Foods rich in essential fatty acids

Types of Omega fats and foods containing them


What are essential fatty acids?

Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are a type of fats that are necessary for the body but can not be synthesized, therefore they must be provided through the diet.

EFAs are necessary to form the membranes of new cells, to make hormones, or to produce anti-inflammatory substances.

EFAs are found mostly in plant foods, such as avocados, walnuts, sesame, and in abundance in all vegetable oils (except in palm oil, palm kernel and coconut).

Among animal foods, oily fish is an important source of omega 3 and its derivatives EPA and DHA.

Types of omega 3 and omega 6

seven walnuts each day to get omega-3

It is recommended to eat seven walnuts each day to get omega-3

Essential fatty acids are popularly known as the family of “omega 3” and the family of the “omega 6”. There are different types of omega 3 and omega 6. Popularly, when it comes to omega-3, we mean linolenic acid, and omega-6 refers to linoleic acid.

Both, omega 3 and omega 6, have to go through a series of transformations to become active substances in the body. This means that a number of enzymes must act on them, being responsible for transforming them so they can be used.

This is the main feature of essential fatty acids and the reason for its complexity, since, according to which substances they are transformed, they have an effect in the body or other (anti-inflammatory or inflammatory, for example).

General outline of the sources of fatty acids, their transformations and effects

The issue of essential fatty acids is very extensive and complex. In addition, daily new functions and properties of these substances in the body are discovered.

In the following scheme foods and supplements rich in omega 3 and 6 fatty acids and their properties are shown:

esquema fuentes alimentarias de acidos grasos esenciales omegaScheme on foods rich in every type of essential fatty acids. The most potent omega-3 are provided by fish. The most potent omega-6 oils are borage and evening primrose. An excess of animal fats or oils (fried, pastries, meats, etc.) causes inflammation by accumulation of AA.


Factors that decrease the effects of essential fatty acids

The problem of transformations of omega-3 and omega-6 is that they can be more or less slow depending on different factors.

For example, alcohol inhibits the enzymes involved in these transformations and prevents the formation of antiinflammatories, therefore it restrains the benefits of omega-3 in the body, causing an inflammatory effect.

The same applies to taking certain medications (such as anti-inflammatories), trans fats, tobacco or alcohol, all substances that prevent the processing and utilization of fatty acids, blocking its anti-inflammatory properties.

Other inflammatory factors in the body

Stress, excessive consumption of animal fats (saturated fat), obesity, type 2 diabetes (insulin resistant), the deficit of magnesium, zinc, biotin, vitamin B6 and other causes such as age, are also factors that disrupt the synthesis of essential fatty acids (inhibit the enzyme delta-6 desaturase responsible for these transformations).

The best foods with omega 3 and omega 6

Foods and supplements of EFAs are considered better or worse depending on the place they occupy in the scheme of transformations to become active substances. Direct precursors (which are GLA, EPA and DHA) are more potent than any omega 3 or 6.

For example, the most powerful essential omega 3 oils (anti-inflammatory) are those containing oily fish (or supplements of fish oils), it contains directly EPA and DHA, substances that are already active and do not require further changes in the body.

Instead, flaxseed oil, which contains much omega 3, must go through many steps before becoming EPA or DHA, and sometimes these steps do not occur, or occur slowly if the diet is inadequate.


Which are the best foods with omega-6 and omega-3?

The most potent omega-6 oils are supplements of evening primrose and borage (GLA).

The most potent omega-3 are provided by the small oily fish, cooked gently. Broiling, burning or frying fatty fish destroys valuable omega 3, which are EPA and DHA acids.

In omega-3 supplements, the best would be krill oil or fish oils, but they are not necessary when oily fish is consumed 3 times a week.

In vegetarian diets, as intake of omega 3 you can daily eat 7 walnuts as a source of omega 3 or flax meal or chia seeds well chewed.

To avoid inflammation and enhance the benefits of essential fatty acids, you should eat little animal fat, eliminate trans fat, not to exceed when using vegetable oils for cooking, avoid alcohol, tobacco, and chronic stress.

* More information: Anti-inflammatory Diet


Evening primrose oil pearls

Evening primrose oil is administered in pearls for better conservation and dosage

Do you need to take supplements with omega 3 and omega 6?

No, in normal health, a healthy and balanced diet is enough to provide enough omega 3 and omega 6.

Also, fortunately, there are foods that already provide fatty acids EPA and DHA assets, That is to say, they do not require more changes in the body or enzymes.

Therefore, directly eating EPA and DHA (oily fish) has an advantage, for example, for older people with reduced processing capacity of omega-3 EPA and DHA derivatives.

That is, older people should eat foods directly with EPA and DHA, such as oily fish, the best omega-3 “food-supplement”.

Foods rich in omega 3

Linolenic acid (omega 3) is transformed in the body into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), a necessary component for making antiinflammatory substances (called prostanoids).

In turn, EPA is transformed into docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an abundant substance in the brain, essential during pregnancy for the formation of the fetal nervous system, and also important for good vision health


Essential fatty acids are very important in the diet of pregnant women. © ©Dibujosparapintar

Foods rich in omega 3 (linolenic acid or ALA): Very few foods are rich in omega 3 fatty acids, as the foods tha contain them are especially rich in omega 6. For example, walnuts provide a lot of omega 3, but also a large amount of omega-6.

