What are essential fatty acids?

Essential fatty acids, EFAs are polyunsaturated fatty acids that are essential for human health but the body cannot manufacture them.

You probably already know two important EFAs: Omega 3 and Omega 6.

Omega 3 fatty acids

There are 3 types of Omega 3 fatty acids: ALA, EPA and DHA.


EPAs are important for heart health and reduce inflammation in the body.

“Evidence is accumulating that increasing intakes of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) can decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease by preventing arrhythmias that can lead to sudden cardiac death, decreasing the risk of thrombosis (a clot) that can lead to myocardial infarction (MI) or stroke, decreasing serum triglyceride levels, slowing the growth of atherosclerotic plaque, improving vascular endothelial function, lowering blood pressure slightly, and decreasing inflammation.”1

It also can possibly reduce the number of hot flashes.


DHA may be beneficial for brain and visual function as well as in individuals with type 2 diabetes, especially those with elevated serum triglycerides. Low DHA has been found to be a risk factor for Alzheimer disease and other types of dementia.2


The essential fatty acid is ALA which is found in plant foods. ALA synthesizes EPA and DHA. However, the conversion process is low in the human body. Therefore, we need to eat good amounts of the foods that contain ALA.

Plant Sources of ALA

Though the conventional recommendation for omega 3 essential fatty acids is fish and fish oil, “the high amounts of other fats and cholesterol and the lack of fiber make fish poor dietary choices. Fish are also often high in mercury and other environmental toxins that pose dangers to the consumer.”3

There are some good plant sources of omega 3 essential fatty acids:

  • Chia seeds, which I prefer to grind. The recommended portion is about 1 oz, or 4 Tbsp.
  • Hemp seeds, about 1 oz.
  • Ground flax seeds, about 1 Tbsp and flax seed oil, about 1 tsp provide the daily requirement of ALA.
  • Walnuts, about 1 oz.
  • Brussels sprouts and other cruciferous vegetables are also a great source when well cooked, about 1/2 cup.

If you think you need extra help with a supplement and you’re vegan, I’ve found  Algal oil. It’s derived from algae and 1 Tbsp provides 400 to 500 mg. Here’s my favorite brand.

Another oil is Perilla oil which you can add to your salad dressing!

Homemade Essential Fatty Acids Recipe

I found this really delicious recipe on a great recipe website called Run Cook Laugh for homemade cinnamon apple granola bars. It contains all the plant sources of omega 3.

Omega 6 fatty acids

These essential fatty acids are found in vegetables, nuts, beans as well as oils like sunflower, corn, soybean, peanut and cottonseed oil, processed foods and meats that contain them.

They’re essentially pro-inflammatory, which means that when we consume them in “normal” levels, they help to protect our bodies from infection and injury. Inflammation is the body’s natural immune response.

However, and there lies the lesson, we eat too many omega 6 compared to omega 3. The data that is generally given is 25:1.

Ideally for our health, the ratio of omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids should be between 1:1 and 4:1.

That means that we should both reduce omega 6 intake and increase omega 3 intake.

An example

Up until recently, I was using sunflower oil for cooking which is high in omega 6, so I switched to safflower oil, which is high in omega 9. I limit the amount of oil I use when I sauté my vegetables to 2 Tbsp, 1 Tbsp per serving.

Though I’m not one to focus so much on the science, sometimes what you don’t know can hurt you!

And ignorance isn’t bliss, it’s dangerous!

Please leave me a comment and let me know if this has been useful and how I can further support you on your health path!

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  1. Oregon State University https://www.lpi.oregonstate.edu.com
  2. Ibid
  3. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, https://www.pcrm.org