Fatty acids are an important member of the lipids family. They are actually made up of long chains of hydrogen and carbon molecules (logically called hydrocarbon chains) with an acidic end called the carboxyl group (-COOH) and a methyl group at the other end (CH3) which is also referred to as the omega end of the fatty acid (figure 1).
The length of the hydrocarbon chain and the number and type of bonds it has determines the type of fatty acid it forms, how our body processes it and how healthy it is for us. Based on this information, fatty acids can be categorized into three general groups:
FUNCTIONS OF FATTY ACIDS IN OUR BODY
Fatty acids play various important roles in the body including:
They provide energy and act as efficient energy storage units
they insulate and protect the body
they transport the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) and are a precursor of active vitamin D
They become part of cell membranes (as phospholipids)
They are a structural component in cells and lipoproteins
They are part of the structure of certain steroid hormones: estrogen and testosterone
They are involved in a wide range of biological signaling pathways
UNSATURATED FATTY ACIDS
Unsaturated fatty acids are named according to a convention based on the location of their first double bond with respect to the omega end of the chain. Therefore, an omega-3 fatty acid has its first double bond located 3 carbon atoms away from the omega end and an omega-6 fatty acid has its first double bond located 6 carbons away from the omega end, and so on (figure 3).
TWO ESSENTIAL FATTY ACIDS NECESSARY FOR GOOD HEALTH
Some fatty acids are considered essential because they are necessary for optimal health yet our bodies cannot synthesize them. We have to obtain them from our diet to avoid any deficiencies. The two essential fatty acids are alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) and linolenic acid (LA). Other fatty acids which are also very necessary for our health are considered non-essential because a healthy body can manufacture them if it receives enough ALA and LA from the diet.
However, even with adequate intake of both ALA and LA the conversion and/or synthesis of the non-essential fatty acids is not always very efficient. Therefore, in order to ensure that our body receives sufficient quantities of all the unsaturated fatty acids it needs and that an optimal ratio between the different fatty acids is maintained, it is important to include both essential and non-essential fatty acids in our diets and of course to also adopt healthy lifestyle habits:
A healthy diet rich in leafy green vegetables, avocados, raw seeds and nuts
Consumption of omega-rich fish at least 3-4 times per week (choose wild or organic fish that is low in mercury content).
Extra virgin olive oil for salad seasoning and cooking
Daily omega supplementation, when and as needed
The following table contains food sources of the different fatty acids and highlights the many important roles they play in maintaining good health.
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