Essential fatty acids are classified into fat "families": omega 3 fats and omega 6 fats.
Non-essential fat "families" include omega-9 fats, saturated fats, omega-7 fats, and trans-fats.
Optimal health depends on the proper balance of all fats - both essential and non-essential fats - in the diet. Proper balance means adequate amounts of each individual fat, without having too much, and maintaining proper balance between the various "families" of fats.
Fat health also means avoiding potentially harmful fats such as trans fats found in shortening, margarine, fried foods and dairy. A proper balance of fatty acids will lead to mental health and proper nerve function, a healthy heart and circulatory system, reduced inflammation in general, proper gastrointestinal and lung function, a more balanced immune system, and even healthy skin, hair and nails.
Fatty acid balance is also critical for the health of all pregnant women and their babies since the developing brain and nervous system of the baby requires large amounts of EFAs that must come from the mother. Fatty acid imbalances have been seen in many disease processes including:
- heart disease
- insulin resistance and diabetes
- painful menstruation
- pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS)
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- obsessive-compulsive disorder
- and post-partum depression
Plasma and serum fatty acid values can vary substantially based on an individual’s most recent meal, so they do not necessarily reflect long-term dietary consumption.
A deficiency of essential fatty acids—either omega-3s or omega-6s—can cause rough, scaly skin and dermatitis. Plasma and tissue concentrations of DHA decrease when an omega-3 fatty acid deficiency is present. However, there are no known cut-off concentrations of DHA or EPA below which functional endpoints, such as those for visual or neural function or for immune response, are impaired.
Evidence that higher LC omega-3 levels are associated with a reduced risk of several chronic diseases, including coronary heart disease, suggests that many Americans could benefit from slightly higher intakes. However, classical essential fatty acid deficiency in healthy individuals in the United States is virtually nonexistent. During periods of dietary-fat restriction or malabsorption accompanied by an energy deficit, the body releases essential fatty acids from adipose-tissue reserves. For this reason, clinical signs of essential–fatty-acid deficiency are usually only found in patients receiving parenteral nutrition that lacks PUFAs. This was documented in case reports during the 1970s and 1980s, but all current enteral and parenteral feeding solutions contain adequate levels of PUFAs.
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