Understanding Essential Fats

Fats are generally perceived to be unhealthy, and looked upon as the cause of many diseases. While this is often true, certain fats are essential for optimal health, and even survival, as hormones, cells of the immune system and even our skin contain critical components that are derived from specific fats.

The human body can synthesize a majority of the fats we need with the exception of a few. The fats which cannot be produced are better known as Essential Fatty Acids, or EFAs. There are two broad categories of EFA’s in humans, namely Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids.

Of these, two fats in particular, Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA, Omega 3) and Linoleic Acid (LA, Omega 6) are entirely essential, while the remaining omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids can be synthesized from ALA and LA.

Omega 6 rich foods

Omega 3 rich foods


Vegetable oils (e.g. Safflower, Olive)

Nuts and Seeds (e.g. Peanuts, Walnuts)

Wheat and other whole grains

Non vegetarian:




Flaxseed, Hempseed, Chia seeds

Marine Algae

Non vegetarian:

Fish, seafood

Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids play a critical role in inflammatory processes and cell signalling. The Omega 6 fatty acid LA is responsible for the synthesis of Arachadonic Acid (AA), which in turn leads to the formation of substances that promote inflammation through the action of specific enzymes. The human body responds to harmful substances (such as infectious bacteria or toxins) by causing an inflammatory reaction, which in turn attracts cells of the immune system to the inflamed area, to fight the harmful substance. While this is a very important process, chronic inflammation causes a number of diseases such as heart disease, arthritis, and chronic allergies.

The Omega 3 fatty acid ALA, on the other hand, is synthesized into a number of derivative products that have anti inflammatory effects. Omega 3 fatty acids form anti-inflammatory substances that counteract the effect of the pro-inflammatory substances derived from AA. These properties of omega 3 fatty acids make them very beneficial to patients with chronic inflammatory conditions such as heart disease and arthritis.

A Delicate Balance

Due to their opposing effects, maintaining a balance of Omega 3 to Omega 6 is very important for optimal health. The optimal ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 is believed to be 4:1 or lower, but most non-supplemented diets consume a ratio of 15:1 or higher. Research has shown a link between a large dietary imbalance and a number of chronic inflammatory diseases such as arthritis, eczema and even heart disease.

While people who consume meat have the option of increasing their intake of seafood and fish oil supplements, vegetarians are limited in their ability to avoid a omega6:omega 3 imbalance. This is due to the fact that most good vegetarian sources of omega 3 fatty acids, such as chia and hemp seeds, are not a common component of most diets. Without consuming ALA rich foods, or omega 3 supplements, an imbalance will often perpetuate.

Omega 6: Omega 3 Ratios in Common Foods

(Ideal Ratio 4:1 or less)

Sunflower Oil


Safflower Oil


Olive Oil


Canola Oil








Flaxseed Oil


Chia Seeds

0.3: 1

Perilla Oil








Vegetarians and individuals who do not consume seafood are at significant risk of having diets with a skewed omega6/omega 3 ratio, which is believed to have detrimental effects on health in the long term. Incorporation of omega 3 rich foods (such as flaxseed and perilla oil), or dietary supplements (such as flaxseed oil, fish oil and algae oil) into ones daily diet will help maintain an optimal omega6:omega 3 ratio, and help promote optimal health.

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