If your reaction to reading a title about the biosynthesis of fatty acids is "hold me, I'm scared," or if chemistry was not your best subject in school, don't worry about what you need to know about the biosynthesis of fatty acids to make the right choices in nutrition. The bottom line on fatty acids is very simple: Essential fatty acids are essential parts of your diet, and non-essential fatty acids are not.
Just Enough Chemistry on the Biosynthesis of Fatty Acids
Chemists classify fatty acids on the basis of how and where carbon atoms join together in a chain. Carbon atoms can bond to up to four other atoms, but they can also form double bonds with just one other atom. The number and placement of these double bonds determines how the body can use a fatty acid in making regulatory hormones. Some fatty acids contain double bonds in the middle of the chain. Some fatty acids contain double bonds closer to one end. The body can hook smaller fatty acids together to make the omega-9 fatty acids from food. The body cannot assemble the omega-3and omega-6 essential fatty acids from smaller molecules, so these have to be obtained from food.
Neither Good Nor Bad, Just Essential
Omega-6 essential fatty acids are often described as "bad" and omega-3 essential fatty acids are often described as good, but the fact is, they are both essential to good health. The body makes inflammatory hormones from omega-6 essential fatty acids. The body makes the hormones that keep inflammatory hormones in check from omega-3 essential fatty acids. Both groups of hormones are essential to human life. The problem is that most people in the modern world consume a lot more of the omega-6 essential fatty acids (from corn and soybean oil, which are in nearly all manufactured foods) than the omega-3 essential fatty acids (which are found in fish, fish oil, nuts, seeds, and some but not all seed oils). There is one other thing to remember about the term "essential." You really do need omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids from food or supplements. "No-fat" is not the goal. "Low-fat" is the option for most people. Start by reducing total fat to a minimum, and then add back the omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids your body needs to make hormones—without all the other fats that just accumulate around your middle, on your backside, and around your thighs.