Products containing essential fatty acids (EFAs) are heavily promoted by companies who make bold claims about their benefits. Marketing such products normally center around omega-3 fatty acid content. However, there is far more to understand beyond the writing on the label.
What are essential fatty acids?
You’ve no doubt heard the terms “saturated” and “unsaturated” when referring to fats. Saturated fats have long been demonized as the “bad” ones which must be avoided at all costs. While there are certainly reasons to avoid excessive intake of saturated fats (notably the high cholesterol content), you may be surprised to find that unsaturated fats are not as innocent as they might appear.
Unsaturated fats are broken down into two groups: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Essential fatty acids are part of the polyunsaturated (PUFA) family. The reason they are essential is that they cannot be made by the body. This means that they must come from your diet. These polyunsaturated fats can then be broken down further into two groups – linoleic (commonly referred to as omega-6) and alpha-linolenic (better known as omega-3) fatty acids.
Omega-6 is found in foods such as leafy vegetables, nuts, and grains. It is also present (in higher concentrations) in oils such as sunflower, sesame, poppy seed, and corn. Oily fish, eggs, krill oil, nuts, and tofu are great sources of omega-3.
The Optimum EPA to DHA Ratio
You’ve probably seen the advertisements where products are hailed as being “high in polyunsaturated, low in saturated fats”. This is where things get a little more complex: While omega-3 is proven to possess anti-inflammatory properties, omega-6 fatty acids are the opposite. To make matters worse, consuming too much omega-6 can completely wipe out the omega-3 health benefits.
Studies conclude that the optimum ratio of omega-6 to omega 3 intake is between 1:1 and 4:1.
Fish is Better Than Tofu
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is an essential fatty acid. Once consumed, the body converts this into DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). While not classed as essential, studies of essential fatty acids show DHA and EPA to have the greatest health benefits. Unfortunately, the body is not very efficient at converting ALA into these disease-preventing super fats.
Oily fish already contain high levels of DHA and EPA, and this is why they are the preferred source of omega-3.
Natural foods containing DHA and EPA are limited. In fact, oily fish are pretty much the only source. However, it’s not all bad news for vegetarians and vegans: supplements high in DHA and EPA can be produced using algae.
Fish Oil Improves Body Composition
Even in the absence of resistance exercise, fish oil supplements can help improve body composition.
Participants in a 2010 study, published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, actually lost fat while adding muscle. Researchers highlight the correlation of lower cortisol (the stress hormone) levels with improved body composition.
Benefits of EFA’s (essential fatty acids)
Countless studies support the health benefits of essential fatty acids… particularly in the EPA and DHA form. Benefits include:
- Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease
- Decreased risk of developing breast cancer
- Painkilling properties for inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and menstrual cramps
- Lower levels of oxidative stress.
When considering health benefit claims made on food packaging, it is important to determine whether the product is high in omega-6 fats. If this is the case, it will normally be marketed as “high in polyunsaturated fats.” Also, if you’re thinking of supplementing, you should be aware that omega-3 supplements should be high in DHA and EPA as opposed to ALA. This is especially relevant for vegetarians and vegans who might be looking for a suitable alternative to fish, yet end up consuming high levels of ALA.
Author Bio: Robin Young
Robin Young is the CEO and founder of UK based website – Fitness Savvy. Known for his detailed and in-depth articles on diet, nutrition, and exercise, Robin takes a logical and scientific approach to his training and work.
Robin spends time testing the theories and evidence from his articles, adding a personal touch to his advice. His most popular experiment was a body re-composition, where he successfully added over 8lbs of muscle while losing 6lbs of fat over a three-month period. This was confirmed using a DEXA body scan before, and after.
Currently, he is designing and testing a new workout routine which he believes will revolutionize the way we train for strength, endurance, and hypertrophy.