Overall, we could summarize it would be interesting to reduce vegetable oils and consume foods that especially provide omega-3, such as walnuts, flaxseed flour and chewed chia seeds.

It has been seen that the excessive consumption of omega 6, which is currently due to pastries, oils, fried foods, margarines, etc, produces such an imbalance, that reduces the benefits of omega 3.

Linseed oil: It is sometimes given as a supplement of omega 3. It contains much linolenic acid (ALA). From this substance the body can synthesize EPA and DHA. Generally flaxseed oil is not recommended as a source of omega 3 because these fats, which are polyunsaturated and very sensitive to heat, are easily oxidized in the oil, so if it is not kept very well (refrigeration), it loses its properties and may even be oxidizing. Like other seed oils, it should not be used for cooking.

* Foods rich in EPA and DHA: They are two very different types of beneficial omega-3 for health. It is considered more potent omega 3 because they are active substances with blood fluidifying, vasodilating and anti-inflammatory properties.

EPA and DHA are essential nutrients for people with heart problems, heart failure, hypertension, obesity, arthritis and inflammatory processes.

From DHA neuroprotectin D1 and important substances for the nervous system are synthesized, so it is sometimes recommended for hyperactivity, mild depression, eyestrain, pregnancy, etc.

Both types of fatty acids, EPA and DHA, are easily interchangeable forms and, thus, the formation of one or other is regulated in the body depending on the needs. Generally they have an important role in improving circulation, nervous system, pregnancy, and reducing inflammatory processes in which these nutrients can intervene.

Omega 3 EPA and DHA are found mainly in:


Sardines are richer in EPA and DHA that supplements of fish oils

Blue Fish: Oily fish is the most abundant, better even than food supplements and the best source of omega 3 EPA and DHA, because they provide a very high amount of these fats. Fatty fish should be cooked at low temperature to prevent to damage its omega-3 (sushi, iron at mild temperatures, etc.). ‘Do not burn these foods on grills or pans !!

Small fish are recommended (sardines, mackerel,…) because they contain less heavy metals than the large (salmon, tuna,…) .

As EPA and DHA supplements we have:

  • Fish Oil: Supplement made from fish oils. Trademarks that ensure cold extraction and low heavy metal content are recommended. Supplements do not contain as much omega 3 as the fish itself.
  • Krill Oil NKO: It is the most potent supplement of DHA and EPA and has better digestion, because their fatty acids are not bound to triglycerides but directly to phospholipids. It is recommended to look for cold extraction.

* See: DHA supplements for vegetarians

Foods and supplements rich in omega 6

Linoleic acid (omega 6) has anti-inflammatory functions, such as omega 3, but if consumed in excess can trigger inflammatory processes. Too much omega 6 is usual in diets where many fried foods, pastries, etc are consumed.

Foods rich in omega 6 (linoleic acid or LA): The vast majority of seeds and oils used in food are rich in linoleic acid such as sunflower oil, sesame oil, walnuts oils, etc. Although these oils and nuts may contain some amount of omega 3, omega 6 is always more abundant.

Seed oils should not be used for cooking because their omega fats, which are very sensitive to heat, deteriorate. These oils should only be used in its 1st cold pressure and they must be used for seasoning raw dishes.

No omega 6 supplements (linoleic acid) are given because any diet provides them in a large amount. The only supplement rich in omega-6 would be:

Wheat germ oil: Actually recommended because it is the richest in vitamin E that exists, with antioxidant properties. It also contains essential omega 6 and a lesser amount of omega 3. One tablespoon of wheat germ oil provides 190% of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin E.

Wheat germ oil

Wheat germ oil from 1st cold pressure is the richest in vitamin E. It has very distinctive orange color. One teaspoon provides all the necessary vitamin E a day

* Foods rich in GLA (gamma linolenic acid): It is the only type of omega 6 which requires supplementation because no foods provide it naturally.

Gamma linolenic acid (GLA) (not to be confused with linolenic acid, which is an omega 3) is considered the more potent omega 6 because it is the direct precursor of dihomo-γ-linolenic acid (DGLA) and this one is of prostanoids series 1, with vasodilatory and anti-inflammatory properties.

There are few foods rich in GLA, among which the most prominent supplements are:

  • Borage oil: Refers to the oil extracted from borage seeds, not to the plant as such, used as food. Although borage oil is the richest in GLA (20%), there is some doubt about their consumption due to some toxicity by the presence of pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which may damage the liver. For this reason evening primrose oil is preferably used.
  • Evening primrose oil: It is the most commonly GLA supplementation used, mainly in skin diseases, such as acne or psoriasis, to balance hormonal disorders, in premenstrual syndrome, polycystic ovaries and inflammatory diseases such as arthritis. It contains between 7 10% GLA and, unlike borage, it has no toxicity.

punto rojoMore information on essential fatty acids in the listing

This article was endorsed by Elisenda Carballido - Dietitian nutritionist. Postgraduate in Phytotherapy and master in Nutrition and Metabolism.
Written by Editorial Botanical-online team in charge of content writing

26 March, 2020

Other interesting articles

This material is for informational purposes only. In case of doubt, consult the doctor.
"Botanical-online" is not responsible for damages caused by self-medication.