Essential Fat- A Quick Overview

Among one of the hot topics in regards to health today is essential fats. In particular omega-3 and omega-6. You may have noticed Omega-3 is making its way into the things we eat.  Products are boasting about how much Omega-3’s they provide.  When we start talking with others almost invariably Omega-3s will come up in the discussion.

As with most trends there is usually some confusion. To compound that, unfortunately many companies look to the easiest way they can use the latest buzzword in marketing  their products.  Claims made on products can be misleading and not live up to their crafty hype.  With our fast paced lifestyle we often put off digging into the nitty-gritty of reasons behind these latest trends.  It is very easy to get drawn into the hype when much of the hype is truth!  So, I am going to share a few tidbits to help you on your journey to gain knowledge beneficial to your health path, hopefully equipping you to decipher fact from hype…

First – what are these ‘Omegas’?  They are fatty acids which our bodies need.  Some fatty acids such as Omega 5, 7 or 9 our bodies can make.  Omega 3 and Omega 6 are ones our bodies cannot make, therefore they are labeled ‘essential’.  For the most part this post will be about these two although I will touch on Omega-9’s.

Where do they come from? or How do we get them?  The simple answer is from real food!  Both plants and animal sources provide Omega-3 & Omega-6.  But – this is where confusion, and often misleading marketing comes in. Let’s look at Omega-3’s.

    • Alpha-linolenic acid or ALA is found in plants, plant oils, nuts and in fat of grass-fed beef.  One thing to note about ALA is our body must convert it into DHA and EPA.  The conversion rate is rather poor though, only about 4%.  Our body primarily uses ALA for energy.
    • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) come primarily from fish, hence they are often referred to as marine Omega-3’s.  DHA & EPA are the Omega-3’s which have been attributed to various health benefits. For instance DHA is the primary component of brain structure.  EPA is typically associated with reduction of inflammation.

Where one needs to be careful is reading supplement packages carefully.  Reading the ingredient list to see what is the source of the Omega-3, how much ALA, DHA and EPA.  Remembering ALA is primarily used for energy where as DHA & EPA appear to be used for proper function and repair.

One other interesting tidbit is regarding Omega-3’s in grass-fed meat.  Again, the latest buzz is the Omega-3 benefit from grass-fed beef.  WELL, in researching this post I found out the Omega-3 content found in grass-fed beef is ALA. This was a surprise to me with grass-fed beef compared to fish in many health circles.  While grass-fed meet has a much better ratio than grain-fed, it’s the type of Omega-3 that is important in my health journey. So this is something I will be digging deeper into…

Do we need ALA?  Absolutely! It is an essential fatty acid, the caution is what our body uses it for and what is the reason we are wanting to increase our Omega-3’s.  Many claims are made on labels of plant-based Omega-3 supplements referring to the scientific evidence of DHA or EPA benefiting various aspects of health. While the claims are most often Difference in Omega-3's ALA, DHA and EPA theFunctionalPerspective.comcertainly true, the problem is a plant based Omega-3 does not directly provide DHA or EPA rather ALA which must be converted into DHA & EPA at a 4% conversion rate(or less!). And your body primarily uses ALA for energy.  So the labels can be very misleading.

The other essential fatty acid Omega-6.  This fatty acid is another necessary nutrient our bodies need.  The problem comes when there is an excess or an imbalance compared to Omega-3.  Studies have shown a correlation with excess Omega-6 with a variety of ailments.   So while we need Omega-6, once again we must look at keeping things in balance.

Which leads me to a member of the unsaturated family,  Omega-9.  These fatty acids are not essential because our bodies can make them.  Something to note is, some vegetable oils can be high in Omega-9 content which can potentially cause an imbalance in your body.  Some studies suggest benefits and some suggest potential adverse effects. All to say be cautious and watch for signs of how your body reacts. Another aspect worthy of noting is these same vegetable oils are also typically high in Omega-6 which can cause problems when out of balance with Omega-3’s.

Non-essential fatty acids are rarely something we need to be concerned with supplementing. Be on the look out for claims of a balanced Omega supplement, it isn’t that a problem exists perse, rather not always an efficient use of our money to purchase something our bodies already make and our body knows exactly how much we need 😉  My philosophy is let my body function as intended and let me get out of the way of that proper function..

Eating a balance diet of real foods paying attention to our balance of essential fats and non-essential fats can make our journey to good health a little easier to navigate. One tool I will frequently use is a nutrient tracker at  SELF Nutrition .  It is free to use and you can sign-up to track daily food intake.  What I like best is the extended nutrient profile. Once you have looked up your food you can click on “more details” for a very detailed nutrition analysis. {We used this alot when we were tracking glucose and fructose consumption} This “more details” tab is under the different nutrient categories, such as more info on the fat breakdown.  If you would like to see what the omega make up is of your foods here is a list of the corresponding numbers for ALA DHA and EPA as well as some Omega-9’s.

ALA – 18:3 -n3

EPA – 20:5 n3

DHA – 22:6 n3

Omega 9’s

18:1 (n-9) – Oleic acid

18:1 (n-9) – Elaidic acid

20:1 (n-9) – Gonoic acid

20:3 (n-9) – Mead acid

22:1 (n-9) – Erucic acid

24:1 (n-9) – Nervonic acid

Well, that was as quick as I could make it!  There is so much more that can be said in regards to these fatty acids but I hate to spoil your opportunity to discover them on you own  🙂    Thanks for stopping by and as always I enjoy your comments!

(Some of the sources I used:


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