The Lowdown On EFA's!

Personally when I first heard that there were types of fats that actually helped your body and helped you lose weight, I did not believe it. After doing a pretty good amount of reading and some research, I found out that the myth was true.

Well I think some people, especially bodybuilders, are beginning to realize that not all fat is bad, especially essential fatty acids, yet approximately 80% of Americans lack sufficient amounts of EFA's in their daily diet [7]. Personally when I first heard that there were types of fats that actually helped your body and helped you lose weight, I did not believe it. After doing a pretty good amount of reading and some research, I found out that the myth was true. Here is a bit of what I found out through my research.

Fats In General

The main components of all fats are fatty acids, which consist of being either saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. Fats that contain a high proportion of saturated fatty acids are generally solid at room temperature and are commonly known as saturated fats. They are usually derived from animal sources such as lard, suet, and butter. Most plant fats are high in either polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats except palm and coconut fat, which are highly saturated. Saturated and monounsaturated fats are not necessary in the diet as they can be made in the human body[2].

Essential Fatty Acids

Essential fatty acids (EFA) cannot be made by the body, thus must be supplied through the diet. They are essential for rebuilding and producing new cells.

Two basic categories of EFAs are Omega-3 and Omega-6. Omega-6 EFAs include linoleic and gamma-linolenic acids, which are found in raw nuts, seeds, legumes and sesame and soybean oil[3]. Omega-3 EFA's include alpha-linolenic and eicosapentaenoic acid, which found in fresh deepwater fish, fish oil, certain vegetable oils such as canola and flaxseed oils[3].

These oils must be consumed in pure liquid or supplement form, which must kept away from heat, which destroys essential fatty acids[3]. These essential fatty acids are needed for the production of compounds known as eicosanoids, which help regulate blood-clotting, blood pressure, heart rate, immune response, and a wide variety of other biological processes[10]. Within the body both can be converted to other PUFAs such as arachidonic acid, or eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)[3].

What Do They Do?

  • Transport oxygen from red blood cells to the tissues
  • Promote brain development
  • Keep saturated fats mobile in the blood stream
  • Are an anti-inflammatory (rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease)
  • Regulate pressure in the eye, joints, and blood vessels, and mediating immune response
  • Regulate bodily secretions and their viscosity
  • Dilate or constricting blood vessels
  • Regulate collateral circulation
  • Reduces blood pressure / Dilates blood vessels
  • Regulate cell division rate
  • Maintain the fluidity and rigidity of cellular membranes
  • Regulate the inflow and outflow of substances to and from cells
  • Direct endocrine hormones to their target cells
  • Maintain proper kidney function and fluid balance
  • Prevent blood cells from clumping together (blood clots that can be a cause of heart attack and stroke)
  • Regulate smooth muscles and autonomic reflexes
  • Regulate nerve transmission and communication
  • Support cardiovascular health

Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3, also known as and written as n-3 or w-3, is the name given to a family of polyunsaturated fatty acids. The parent omega-3, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), is described as essential as, similar to vitamins, because it must be obtained from diet. It is a polyunsaturated that has 18 carbon atoms and 3 double bonds[4].

Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role as structural membrane lipids, particularly in nerve tissue and the retina and are precursors to eicosanoids that are highly reactive substances such as prostaglandins and leukotrienes that act locally to influence a wide range of functions in cells and tissues[9]. It is also known as C18:3n3 (meaning 18 carbons, 3 double bonds, first double bond at the n-3 position)[5].

Both omega 3 and omega 6 cannot be inter-converted and both must be present in the diet in a proper balance for good health. The difference between omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids lie in their chemical structure and their roles in the body. Basically, the omega-3s have anti-inflammatory benefits and help prevent heart disease, whereas omega-6s lower blood cholesterol and support the skin. In one study, 8 weeks of omega-3 supplementation (9-10 grams per day) resulted in significant improvements in joint pain and stiffness among arthritis sufferers[8].

