discuss your diet and whether you are getting a balanced intake of Essential Fatty Acids, then please don't hesitate to make a booking with me.

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