Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids, Essential Fatty Acids, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, and Omega-6 Fatty Acids

While it's important to your health not to accumulate too much body fat, it's also critical that you get enough of the right balance of essential polyunsaturated fatty acids, the omega-3 fatty acids and the omega-6 fatty acids. Here are the basics you need to know about these important nutritional tools for good health.

What Are Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids?

To explain polyunsaturated fatty acids, let's start with an explanation of what it means for a molecule of fat to be saturated. "Saturation" is a chemical term. It describes how the carbon atoms that make up a molecule of fat are joined together. Every carbon atom can be bonded to up to four other atoms. In a molecule of saturated fat, this is what happens.

However, a carbon atom can also form a double bond to another carbon atom. The significance of this is that the double bond can be replaced to a single bond between the carbons and the addition of another atom to the unsaturated fat molecule.

This lets the molecule respond to free radicals with less damage. An unsaturated fat molecule has at least one of these double bonds. A polyunsaturated fat molecule has at least two of these bonds. Polyunsaturated fats are more resistant to unhealthy degradation (in the body and outside it) than mono-unsaturated fats (fats made of molecules with just one double bond), and both are more resistant to unhealthy degradation than saturated fats.

How can You Tell the Difference between Saturated and Polyunsaturated Fats?

  • Saturated fats like butter, lard, and the fats in cheese have to be heated to melt. Polyunsaturated fatty acids are liquids at room temperature.

  • Monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature but turn into solids when you put them in the refrigerator. Some examples of monosaturated fats are olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil. Monounsaturated fats do not contain any essential fatty acids.
  • Polyunsaturated fats act as "antifreeze" in the organisms where they originate. They are liquid at relatively low temperatures. These fats are found in fish, nuts, seeds, some dark green leafy vegetables, and some kind of algae. All essential fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats, but not all polyunsaturated fats are essential.

The Similarities and Differences Between Omega-3's and Omega-6's

Both omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids are essential fatty acids. "Essential" means that human life depends on them, and there's no way to get them except from food.

Omega-6 Raises inflammation! Omega-3 Stops It!

The "3" in omega-3 and the "6" in omega-6 just refer to the local of the double bond between carbons in the molecule. The significance of this difference is that omega-6 fatty acids are transformed into hormones that cause inflammation, and omega-3 fatty acids are transformed into molecules that stop inflammation.

The process of inflammation is one of the ways the body protects itself from injury or infection. The hormones made from omega-3 essential fatty acids keep the process of inflammation from going too far.

Most of the fat in your body is made of yet another kind of fatty acid, omega-9fat. This fat isn't essential. You don't need to eat foods (like chicken fat, lard, and olive oil) to get it. In fact, you probably have too much!

Omega-6 Essential Fatty Acids in Human Nutrition

We get far too much of omega-6 fatty acids

It's hard to avoid getting too many omega-6 essential fatty acids in the typical modern diet. These fatty acids are found in the plant oils used to make every kind of baked good, every kind of candy, salad dressings, mayonnaise, and sauces. They are also abundant in all kinds of healthy plant oils, even in flaxseed oil.

While omega-6 shortages do occur during famine, most of us have far more of these essential fatty acids than our bodies really need. Ideally, the body would make pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory hormones in about the same amounts.

In reality, most of us get about 20 to even 30 times more omega-6 than omega-3, and this makes it very difficult to recovery from diseases caused by inflammation.

Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids in Human Nutrition

It's hard to get enough omega-3 essential fatty acids in the typical modern diet. These fatty acids are found in some natural plant oils, but even flaxseed oil, the best source of omega-3's, contains a lot of omega-6's.

We do not eat enough Omega 3 foods

Cold-water fish are good sources of omega-3's, but about 95% of their fat is omega-9 fat that our bodies don't need. A single 3-1/2 oz (100 gram) serving of the right cold-water fish, such as wild Atlantic salmon, wild Atlantic mackerel, or fresh sardines, provides the absolute minimum of omega-3 essential fatty acids your body needs for maintaining health, but you could not possibly correct an omega-3 essential fatty acid deficiency just by eating fish. You would have to eat up to 3 pounds (1400 grams) of the best fish sources of omega-3's and up to 20 pounds (9 kilos) or fish sticks or canned tuna!

Omega-3's Are Best Consumed as Supplements

That is why fish oil supplements and microalgae supplements are so useful. You get all the essential fatty acids you need without having to eat lots of fresh fish (never fried) each and every day. And if you use microalgae products, then you get the essential fatty acids that big fish get by eating little fish that actually eat the algae—without having to consume animal products and without the concentrations of heavy metals and pollutants that can occur in ocean-going fish.

Microalgae supplements are toxin-free. The algae have to be raised in special tanks, so microalgae capsules are a little more expensive. Fish oils can be toxin-free. The best brands are distilled at low temperatures to remove any possible contamination, and then encapsulated to keep them from interacting with air.

The Best Way to Get Essential Fatty Acids in the Right Balance

Just taking a fish oil or microalgae capsule every day can improve your lab results at your next checkup, but getting the most out of essential fatty acid supplements usually requires some changes in diet. You don't want to get too much omega-6 or omega-3.

The way to do this is eat low-fat, but intentionally add measured amounts of omega-6 and omega-3 supplements to your low-fat diet. For instance, you might use 1 tablespoon (15 ml) of high-quality walnut or grapeseed oil in making a vinaigrette for your salad every day.

And you might also take 5 grams of high-quality fish oil or oil made from microalgae. This way you get enough omega-3's in balance with omega-6's, and you can keep your weight in check as you overcome inflammation.

Related Articles