Why are omega-3 and omega-6 “essential” fatty acids?
Our bodies produce most of the fatty acids we need, but there are still some we must get through our food intake.
The two essential fatty acids are alpha linoleic acid and linoleic acid. These are called essential, because they are vital for survival and the body is unable to produce them itself. Alpha linoleic acids belong to the omega-3 fatty acid group and linoleic acids belong to the omega-6 group. Both are polyunsaturated fatty acids and are found in the cell membrane, where they support its function. Both essential fatty acids help maintain normal blood cholesterol levels.
In addition, we need the long-chain polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. The body produces these fatty acids itself, but only to a limited extent.
A balanced diet covers the need for omega-6 fatty acids, and there are no quantified recommendations for the ratio between omega-6 and omega-3. However, if you don’t eat much fish, you may need an omega-3 fatty acids supplement, such as cod liver oil.
Sources of omega-3 and omega-6
Fatty fish, such as herring and mackerel, as well as cod liver oil, are important sources of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly the long-chain oceanic omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which support normal heart function.
Alpha linoleic acid, which is also an omega-3 fatty acid, is widely present in vegetable oils such as canola, soya and walnut.
Linoleic acid, which is an omega-6 fatty acid, is found in barley, nuts, seeds, pork, poultry, margarine and canola oil, as well as corn and soya oils. Flax seeds (also called linseeds) contain both alpha linoleic acid (omega-3) and linoleic acid (omega-6).
The long-chain polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are found in fish and fish oil, such as cod liver oil.
Why are essential fatty acids important?
There are many reasons why essential fatty acids, and generally omega-3 and DHA, are good for you, and particularly for pregnant women.
The essential fatty acids are necessary for normal growth and development in babies and children. A mother’s intake of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA also contributes to normal development of the eyes and brain in the foetus and in breastfed infants.*
There’s a reason why breast milk is the best source of infant nutrition during the baby’s first year of life: essential fatty acids occur naturally in breast milk and the quantity depends on the mother’s diet. The fat content in breast milk, both the quantity and the fatty acid pattern, is what determines its quality.
*While supplements are no substitute for a balanced diet, beneficial effects can be achieved with a daily dose of DHA. Recommended daily intake is 100mg for babies 4 weeks or older, 250mg for children from the age of 3, and 200 mg of DHA in addition to the recommended daily intake for omega-3 fatty acids for adults for pregnant and breastfeeding women