Essential fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats that we must get from food. They are necessary for optimal brain function, metabolism regulation, hair growth, bone health, and many other vital physiological reactions. Omega-3 and omega-6 fats are known as "essential fatty acids," and incorporating them into our diets along with a proper balance between them is important.
A lack of essential fatty acids or an imbalance of them in your diet can result in dry skin and hair, broken fingernails, fatigue, weakness, mood disorders, joint pain, digestion difficulties, slow wound healing, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. Assess your diet to ensure that you are eating some form of essential fats on most days.
These fats help fight inflammation and may help reduce risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and arthritis. Found in various foods like fish, walnuts, flax seeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, and dark leafy greens, most people do not eat enough of these healthy foods to provide their bodies with adequate levels of omega-3s. Try eating fish a couple of times per week, nuts or seeds on your morning oatmeal, and a large serving of steamed greens with dinner.
These fatty acids are readily found in the typical American diet; most people get plenty without much effort. Meats, oily salad dressings, and cooking oils are all sources of omega-6 fatty acids that many people consume in large servings and too frequently. Try eating smaller servings of animal protein, using nut- or seed-based salad dressings instead of oil-based, and cooking oil-free or using reduced quantities of oil.
It is imperative to eat enough fats in your diet. Try to have most of those fats coming from whole-food sources. This means nuts and seeds instead of oils. Avoid fried foods. Choose less beef, chicken, ham, and pork. Eat more cold-water fish such as salmon, herring, and mackerel. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that 20-30% of your daily calories come from fats. Be sure to include sources that include the essential fatty acids. Many health professionals recommend a range of 2:1 - 4:1 for omega-6 : omega-3 fatty acids. Most people consume far too many omega-6s along with insufficient omega-3s (as high as 40:1).
Other Dietary Factors to Consider
Eating fried foods, white sugar, and foods made with trans-fats (partially hydrogenated oils) can interfere with the absorption of essential fatty acids. Products made with refined flour (this is enriched wheat flour, otherwise known as white flour) are missing the nutrient-rich germ which contains essential fats. Avoid or limit consumption of foods made from highly processed grains. The key to maintaining healthy levels of essential fatty acids is to include foods rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fats and avoid the foods that disrupt their absorption.
Corinne Goff is a Registered Dietitian who is absolutely passionate about food, health, and nutrition. Corinne has a BA in Psychology from Salve Regina University and a BS in Nutrition from the University of Rhode Island. As a nutritionist, her objective is to help people reach their health goals by offering a personalized holistic approach to wellness that incorporates natural foods and lifestyle changes. She works together with her clients to develop daily improvements that they feel comfortable with and that are realistic. She believes that the focus on wholesome, nutrient-rich, real food, is the greatest possible way to become healthier, have more energy, decrease chances of chronic disease, and feel your best. For more information, please visit her website at RI Nutrition Housecalls.com.