Get Your Fats Straight: Fatty Acids Explained

Dr. Christopher McGowan
July 13, 2021

If you are trying to get healthy, it is easy to get caught up in fad diets focused on changing one element of your diet such as cutting carbohydrates or loading up on antioxidants. While there can be benefits to lowering your carb intake for most Americans, you will typically have to do more than cut the cake to make a meaningful change in your diet. 

Similar to the low-carb craze, the popular buzz about getting enough omega-3 can seem like a dietary silver bullet. Despite all the hype, there are very real benefits to including omega-3 fatty acids in your diet. There is more to the story, though, as omega-3 is only one source of essential fatty acids.

What are the 3 Main Types of Fatty Acids?

There are three main types of fatty acids, known as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Of these three, long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids EPA and DHA can be synthesized from ALA, but this synthesis is not an efficient metabolic process, which is why it is important to get appropriate amounts of EPA and DHA from your dietary fat intake. 

These acids are available from both food and supplements, and all have essential roles to play in everything from the makeup of cell membranes to the function of our immune system. Heart and lung health and even brain function are all affected by these fatty acids. 

Each of these fats are distinguished by the arrangement and number of carbon atoms and double bonds in the fatty acid molecule. Two of these fatty acids, omega-3 and omega-6, are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), while omega-9 is a monounsaturated fatty acid.

What are Examples of Fatty Acids?

Keeping the different kinds of fats straight can be confusing. Monounsaturated fats such as oleic acids are considered the healthiest. These have been shown in clinical trials to lower your chances of heart disease and other chronic illnesses, but this cannot be said for all types of fat. 

Saturated fats such as palmitic acid have been shown to have a negative effect on low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels in serum lipids. Stearic acid, despite being a saturated fat, has not been associated with negative effects on cholesterol, but saturated fats are still seen as increasing your chances of heart disease. 

Polyunsaturated fats such as linolenic acid are also considered to be healthy for you, and there are indications they have positive effects in fighting inflammatory related diseases and helping protect against the effects of dementia.  

The Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

The list of benefits to omega-3 fatty acids can seem limitless. Everything from brain function to heart health is on the table when it comes to the potential upsides of this fat. Studies have indicated getting enough omega-3 in your diet can help prevent elevated triglyceride, or blood fat levels, which is a significant risk factor for heart disease. Fish oil in particular has been shown to help lower triglyceride levels.

Some supposed benefits of omega-3 fatty acids are yet to be thoroughly researched. In the case of depression, anecdotal evidence suggests there is a link between diets that are high in omega-3 rich food and lower rates of depression, but this has not yet been thoroughly researched. 

Similarly, preliminary research has suggested there is a link between high levels of omega-3 in children’s diets and better cognitive functioning. Especially in children diagnosed with ADHD, more dietary omega-3 appears to improve a wide range of mental skills associated with memory and learning. More research is needed to confirm these links, though. 

Another area where research is ongoing is in the potential benefits of higher amounts of omega-3s for people suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia. There is some evidence to suggest that there could be improvements available to help slow the memory loss associated with aging, but once again more research is needed to confirm this. 

Sources of Omega-3

One of the reasons omega-3s are considered essential fatty acids is the human body cannot synthesize them, meaning you need to include foods containing omega-3 in your diet. The best sources of omega-3 fatty acids are those that come from natural food sources. Oily fish in particular is a great source of omega-3, and is high in DHA and EPA. A list of some of the best kinds of fish includes:

  • salmon
  • anchovies
  • lake trout
  • bluefish
  • herring
  • marlin
  • orange roughy
  • sardines
  • mackerel
  • sturgeon
  • tuna

It is worth being careful, though, as eating lots of fish can expose you to potential hazards like mercury poisoning or ingesting polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that can be stored in the fat of fish. Marlin and orange roughy in particular can have very high mercury content.

For those looking to increase their intake of omega-3 but want to avoid the potential dangers or cost of eating large amounts of fish, there are other sources available including:

  • walnuts
  • chia seeds 
  • flaxseeds and flaxseed oil

Sources of Omega-6

Linoleic acid is another essential fatty acid that you need to get from your diet. Omega-6 is believed to have health benefits such as helping to combat chronic disease, Omega-6 fatty acids can be converted into arachidonic acid (AA), which has pro-inflammatory properties. For this reason, maintaining an appropriate ratio of omega-6 to anti-inflammatory omega-3 in your diet is important. 

Foods high in omega-6 include some healthy foods such as nuts and some less health-conscious options like mayo. A few of the most common sources of omega-6 are:

  • soybean oil
  • almonds
  • walnuts
  • sunflower seeds
  • canola oil
  • cashew nuts
  • mayonnaise

Sources of Omega-9

Unlike the two polyunsaturated fats, omega-9 is a monounsaturated fat, and is not considered an essential fatty acid. Despite this, some of the foods that contain this kind of fat are regularly listed as being very healthy for you. Many plant oils fall into this list, which includes:

  • almond oil
  • olive oil
  • avocado oil
  • cashew nut oil
  • almonds
  • cashews
  • peanut oil
  • walnuts

Getting Help to Understand Fat

If you are trying to lose weight, the conventional wisdom used to be to remove fat from your diet. This is certainly true of dangerous saturated fats and trans fats, which are linked to cardiovascular disease such as atherosclerosis, strokes, and heart attacks. 

More and more research is showing, though, that the right amounts of some dietary fat is essential for your health. There are benefits for getting these nutrients from natural food sources, but this is not practical for everyone. In addition to the potential cost of buying lots of oily fish, making sure you are maintaining the ratios of different fatty acids in your diet is important. For that reason, many people choose to take supplements that are formulated to maintain a 2:1:1 ratio of omega-3-6-9. 

This may not be the best option for everyone, though, as many of us already consume enough vegetable oils and other sources of omega-6. This combined with a supplement can mean you are getting too much in your diet.

Rather than trying to cut all fat from the food you eat, keeping an eye on the fatty acid composition of your diet can help you unlock the powerful benefits of essential fatty acids while not exposing yourself to the dangers of a diet too high in trans fatty acids. An appropriate amount of polyunsaturated fats can have wide ranging benefits for everything from helping to manage lipid levels and improving cholesterol and helping to prevent heart disease. In fact, the American Heart Association concluded that lowering saturated fat intake and replacing it with PUFA-rich vegetable oils such as soybean oil can have a significant impact on lowering your risk of heart disease.

If sorting out the nuances of a diet seems intimidating, you are certainly not the only one. Many people have trouble keeping up with what they should or should not be eating. That is one of the reasons we provide a medical nutrition therapy program at True You Weight Loss. Not everyone who comes through our doors needs to take the step of going through an endoscopic sleeve gastroplasty to get their weight under control. If you feel like it is time to get some help wading through the options and advice on what you should or shouldn’t eat, request a consultation with us today.

Dr. Christopher McGowan
Dr. Christopher McGowan

Dr. Christopher McGowan, MD, a leader in endobariatrics, specializes in non-surgical obesity treatments and is triple-board-certified in Internal Medicine, Gastroenterology, and Obesity Medicine. Renowned for pioneering endoscopic sleeve gastroplasty (ESG) with over 2,000 procedures, his global influence and research contributions define him as a top expert.

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