LA Deficiency [11]

  • Eczema-like skin eruptions
  • Loss of hair
  • Liver degeneration
  • Behavioral disturbances
  • Kidney degeneration
  • Excessive sweating accompanied by thirst
  • Drying up of glands
  • Susceptibility to infections
  • Failure of wound healing
  • Sterility in males
  • Miscarriage in females
  • Arthritis-like conditions
  • Heart and circulatory problems
  • Growth retardation

Food Sources For Omega 3 Fatty Acids (Alpha-Linolenic Acid):

  • Flaxseeds (linseeds)
  • Mustard seeds
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Soya bean
  • Walnut oil
  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Grains

Oils Made From:

  • Linseed (flaxseeds)
  • Rapeseed (canola)
  • Soya beans

Fish is not the only source of omega 3 acids. Flaxseed oil contains twice as much as is found in fish oil.

Omega 6 Fatty Acids

Omega 6 is linoleic acid, which is also known as n-6 or w-6. It is a polyunsaturated fatty acid with 18 carbon atoms and two double bonds. Linoleic acid is considered an "omega-6" or "n-6" fatty acid because the first of its double bonds occurs at the sixth carbon from the omega end. It is also referred to as C18:2n6, which basically means it has 18 carbons, 2 double bonds, first double bond at n-6 position[4].

As polyunsaturated fatty acids, both the omega-6 and the omega-3 families have more than one double bond in the carbon chain. All fatty acids in the omega-6 family contain their first double bond between the 6th and 7th carbon atoms (CH3) terminal carbon atom and the omega-3 family of fatty acids have their first double bond between the 3rd and 4th carbon atom[5].

Deficiencies in EFAs can lead to reduced growth, a scaly rash called dermatitis, infertility, and lack of ability to fight infection and heal wounds. Lack of omega-6 fatty acids, however, is extremely rare in diets of those living in certain Western countries, particularly the United States. In fact, North American diets tend to have too much omega-6, particularly in relation to omega-3 fatty acids[6]. This imbalance contributes to long-term diseases such as heart disease, cancer, asthma, arthritis, and depression. For optimum health and disease prevention, the balance should consist of one to four times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids[6].

LNA Deficiency [11]

  • Growth retardation
  • Weakness
  • Impairment of vision and learning ability
  • Motor incoordination
  • Tingling sensations in arms and legs
  • Behavioral changes

Symptoms That Respond Remarkably Well To LNA Supplementation:

  • High triglycerides (fat) in the blood
  • High blood pressure
  • Sticky platelets
  • Tissue inflammation
  • Edema
  • Dry skin
  • Mental deterioration
  • Low metabolic rate
  • Some kinds of immune dysfunction

Good Sources For Omega 6 Fatty Acids (Linoleic Acid):

  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Nuts
  • Grains
  • Seeds

Oils Made From:

  • Safflower
  • Sunflower
  • Corn
  • Soya
  • Evening primrose
  • Pumpkin
  • Wheat germ

Why Supplement With Essential Fatty Acids?

If one does not to eat enough EFAs, there is a greater risk of hardening of the arteries, abnormal blood clot formation, coronary heart disease, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure[1]. Essential fatty acids are polyunsaturated fat and super polyunsaturated fat so your body utilizes them as building materials for cell membranes throughout the body. Without them, the body has to use other harder fats such as saturated fat, which produces harder arteries and many other heart problems. Essential fatty acids also produce prostaglandins, which are similar to hormone elements required for energy metabolism, cardiovascular and immune system health[7].

Research Findings

Many studies have been conducted to test the actual benefits of supplementing with essential fatty acids. A recent expert scientific advisory board at the National Institutes of Health highlighted the importance of a balanced intake of omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids in reducing the adverse effects of elevated arachidonic acid, which is a metabolic product of the catabolism of omega 6 fatty acids[8].

Recent studies have shown consumption of linolenic acid and other omega 3 fatty acids to offer protection against heart disease and heart attacks. This effect is thought to be mediated through the synthesis of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Fish oils contains large amounts of both EPA and DHA and the majority of studies in this area have used various concentrations of fish oil supplements to demonstrate the health benefits of these essential fatty acids. For example, one gram of menhaden oil (a common source) provides about 300 mg of these fatty acids.

