By now you’ve likely heard of omega fatty acids. That’s because few nutrients pack as much of a healthful punch like these good-for-you fats do. But if omega-3s are the only fatty acids on your radar, it’s important to know that they are just the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, there’s an entire family of omega fatty acids, both essential and nonessential, and each member plays a critical part in providing your body with the compounds it needs to stay healthy.
The Essence of Essential Fatty Acids
Essential fatty acids, or EFAs, are nutrients your body needs to properly develop and function. They’re called essential because the body can’t make these compounds on its own. Instead, EFAs must be obtained from the foods you eat.
There are two primary categories of essential fatty acids: omega-3s and omega-6s. Both serve important roles in the body.
Omega-3s get all the glory—and for good reason. They’ve been shown to reduce atherosclerosis, improve the symptoms of bipolar disorder, and decrease the risk of retinal disease. If that weren’t enough, new research reports that having higher levels of these essential fatty acids in the bloodstream can increase life expectancy by nearly five years.
Primarily found in fatty fish like anchovies, mackerel, salmon, sardines, and trout, two specific omega-3s provide the bulk of these health benefits—eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Another omega-3, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), can be converted into more productive EPA and DHA, but the process is very inefficient.
Like omega-3s, omega-6s such as linoleic acid (LA) are necessary fats that can only be obtained through diet, and healthy sources include avocados, nuts, and seeds. While omega-6s are critical for providing energy, they’ve also been shown to help maintain healthy skin and hair, strong bones, metabolic function, and reproductive capability. One recent study even demonstrated that elevated levels of LA were associated with a reduced risk of premature death.
But omega-6s are only good for your body up to a point. And where those omega-6s come from matters since ultra-processed foods are packed with highly manipulated sources of omega-6 EFAs (think highly refined vegetable oils). Consuming too many of these unhealthy omega-6 foods increases inflammation and puts you at risk for a slew of health issues.
The Right Ratio of EFAs
Most traditional diets like the paleo or the Mediterranean diet strike a healthy balance between omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids. But the typical American consumes a diet that contains at least 15 times more omega-6s than omega-3s. That’s bad news because excessive amounts of omega-6 fatty acids from highly modified sources, plus a low intake of omega-3s, can lead to chronic diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, atherosclerosis, and heart failure.
But tweaking your ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids can aid in regulating your body’s inflammatory response and that, in turn, can help prevent serious health problems. What’s optimal? Somewhere between 1:1 and 4:1 omega-6s to omega-3s. Optimizing your EFAs is so effective that one French study found that a balanced ratio of 4:1 omega-6s to omega-3s decreased total mortality by 70 percent in heart attack patients.
Finding Your Balance
With all the processed foods invading store shelves and restaurants, balancing your omega intake has never been more challenging. And even though the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends eating fish high in omega-3 fatty acids at least twice weekly, that might not cut it if your ratio is in the 20:1 range. Fortunately, the AHA also recommends taking omega-3 supplements to boost levels and support a healthy body.
However, some fish oil capsules come with their own set of drawbacks. They’re infamous for the fishy burps they cause. Even worse, typical omega-3 supplements are often produced using heat and chemical solvents, which diminishes the effectiveness of the fatty acids. When processed this way, DHA and EPA become less absorbable, and therefore less bioavailable to your cells.
To ensure an optimal balance, look for an easily absorbed, bioidentical omega-3 supplement that provides a higher ratio of DHA to EPA. It’s also smart to check the Supplement Facts label for the inclusion of phospholipids and bioactive peptides from Atlantic salmon, which are vital for healthy cells and proper nerve function.
Beyond Essential Omegas
Your body does produce several non-essential omega fatty acids—and three of the most important are omega -5s, -7s, and -9s. Even though you don’t need to get these nutrients from food or supplements, doing so can be beneficial for reducing your risk of some health conditions.
Omega-5s are found in the fruit and seeds of pomegranates. Also known as punicic acid, omega-5 fatty acids help combat the oxidative stress that contributes to cellular damage, heart disease, and premature skin aging. Because this unique omega fatty acid also boasts anti-inflammatory powers, it’s been shown to halt the joint and cartilage damage that can make rheumatoid and osteoarthritis so painful and debilitating. Studies also show that omega-5s from pomegranate act to protect the liver, guard against metabolic disease, enhance immunity, and restore levels of antioxidant enzymes such as superoxide dismutase, catalase, and glutathione peroxidase. But don’t count on that bottle of pomegranate juice in the fridge for these benefits. Instead, look for a supplement that combines the polyphenol-rich fruit extract with a supercritical extraction of the seed. This dynamic duo provides a variety of health benefits thanks to its high omega-5 concentration.
Omega-7s are actually some of the most abundant fatty acids in the human body. They’re also one of nature’s best-kept secrets. Omega-7s provide a wealth of positive benefits like lowering cholesterol, enhancing hormone sensitivity, protecting the skin from premature aging, and regulating metabolism and blood sugar. In fact, a recent study that appeared in the journal Advances in Nutrition concluded that one variety of omega-7 in particular, palmitoleic acid, possesses properties that can increase insulin sensitivity.
While omega-7s are present in foods such as sea buckthorn, macadamia nuts, and avocado oil, it’s wise to opt for a supplement if you’re looking for any real benefit. Look for a pure, high-potency product created from a supercritical CO2 extraction of sea buckthorn berries and seed oil.
Rounding out the omega family are nonessential omega-9s. Though you may not need to go out of your way to squeeze this fatty acid into your diet, replacing some of the unhealthy fats you encounter every day with omega-9 fats can certainly benefit your health. Simple switches like almonds for chips and olive oil for refined vegetable oils can help reduce damaging inflammation. Omega-9s can also be found in many commonly consumed foods including avocados, avocado oil, bacon, eggs, grass-fed beef, nuts, olives, and extra-virgin olive oil.