Essential Fatty Acids

Essential Fatty Acids

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You need fatty acids (a specific type of fat) in order to be healthy. Your body can manufacture all but two of the fatty acids it needs, linoleic acid and linolenic acid, so these two are called “essential,” because it is essential that you get them from your diet.

In the news

There has been a lot of press about the importance of fatty acids, particularly the Omega-3 fats. It has been suggested that most people, while getting enough Omega-6 fats, are deficient in the Omega-3 variety. This is a cause for concern since, in addition to being important for day-to-day functioning of the body, Omega-3 fats seem to protect us against a number of diseases including heart disease, cancer, and Type II diabetes.

There is also a body of research that suggests that this lopsided Omega-6/Omega-3 ratio may contribute to an increased incidence of clinical depression.


Omega-6 fatty acids are a family of fats that includes the essential fatty acid--linoleic acid. It is the only one in the family that is considered essential, because if you get enough linoleic acid in your diet, your body can manufacture the other Omega-6 fats it needs.

The main sources of Omega-6 fats are meats and vegetable oils, two big food categories in most western diets. For this reason we are less likely to be deficient in Omega-6 fats, including linoleic acid.


Of much more interest to most healthy eating experts, are the Omega-3 fats. Capitalizing on this concern, food manufacturers have changed the labels on their products to tout the presence of these fatty acids in their products. Supplements abound that promise to fulfill your body's need for Omega-3 fats.

The essential member of the Omega-3 family of unsaturated fats is called linolenic acid, (or sometimes alpha-linolenic acid--ALA) again, essential because it cannot be made by your body and must be supplied by your diet. If your body has enough linolenic acid, it can make the other Omega-3 fats that it needs to function, including EPA and DHA, which you may have heard about in the news.

Excellent sources of linolenic acid:  walnuts, flax seed, chia seed and fish. 

Click here for more information about flaxseed.

Caveat for Essential Fatty Acids: To get the most benefit, flax seed should be ground (A coffee grinder works great for this purpose!)just before using, since it will begin to deteriorate as soon as the seed is crushed. The ground flax seed that you see in stores is not as good a choice as freshly ground seed.

Click here for more information about chia seed.

It is recommended that at least 2% of your daily calories be in the form of Omega-3 fats. For a person eating 2,000 calories a day, this would amount to about 4 grams of Omega 3 fats.

Interesting Fact for Essential Fatty Acids: Many health experts recommend fish oil as a good source of essential omega-3 fats. Vegetarians can get their essential Omega-3 fats from walnuts, flax seed and chia seed. However, unlike fish oil, these are sources of linolenic acid and not DHA another important Omega-3 fat. Fortunately, as long as you are getting enough linolenic acid, your body can produce the DHA that it needs. There are also certain algae that are a vegetarian source of DHA, one of the important fatty acids, that is available in supplement form.

Click here to go from Essential Fatty Acids page to Vegetarian Diets page.