Skip to main content

The Truth About Essential Fats

Essential fatty acids are considered "essential" because the human body requires them for many chemical processes but cannot produce them on its own. There are two essential fatty acids that humans must receive from an outside source:

  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid
  • Linoleic acid (LA), an omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid.

For years, we have seen many patients who believe in a "low-fat" diet. But there is little evidence that all fat is bad for you, in fact, many fats are critically important for your body's day-to-day cellular function and can even increase your body's ability to lose weight. You may have heard these "good" fats referred to as "essential fats" or "omegas". These are unsaturated fats. Generally, the more unsaturated a fat is, the healthier it will be for your body, but this is not always true. A variety of unsaturated fats and some saturated fats are very important for supporting your health. On the other hand, artificially created fats such as trans-fats and hydrogenated oils, have negative impacts on your health and should be consumed as little as possible.

Saturation refers to the number of hydrogen atoms found on a fat. The carbon atoms of a saturated fat are all bound to hydrogen atoms and do not have any double-bonds. An unsaturated fat has formed double-bonds between some of its carbon atoms rather than bonding to hydrogen. Generally, these double bonds make the fat molecule more stable and less likely to easily break down in the body in a fashion that causes oxidative stress. Scientists think the less saturated fats (with more double bonds) are associated with lower cardiovascular risk than the saturated fats because they cause less oxidative stress.

Saturated fats have no double bonds. Monounsaturated fats have one double bond and polyunsaturated fats have multiple double bonds in their structure. From a naturopathic perspective, fats from all three categories are important for good health. It is important to choose healthy food sources of these fats and to design a diet that provides these fats in healthy ratios. Strategic fatty acid supplementation may also be necessary to achieve optimal health.

Increasing Your Intake of Healthy Fats

There are many options for promoting your health through proper essential fatty acid consumption. Obviously, our diets are our greatest source of these healthy fats, but it may also be beneficial to consider essential fatty acid supplementation based on your health needs and goals.

  • EPA and DHA (a type of omega-3 fats) are of particular importance as the American diet is nearly void of these fatty acids outside of wild-fish consumption. For this reason, a high-quality omega-3 supplement that provides optimal levels of EPA and DHA should be considered.
  • GLA is critical for those with conditions related to skin inflammation and those who may lack the enzyme required to convert LA to GLA.
  • MCFAs (medium chain fatty acids) are required in much higher doses than the typical American diet supplies, taking a coconut oil supplement or incorporating the oil into ones diet are important for achieving the many benefits MCFAs can offer.