Essential Fatty Acids (EFA)

For a healthy heart, mind and body, make sure you are getting essential fatty acids.

Rohu fish


What are essential fatty acids (EFAs)?

EFAs are unsaturated fatty acids that are essential to human health, but cannot be manufactured in the body. “The two main essential fats that we must absolutely get from food are alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA (the ‘mother’ Omega-3 fatty acid) and linoleic acid or LA (Omega-6),” explains Lucy Ann Prideaux.

Humans have some potential to convert ALA to the highly-beneficial longer-chain Omega-3 fats, EPA and DHA. Both, however are already present in oily fish such as salmon and mackerel, as well as seafood and some sea vegetables (see below).


Benefits of EFAs

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are important to the normal functioning of all cells of the body and play a critical role in the development and maintenance of proper brain function; heart function; normal vision; and the production of hormone-like molecules that modulate immune and inflammatory responses. EPA and DHA are strongly associated with healthy cardiovascular function, and DHA is essential to brain development and visual health.

These two polyunsaturated fats can, according to the British Heart Foundation (BHF), “reduce blood cholesterol, including triglycerides”. They are recommended for a healthy heart, preventing the blockage of arteries as well as help prevent heart disease and stroke. Studies of heart attack victims have found that supplementing the diet or increasing consumption of omega-3 fatty acids daily can reduce the risk of stroke, follow-on heart attacks, and death.

They can also relieve the symptoms associated with ulcerative colitis, menstrual pain, and joint pain.

Deficiency of essential fatty acids may cause the following:

  • decreased immune function
  • depression
  • dry/scaly skin
  • hormone imbalances
  • joint pain and inflammation


EFAs and Fat Loss

“EFAs have been found to inhibit fat storage, increase the chemical process ‘beta oxidation’ (i.e. fat burning), improve insulin sensitivity, and increase thermogenesis (i.e. calorie burning),” explains Lucy Ann Prideaux, “and therefore have a very positive effect on fat loss,” she adds.


Food sources

  • LA is commonly found in nuts, seeds and their cold-pressed oils, as well as vegetable oils and animal foods.
  • ALA is found in plant sources such as nuts and seeds and most abundant in walnuts, hempseeds, flaxseed, chia seed and the oils from these foods, as well as rapeseed oil, red meat and dairy.

Oily fish contains EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) fatty and its recommended we eat it two to three times a week (see suggestions below). “This is regardless of whether we’ve had a heart attack or not due to a change in guidelines from NICE (National Institute for Care and Excellence),” say the BHF. Do check on mercury levels, PCBs and other toxins in deep-water fish such as tuna.

  • Anchovies
  • Bluefish
  • Herring
  • Mackerel
  • Salmon (wild has more omega-3s than farmed)
  • Sardines
  • Sturgeon
  • Lake trout
  • Tuna


Should you supplement?

  • For heart disease prevention and management, a 500mg combination DHA /EPA from fish oil per day is often recommended. For optimal brain and immune system functioning, 1000mg/day is the preferred dose.
  • Pregnant women and mothers, nursing mothers, young children, and women who might become pregnant should choose supplements over potentially contaminated fish. Omega-3 fatty acids are critical for fetal neurodevelopment and may be important for healthy birth weight as well. It is worth noting that supplements made from the body of fish, often called omega-3 fish oil supplements are safe to take in pregnancy. But those made from the liver of fish, such as cod liver oil, are not recommended to take in pregnancy.
  • Note: fish oil has both EPA and DHA. Algae oil has DHA and may be a good option for people who don’t eat fish.

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