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What are essential fatty acids?

Essential fatty acids are the polyunsaturated fatty acids that the body cannot synthesise itself in sufficient quantities for physiological needs such as normal growth and cellular metabolism. Therefore, essential fatty acids must be consumed in the diet. There are 2 essential fatty acids; linoleic acid which is an omega-6 fatty acid  and linolenic acid which is an omega-3 fatty acid.

What are the types of essential fatty acids?

Essential fatty acids are those fatty acids that the body must get from the diet. Essential fatty acids are a type of unsaturated fatty acid known as polyunsaturated, which means it has more than one double bond in its structure. There are only 2 types of fatty acids that are known to be essential fatty acids, the omega-3 fatty acid linolenic acid (ALA) and the omega-6 fatty acid linoleic acid (LA). Other unsaturated fatty acids may be considered “conditionally essential” meaning that in certain the conditions the body is not able to produce them include an omega-3 fatty acid known as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and an omega-6 fatty acid called gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). 

Why do humans need essential fatty acids?

The essential fatty acids linoleic acid (LA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) are the starting point for the production of other fatty acids required by the body for proper function including the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) as well as the omega-6 fatty acids gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) and arachidonic acid (AA). 

Essential fatty acids are also necessary for numerous pathways in the body including those that affect levels of inflammation, blood pressure, blood clotting, regulation of the nervous system, cell membrane health, mood, and behavior. They are involved in cellular signaling as well as cytokine production. Studies have demonstrated that these pathways are further influenced by the ratio of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 fatty acids. 

What are examples of essential fatty acids?

There are only 2 types of fatty acids that are known to be essential fatty acids, the omega-3 fatty acid linolenic acid (ALA) and the omega-6 fatty acid linoleic acid (LA). Other unsaturated fatty acids may be considered “conditionally essential” meaning that in certain the conditions the body is not able to produce them include an omega-3 fatty acid known as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and an omega-6 fatty acid called gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). 

Related Terms

Sodium

Learn more about Essential Fatty Acids:

Photo of Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson

Medically reviewed by:

Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson, Ph.D., RD

Kristin is an RDN who also earned her Ph.D. in Nutrition from Arizona State University with an emphasis on insulin resistance, lipid metabolism disorders, and obesity. She completed her post-doctoral fellowship at Mayo Clinic where she focused on nutrition-related proteomic and metabolic research. Her interests include understanding the exact mechanism of action of various genetic variations underlying individual predispositions to nutrition-related health outcomes. Her goal is to help all individuals prevent chronic diseases and achieve long, healthy lives through eating well.

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