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There is much more to nutrition than just the essential food groups or lists of essential vitamins and minerals. One of the most fascinating aspects of nutrition is the action of essential fatty acids.

What are Essential Fatty Acids?

Essential fatty acids are substances made up of fats that are used within the body, but not as fuel. The body itself cannot produce the essential fatty acids, so they need to be absorbed from the food we eat. There are a number of semi-essential fatty acids, some of which are not essential when the body is healthy and functioning normally, and some of which the body can produce itself.

The Most Important Essential Fatty Acids

Alpha-linolenic Acid

Сhemical structure of Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA).

Alpha-linolenic acid is also known as ALA. It is the most common of the essential fatty acids and is found in plant-based foods. Before the body can use ALA, it has to be converted into other fatty acids EPA and DHA (more on these later). Unfortunately, the human body isn’t very good at converting alpha-linolenic acid into other fatty acids. Any AHA that is not converted is simply stored or metabolized for energy. Alpha-linolenic acid is found in seed oils and seeds such as chia, hemp, and flaxseed, as well as walnuts, soybeans, and some leafy green vegetables such as spinach and kale.

Docosahexaenoic Acid

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA, cervonic acid) molecule.

Docosahexaenoic acid is also known as DHA. This is essential for healthy brain development during childhood and adolescence. If a person does not receive enough DHA in their early years, there is a higher risk of learning difficulties and other developmental problems. As we age, low levels of this substance are linked to cognitive problems and even Alzheimer’s Disease. DHA is particularly important for eye health and good vision, as well as for the skin. It can have a beneficial impact on the heart and may reduce the risk of a number of diseases such as diabetes.

Eicosapentaenoic Acid

Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) molecule

Eicosapentaenoic Acid is also known as EPA. This is a fatty acid used inside the body to form eicosanoids. Eicosanoids are molecules used in signaling and inflammatory responses. It is important for cardiovascular health and is used in several medications and treatments for various health conditions. It may benefit women during menopause too. Seafood, such as salmon, herring, and shrimp contain Eicosapentaenoic acid. Lower – but still significant – levels of eicosapentaenoic acid are found in grass-fed dairy and meat.

Ten Foods Rich in Essential Fatty Acids

A collage of ten foods rich in essential fatty acids

 

  1. Salmon – One of the richest sources of both EPA and DHA; Salmon is incredibly dense in nutrients. It also contains a wide range of other vitamins and minerals. Salmon is one of the most impressive oily fish when it comes to delivering nutrition.
  2. Flaxseeds – You can add them to your cereal or porridge, sprinkle them over salads, or pop some into a smoothie. However you choose to eat them, flaxseeds are high in ALA, which the body converts into other fatty acids, including EPA and DHA. This makes flaxseed a good way for those who don’t eat fish or meat to increase their fatty acid intake.
  3. Sardines – Sardines are small, oily fish, rich in both essential fatty acids and a range of other vitamins and minerals (notably B12, potassium, and selenium). Sardines are widely available and easy to add to recipes to give any meal a boost of fatty acids.
  4. Chia Seeds – Chia seeds are a superfood that has become increasingly popular in recent years because they are incredibly nutritionally dense for their calorific load. They contain ALA, which makes them an excellent plant-based source of fatty acid, and they are rich in soluble and insoluble fiber too.
  5. Mackerel – Another oily fish that packs a nutritional punch and delivers lots of essential fatty acids, including EPA and DHA. Swapping meat or poultry for mackerel a few times a week could significantly boost your intake of fatty acids.
  6. Walnuts – One of the best plant-based sources of ALA, walnuts are the only tree nut that contains omega 3 fatty acids. They can be baked into food, added raw to salads, or enjoyed as a handy snack. They also contain lots of useful minerals.
  7. Herring – A widely available fish that is rich in both EPA and DHA fatty acids and other fatty acids. Herring is also incredibly rich in vitamin b12, which is so important for the nervous system and blood cell production.
  8. Pumpkin Seeds – Pumpkin seeds are from plants, so they contain the plant-based AHA, which the body has to then change into other fatty acids. It is important to note that pumpkin seeds are a great source of magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, and vitamin K, amongst others.
  9. Oysters – Oysters are incredibly rich in EPA and DHA, as well as other non-essential fatty acids. Oysters are also notable because they contain lots of vitamin D, which is a vitamin that is generally quite difficult to find in food sources, as the body usually produces it after sun exposure. Oysters are also rich in iron.
  10. Anchovies – They might be tiny in size, but anchovies are big in nutrition. They are full of essential fatty acids, including EPA and DHA. They are also an excellent protein source, making them a good choice to replace other protein sources. Aside from putting them on a pizza (which might not be quite the healthiest way to consume them!), anchovies can be added to many recipes to increase the fatty acid content.

For more information, check out the government guidelines here.