Essential fatty acids supplements – I’ve heard a lot about them. However, even though the word “essential” is right there in front of me, I have not taken the time to consider how essential they really are. I don’t eat fish (which is often mentioned when the subject arises) and my joints ache every now and then. I decided now is the time to take a proper look at the subject.
As with all nutrients nowadays, essential fatty acids supplements are readily available and heavily promoted – be it cod liver oil, CLAs, Omega 3 – the list goes on. But do you really need them?
What are Essential Fatty Acids?
Dietary fats play a significant role when it comes to normal metabolism and a healthy body. It is also important to remember that dietary fat is more than just an energy source: it is also required to aid fat-soluble vitamin absorption. This includes vitamins A, D, E and K.1 Fatty acids are the natural components of fats and oils. They can be either:
- Saturated – by definition, these are fatty acid chains which have all or predominantly single bonds. They have higher melting points, and so are solid at room temperature. Animal fats such as lard and butter are good examples.
- Unsaturated – by definition, these fatty acid chains contain at least one double bond. Where only one bond is present, the fat is “monounsaturated”, otherwise it is “polyunsaturated”. These fats have lower melting point, so are liquid at room temperature. Unsaturated fats are predominantly found in plants and fatty fish.
When talking about essential fatty acids (EFAs), we are referring to a section of the polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) family. Just like essential amino acids (as discussed in our article about BCAAs), they are classed as essential because the body needs them, yet cannot synthesise them. This means that they must come from your diet.2
The two essential fatty acids are linoleic and alpha-linolenic. However, you are far more likely to hear the names – omega-6 and omega-3 when it comes to “good” fats.
Linoleic Fatty Acids (Omega-6)
Linoleic fatty acids are part of the omega-6 family.3 Great food sources include leafy vegetables, seeds, nuts, grains, and vegetable oils such as:
- Sunflower oil
- Soy bean oil
- Corn oil
- Safflower oil
- Sesame oil
- Poppy seed oil
Another name you might commonly hear is conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA. Conjugated linoleic acids are isomers of linoleic acid. They are primarily found in meat and dairy products. There is much debate and discussion on this subject, and so we will produce an article dedicated to this matter soon.
Alpha-linolenic Acids (Omega-3)
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is one of three types of omega-3. The other forms are: EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). These are not essential because the body can make them from ALA. However, the process is slow, and only small amounts are formed. So even though these are not essential forms of the fatty acids, they can be consumed in the diet to reap the full health benefits.
EPA and DHA are most commonly associated with marine oils. Therefore, fatty fish products are widely promoted – using their omega-3 content as the primary marketing tool. While these fish are indeed high in these good fats, they are also high in other not-so-good substances. Fish can contain mercury, which is a toxic heavy metal. Although not found in huge amounts, these toxic elements can accumulate in the body and cause health problems. For this reason, the amount we consume should be limited. The recommendations, as per the NHS website are as follows:
- The general population should only consume a maximum of four portions of oily fish per week (a portion is around 140g when cooked). This reduces to one portion if eating swordfish. This is because swordfish contains more mercury than other fish.
- Breastfeeding or pregnant women, and even those looking to get pregnant should limit their intake to two portions per week. The pollutants in the fish can affect development of the baby.
- Children, pregnant women and those trying to get pregnant should not eat swordfish.
ALA Food Sources:
- Nuts (particularly walnuts)
- Edible seeds (particularly chia & hemp seeds)
- Flaxseed oil (for optimum absorption flaxseed needs to be ground down or in oil form. If not, they tend to pass through the body undigested.)
EPA & DHA Food Sources:
- Oily fish (mackerel, salmon, anchovies, trout, kippers, pilchards, herring, crab, swordfish, sardines)
- Fish oils
- Eggs (from chickens fed diets high in EPA and DHA. This is typically achieved by feeding the chickens algae)
- Squid oils
- Krill Oil
Converting Alpha-linolenic Acids to EPA & DHA
As mentioned, EPA and DHA (the long-chained fatty acids which have proved to possess the greatest health benefits) need to be converted from ALA, or consumed in the diet. So, if you’re vegetarian or vegan, it looks – on initial inspection – as though you will find it difficult to get enough of these essential fatty acids. For this reason, we have taken a deeper look into how ALA is converted and what to do to ensure you are consuming enough if you don’t consume fish and other animal products.
High levels of ALA can be selectively converted into long-chain polyunsaturated fats, according to a study on rats by Valenzuela et al. The study used oils with varying degrees of ALA. It found the rats fed the higher levels obtained higher tissue levels of ALA. It had converted to EPA (in red blood cells, liver, kidneys, small intestine, heart and quadriceps – but not the brain) and to DHA in the liver and brain.4
It is recognised that ALA is converted to EPA more easily than it is to DHA. The rates of conversion range from around 6-8% for EPA and 4% for DHA in males.5 with 21% (EPA) and 9% (DHA) in females.6 This is reduced by 40-50% for diets rich in omega-6.7 This is one of the reasons to keep the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in check (as discussed further on in the article).
