Get a Grip on Fatty Acids

Lisa Nelson, RD, LN Health Pro
  • Unless you have been living under a rock, you have probably heard the term fatty acids.  But, do you understand what they are and how the right ratio will improve your heart health?  I intend to clear up the confusion.
     
    Types of Fatty Acids
     
    There are numerous types of fatty acids. I am focusing on omega 3 and omega 6.
     
    Unsaturated Fats
     
    Omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids are both unsaturated fats.  To improve cholesterol levels, you want to replace the saturated fats (i.e. lard, shortening, ice cream, cheese) in your diet with unsaturated fats. 
     
    What does "omega" mean? 
    Most of you are familiar with the saying "alpha to omega", in other words, beginning to end.  The "omega" indicates which carbon has the first double bond on the carbon chain when you start counting from the omega end.  For omega 3, the first double bond is on the third carbon from the omega end of the carbon chain.  I know you were wanting to review a little biochemistry today! 

    Add This Infographic to Your Website or Blog With This Code:

     
    Essential Fatty Acids
     
    Omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids are also essential fatty acids. 
     
    Essential fatty acids are necessary for cardiovascular health, but our body cannot synthesize them.  You can only obtain essential fatty acids through the foods you eat. 
     
    Omega 3 (Linolenic Acid)


    To keep things simple, I am going to use the acronyms ALA, EPA, and DHA.  These are all types of omega 3 fatty acids.  If we consume a food containing the omega 3 fatty acid ALA, our body will convert it to EPA and DHA.  Studies have shown a link between EPA, DHA, and heart disease.  More studies are needed to understand ALA's relationship.
     
    Sources:


    Oils - Canola oil, Soybean oil, Flaxseed oil (good source of ALA)

    Seeds and nuts - flaxseeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, Brazil nuts, sesame seeds

     

    Vegetables - avocados, some dark leafy green vegetables (kale, spinach, mustard greens, collards)

     

    Fish (good source of EPA and DHA) - salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, albacore tuna, lake trout, herring
     
    Omega 6 (Linoleic Acid)


    I am going to throw in more acronym's - GLA and AA - omega 6 fatty acids.  Linoleic acid is converted to GLA and on into AA by the body.  Researchers are finding indications of a link between GLA and EPA, in relation to heart health and reduced blood pressure.  High intake of sugars, alcohol, trans fats, and various other factors can inhibit the conversion from linoleic acid to GLA. 
     
    Sources:

     

    Oils - Sunflower oil, corn oil, safflower oil, soybean oil, cottonseed oil, flaxseed oil

     

    Seeds and nuts - flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, pistachio nuts, sunflower seeds, pine nuts

     

    Meat - chicken, beef
     
    For optimum heart health, the ratio between omega 6 fatty acids and omega 3 should be between 1:1 and 4:1.  A practical example of what a 1:1 ratio means, for every 3 ounces of beef you eat, you would need to eat 3 ounces of tuna (I do not mean in the same meal!).  The ratio for the typical American diet is 11:1 to 30:1.  This poor ratio is linked with heart disease, among several other health issues. 

  •  

    Add This Infographic to Your Website or Blog With This Code:

    Bottom Line:
     
    For heart health, increase your intake of foods containing omega-3 fatty acids, while cutting back on omega-6 fatty acid sources.  For example, switch from corn oil to canola oil, increase the number of meals you eat that contain fish each week, and grab walnuts instead of pistachios.

     

    Want more info? Check out our fatty acid quiz!

    Lisa Nelson, RD, LN is a registered dietitian and founder author of eNutritionServices.  Be sure to sign up for the e-course How to Lower Cholesterol in 8 Simple Steps.

Published On: May 31, 2008