Essential Fatty Acids

Despite all the concern about fat in our diet, the body does require fat to function. The problem is that most people are getting the wrong kinds of fats in their diet and are lacking the good fats in their diets. Babies should not be on a low-fat diet. Most of their fat should be from formula and breast milk. The total fat concentration of formulas and breast milk is around 45 to 50 percent of the total calories.

There are two types of fats:

  • The bad guys: Saturated fats are the type that can clog arteries. These fats are solid at room temperature and are found in meat, milk, and poultry. High intakes of these fats have a correlation with an increased incidence of heart disease and strokes in later life. Trans fats, often listed as hydrogenated oils, are found in margarines, vegetable shortening and many processed foods such as in peanut butter, cakes, cookies, and crackers. Although listed as an unsaturated fat in Nutrition Facts labels, they are part of the bad guys.
  • The good guys: Unsaturated fatty acids are liquid or soft at room temperature. Oils such as corn, fish, peanut, safflower, sesame, soybean, sunflower, and olive fall into this category. The fatty acids that are necessary for the body and cannot be made by the body are called essential fatty acids (EFA). Essential fatty acids are part of the good fats that have been researched and found to have numerous health benefits.

Essential fatty acids help build nervous system tissue and help with the transmission of nerve impulses. They are also used by the body for the production of prostaglandins, hormone-like substances, that regulate various processes.

There are two major categories of EFA which are both considered polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA). These are omega-3 (the major source is alpha-linolenic acid) and omega-6 (the major source is linoleic acid). Omega-3 EFA are found in fresh oily fish (canning causes some loss of EFA) like herring, mackerel, salmon, tuna, and anchovy. Omega-3 EFA are also found in fish oil, flaxseed oil, canola oil, and walnut oil. Omega-6 oils include corn oil, safflower oil, cottonseed oil, peanut oil, sesame oil, borage oil, grapeseed oil, and primrose oil. Good sources of both omega-3 and omega-6 are Great Northern beans, kidney beans, navy beans, soybeans, and soybean oil.

Getting an adequate amount of essential fatty acids may present a challenge. The Western diet has moved away from a fish diet, and most of the fats in processed foods are the bad fats. Also consider that if your child does not get adequate amounts of the basic vitamins and minerals, their body may not process the EFA that is consumed. In order for EFA to be used correctly, they need certain co-factors like vitamin A, C, E and magnesium, selenium, zinc, and copper.

The primary problem is that the Western diet tends to be too high in omega-6 and too low in omega-3 fatty acid consumption. The typical American diet has a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 of around 15 to 1. Diets with a ratio of about 4 to 1 have been shown to be healthier in research studies. One important study, known as the Lyon Diet Heart Study, looked at heart attack survivors.

Three different diets were assigned: a traditional heart diet, the “prudent” heart diet (recommended by the American Heart Association) and a modified version of the Crete diet. This last diet group received a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 of 4 to 1.

Two years into the study, the study was stopped because survival rates of the Crete diet were so significant compared to the other two diet groups. There was a 76 percent lower risk of dying from a cardiovascular event with the Crete diet. Also laboratory animals who received a diet high in omega-6 fatty acids and low in omega-3 fatty acids had more invasive and faster growing tumors when implanted with cancer cells. Psychological tests found these animals also suffered with more difficulty through mazes and had more random behaviors.

If everything is working correctly, EFA along with their co-factors will become metabolized into prostaglandins in the body. These are important in the function of the immune system. Too much saturated fat can block the conversion of EFA to the desirable prostaglandins.

A malfunctioning immune system can lead to illness, and it also plays a role in allergies and autoimmune diseases (diseases like inflammatory bowel disease, juvenile diabetes, and juvenile rheumatoid arthritis). EFA may improve allergies, asthma, and a possible role in attention deficit disorder.

If you are breastfeeding, you should make sure you are including EFA in your diet. Diets that exclude fats and EFA can cause deficiency symptoms in the breastfed infant. Signs of an EFA deficiency can include dull hair, dry skin, dandruff, excessive thirst, and frequent urination. Symptoms in infants can also include poor weight gain and poor wound healing, in addition to the symptoms listed above.

Essential fatty acids are important in the production of myelin that is being laid down in the brain. Myelin sheaths cover the brain cells which are being laid down in the first couple years of a child’s life. Omega-3 sources should be included in the mother’s diet.

Research is now examining how important supplementation of formulas with different PUFA may be on infant development. Whether these PUFA affect attention control, problem-solving ability, IQ, and visual function is the emphasis of some of these studies. DHA does appear to be important for visual development in premature infants.

A study from Australia showed that supplementation of infant formulas with a dietary omega-3 did improve visual function to the level of those found in breastfed infants. Another study showed that supplementation of formula with PUFA from birth to four months of age resulted in higher problem-solving scores at 10 months of age.

See Healthy Sources for Essential Fatty Acids.