Open any fitness or health magazine and you’re sure to find at least one article on essential fatty acids. But, what actually are they? What do they do? Where are they found? What if they’re missing from the diet?
Well, for starters, essential means just that; without them the body will eventually perish. Scientists have classified Alpha-Linolenic Acid and Linoleic Acid as being the two essential fatty acids (EFA’s) needed by humans. Unlike other fatty acids, the human body is not capable of synthesizing these two and therefore, must derive its supply through food sources.
Understanding Fatty Acids
Alpha-Linolenic Acid (LNA) and Linoleic Acid (LA) were the discovery of a husband and wife team, George and Mildred Burr, at the University of Minnesota in 1929. Working with animals, they found that a deficiency in EFA’s produced dry skin, brittle and thickened hair, impaired growth, kidney problems and the inability to reproduce. Untreated, the animals died. Interestingly, with the reintroduction of LNA and LA to the animals, health problems were reversible.
Similar symptoms are seen in humans who are deficient in EFA’s, as shown in 1956 by researcher Hugh Sinclair. Although ostracized by the medical community, Sinclair went on to publish papers in prestigious journals reporting that many common diseases such as coronary heart disease, cancer, diabetes, inflammation, and strokes were the results of incorrect fat ratios in the diet. In other words, these diseases were somehow connected with EFA imbalances and deficiencies.
Importance of Essential Fatty Acids
As research has continued on EFA’s, the realization of their importance to life has grown. Looking broadly at the roles they play in the human body, it can be said that they control the body’s ability to grow, its energy state and its mental acuity. They are involved in almost every facet of life. EFA’s aid in oxygen transfer in the lungs, they are precursors of prostaglandins (hormone-like substances regulating a cascade of bodily actions), they are involved in chromosome stability and cell division, and they even help in muscle recovery after exercise.
EFA’s in the Diet
The dietary requirements of EFA’s are still unknown, as there are many variables that may determine how much is needed each day. The exact amount is dependent on levels of physical activity, stress, current nutritional status, sex, age and weight. To prevent a deficient state, the current trend is to incorporate one to two percent of a person’s daily calories in the form of LA. For optimal health, the amount may be closer to six percent of daily calories as LA. LNA, on the other hand, is needed in lesser amounts, possibly in the range of two percent of daily calories.
LNA, a member of the omega-3 fatty acid family, can be found in flax seed, hemp seed, canola oil, soybeans, walnuts and dark-green leaves. Flax seed, the richest source of LNA currently known, has been found to contain over 50% of its fatty acids as LNA. Sources of LA, which belongs to the omega-6 fatty acid family, are safflower oil, sunflower oil, hemp, soybeans, walnuts, pumpkin, sesame and flax. In this instance, it is the safflower and sunflower oils that contain the highest concentrations of LA.
As science moves forward, more discoveries on the health benefits of LNA and LA will continue to be unearthed. At the present, however, research has shown that EFA’s are, indeed, essential to life.