Limiting Factors for ALA Conversion
We now know that ALA conversion rates tend to be low. To compound the issue, multiple other factors may limit our ability to convert ALA to EPA and DHA. They are as follows:
- High saturated fat intake
- Trans fats – they destroy the enzymes needed for conversion.
- High blood sugar level
- Age – older people do not convert ALA very well.
- Gender (as above, regarding female increased ability to convert)
- High stress
- Not enough other vitamins such as zinc, calcium, magnesium, biotin, vitamin C, vitamin B3, and vitamin B6. These are essential for the enzymes used to convert ALA.
- Too much vitamin A
- Unbalanced ratio with too much omega-6
- A high alcohol intake
Essential Fatty Acids and the Importance of Omega-3 During Pregnancy
Long-chained fatty acids (in particular DHA) are necessary for healthy growth and development of the foetus during pregnancy, and for the first 18 months of life.8 Coincidentally, women are more able to convert ALA. This is thought to be due to the regulatory effect of oestrogen, and is likely a metabolic capacity to meet the needs of the foetus during pregnancy and lactation.10 However, even with their increased ability to convert ALA, it is still recommended that pregnant women eat 2 portions of seafood per week and supplement with omega-3 containing EPA and DHA. They should also reduce their intake of omega-6 rich oils such as sunflower and corn, as these are converted to substrates which compete with EPA.11
Health Benefits of EFAs
There are numerous health benefits of a diet containing the right amounts of essential fatty acids. We have covered some of those health benefits below:
- Omega-3 fatty acids have been linked with decreased breast cancer risk.12,13
- Linoleic acid reduces the risk of coronary heart disease, lowers LDL cholesterol (the bad one) and is thought to improve insulin sensitivity.14,15,16
- PUFA have shown promise in the treatment of some autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis.17
- Reduction of menstrual pain – even better than ibuprofen.18,19,20
- Reduce oxidative stress.21
- Reduction in arthritis & joint pain.22,23
- Effective treatment of psoriasis, resulting in reduced itching and scaling, as well as decrease in surface area affected.24
Deficiency & Health Risks
EFAs are essential, and so diets lacking in them can cause issues. The most important fact to consider when assessing the health vs risk benefits of EFAs is that omega-6 has inflammatory effects when consumed to excess. The table below shows how the two compare:
Essential fatty acid deficiencies (EFAD), although rare, can lead to or exacerbate some problems. Such problems include:
- Decreased immune function
- Abnormalities of the liver and kidneys
- Cystic fibrosis25
- Dry, scaly rash26,27
- Hair loss & depigmentation28
- Poor wound healing29
EFAD can also develop because of carnitine deficiency. L-carnitine supplementation alone has shown to partially correct EFAD.30
For vegans and vegetarians, there is little to no direct food sources available to obtain the long-chained omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. Conversion rates from ALA are low, and although increasing intake of these plant-based omega-3 acids can help towards the problem, they will not totally solve it. Vegetarians have the benefit of eggs high in DHA, but they are more expensive – so not an option for those on low income or who live in areas where they are not available. For vegans, algae supplements are a great way to increase the levels of EPA and DHA.
Essential Fatty Acids & Exercise
While we have covered the health benefits of EFAs, we have not touched on how they may (or may not) help those who partake in regular exercise. While the evidence we have uncovered so far supports the anti-inflammatory properties of essential fatty acids, studies are yet to conclusively show added benefit for avid fitness enthusiasts and professional athletes. Reasoning behind the lack of conclusive evidence revolves around the fact that the ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 have not been consistent, and the complexities of how essential fatty acids interact is still unknown.31,32
The most recent study we have included in this article has not been printed yet – that’s how new it is! The study, due to be printed in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition & Exercise Metabolism found that adding fish oil to a whey protein, leucine and carbohydrate beverage reduced muscle soreness in competitive soccer players.33 This appears to back up several other studies which also concluded that omega-3 supplementation reduced fatigue and delayed onset muscle soreness.34,35
Regarding body composition, a study was conducted whereby participants were either given a fish oil or safflower oil supplement for six weeks. The results showed the fish oil group to have significantly better body composition. The changes were directly correlated with lower cortisol levels, too.36
Continuing on from body composition, it appears that supplementation of long-chained fatty acids (EPA & DHA) aids with protein synthesis, when other anabolic stimuli are present – such as amino acids. It appears that the long-chained omega-3 acids magnify their anabolic effect by increasing the activation of the mTOR-p70s6k signalling pathway – a necessary control point for muscle protein anabolism.37
Recommended Daily Intake & Optimum Ratios
With the high levels of fat we tend to consume in our diets, it should come as no surprise that we manage to get more than enough of some of the fats we need. However, omega-3 and omega-6 fats compete for use in the body, so it is important to consume them in the correct ratio. Too much omega-6 will cancel out the benefits of omega-3.38 Omega-6 is present in vegetable oils, as we discussed, and it is these that are consumed in far higher quantities than are needed.
The ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is between 1:1 and 4:1.39 However, the western diet tends to have far higher ratios of 10-30:1. This is due to the volume of processed and fast foods we consume, which are high in oils. The idea, is to reduce overall fat intake, and increase the proportion of foods high in omega-3.
Below is a table showing the recommended daily intake of omega-3
Source: Food & Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine, National Academies
Using this as a guide, men & women should consume 1.6-6.4g and 1.1-4.4g of omega-6 respectively. If you are falling short, or your ratio is out of whack, this may justify taking essential fatty acids supplements.
The table below displays the composition of fatty acids in common foods:
Source: GB HealthWatch
As you can see from this table, 1 tablespoon of canola oil would cover your entire daily intake of omega-6 and omega-3.
Essential Fatty Acids Supplements
The most common supplement when it comes to omega-3 is fish oil. However, the issue with fish liver oil supplements is that they are high in vitamin A. Vitamin A can accumulate in the liver. When this happens, it can reach harmful levels, causing hypervitaminosis A. The recommended daily intake of vitamin A is 0.7mg per day for men and 0.6mg per day for women. Vitamin A which isn’t used immediately is stored to be used later. This means that you don’t necessarily need to consume it every day.40 Many of the fish oil supplements we investigated didn’t even list vitamin A in the nutritional info. The ones we did find showed vitamin A content per serving as 75-100% of the RDA.
So how much vitamin A per day is too much? The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition produced a review of dietary advice on vitamin A. They conclude that more than 1.5mg per day over many years may affect bones. If you are already at greater risk of osteoporosis, this is more reason to keep your intake of vitamin A below this level.41
The below table shows the vitamin A content of everyday foods to help you calculate how much you might already be getting:
Our Final Words
Essential fatty acids – in particular EPA and DHA (forms of omega-3) have been shown in countless studies to possess anti-inflammatory properties. This can be helpful in the prevention and fight against numerous diseases and painful conditions including coronary heart disease, breast cancer, arthritis and menstrual pain.
In an ideal world, we would all consume a perfect diet containing optimum levels of all nutrients. However, in reality, monitoring and measuring every single macro and micro nutrient is not possible. In fact, when you look at the risks of consuming too much of certain vitamins, even the easy option of taking a daily multi-vitamin does not seem such an easy option anymore. Therefore, it is important to look at the nutritional content of the supplements you are taking to ensure you are not taking excessive levels of certain nutrients.
Here is our list of dos and don’ts to help you when planning your diet to include optimal levels of essential fatty acids:
- Compose a list of foods you eat either daily, or on a very regular basis. Work out which vitamins you are already getting plenty of and which ones you tend to be missing. This will provide a great starting point regarding your overall diet and immediately highlight which foods high in omega-6 fatty acids you need to reduce.
- Cook using rapeseed oil (or canola oil) as this has the best ratio of omega-6 to omega-3. It also has a higher smoke point than other oils. On top of that, it is high in vitamin E and very low in saturated fat.
- Increase foods high in omega-3 to balance the ratio against omega-6. Add some walnuts to your diet and edible seeds.
- Eat oily fish four times per week, reducing to twice if pregnant or breast feeding, or once per week if you’re eating swordfish. Watch your vitamin A intake if following this option.
- If vegetarian, eat eggs high in omega 3. These eggs are from chickens fed algae which is very high in DHA. We found Sainsbury’s Free-Range Woodland Eggs with Omega 3 are listed as containing 56mg of DHA per egg, but special attention should be paid to the particular eggs you buy to ensure they contain a sensible level of omega-3, in particular DHA.
- For vegans, it is recommended to double your intake of ALA so that you have more to convert to DHA and EPA. Supplement with flaxseed oil and consume chia seeds to help with this.
- Again, if vegan, to ensure a better ratio of omega-6 to omega-3, pay attention to your portion size of sunflower and pumpkin seeds, as these are high in omega-6.
- Use algae supplements rather than fish oil, as they contain lower level of pollutants and vitamin A. They are also suitable for vegetarians and vegans.
- If you are consuming liver products once per week, do not use vitamin A supplements at all. This means you cannot take fish oil supplements. If you are pregnant, avoid liver products altogether.
So there you have it. Everything you need to know to plan your diet for optimum essential fatty acids intake. If supplementation is essential, we recommend algae supplements, as they cover all bases.
Remember, we have a huge range of items to compare prices on. The essential fatty acids supplements range includes all kinds of items that will help you manage your intake. You’ll find oils, foods, capsules, powders. Just click compare prices, or check out some of the most popular products below.
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- NHS Website
- SACN Review of Dietary Advice on Vitamin A