EPA is known to induce an antithrombotic (clot-preventing) effect through its inhibition of platelet cyclooxygenase, which results in the platelets sticking less to each other similar to the effects of a taking a pain reliever. Fish oil, and its high content of EPA and DHA, may also protect against heart disease through an anti-inflammatory effect by reduced cytokine production and/or increased nitric oxide production in the endothelium [8].

There is also some evidence that omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil and flaxseed may help improve insulin sensitivity, modulate lipid metabolism, and combat both mild depression and Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Although the data is far from clear, it is known that omega-3 fatty acids are concentrated in the brain and children and adults suffering from depression and/or ADHD typically show sub-optimal blood levels of essential fatty acids. In addition, population studies suggest that a high consumption of fish, which rich in omega-3s, may be related to a lower risk of depression, including postpartum depression[9].

How Much Should I Take?

A minimum of 4-5 grams of linoleic acid (but no more than 6-7 grams) and 2-3 grams of linolenic acid are recommended per day. Supplements of linoleic acid (n-6) are typically not needed, whereas linolenic acid (n-3) supplements (4-10g/d) and/or concentrated EPA/DHA supplements (400-1000mg/d) are recommended to support cardiovascular health.

Total DHA/EPA intake should approach about 1 gram per day - evenly split between the two. When using flax as a concentrated source of essential fatty acids, a typical dose is 1-2 tablespoons per day. If you bought a EFA supplement then just follow the instructions on the bottle [11].

Side Effects

No serious adverse side effects should be expected from regular consumption of essential fatty acid supplements, whether from fish oil or other common oil supplements. Due to the tendency of omega 3 fatty acids to reduce platelet aggregation, which means to make them less sticky, so your blood might not clot as fast as usual.

All around essential fatty acids are a good investment, especially to your health.


  • Adams, P.B., et al. Arachadonic acid to eicosapentaenoic acid ratio in blood correlates positively with clinical symptoms of depression. Lipids, 1996; 31(suppl): S157-S161.
  • Appel, L.J., et al. Does supplementation of diet with fish oil reduce blood pressure? A meta-analysis of controlled clinical trials. Arch Intern Med, 1993; 153: 1429-1438.
  • de Deckere, E.A., et al. Health aspects of fish and n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids from plant and marine origin. Eur J Clin Nutr, 1998; 52(10):749-53.
  • de Lorgeril, M., et al. Mediterranean alpha-linolenic acid-rich diet in secondary prevention of coronary heart disease. Lancet. 1994;343:1454-1459.
  • Edwards, R., et al. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in the diet and in the red blood cell membranes of depressed patients. J Affect Disord, 1998; 48: 149-155.
  • Ferretti, A. & Flanagan, V.P. Antithromboxane activity of dietary alpha-linolenic acid: a pilot study. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids, 1996;54: 451-455.
  • Hamazaki, T.S., et al. The effect of docosahexaenoic acid on aggression in young adults. J Clin Invest, 1996; 97(4): 1129-1134.
  • Holman, R.T., et al. Deficiency of essential fatty acids and membrane fluidity during pregnancy and lactation. Proc Natl Acad Sci, 1991; 88: 4835-483
  • Virkkunen, M.E., et al. Plasma phospholipid essential fatty acids and prostaglandins in alcoholic, habitually violent, and impulsive offenders. Biological Psychiatry, 1987; 22: 1087-1096. 9. Hu, F.B., et al. Dietary intake of alpha-linolenic acid and risk of fatal ischemic heart disease among women Am J Clin Nutr, 1999; 69(5):890-897.
  • Kremer J.M., et al. Effects of high-dose fish oil on rheumatoid arthritis after stopping nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Clinical and immune correlates. Arthritis and Rheumatism, 1995 Aug, 38(8):1107-14.
  • Durtschi, Al. Walton Foods. 12 December 2003.