What are essential fatty acids? What do they do?

October 6, 2017

Essential fatty acids are essential to heart, skin and nervous system health.

Welcome to Be Healthy! Be Happy! The College of Skin Health – Skin Health 101. I’m Dr. Jim.

Essential fatty acids are defined as essential for two important reasons.

First, they’re critical to cardiovascular, neurologic and dermatologic function.  That’s right, our hearts, brains and skin are dependent upon essential fatty acids for optimal function.

The second reason they’re characterized as essential is due to our inability to synthesize them metabolically, so we must obtain from our diets.

Fortunately, foods rich in essential fatty acids are plentiful and include sunflower seeds, pecans; corn, canola and soy bean oils; walnuts, chia seeds and flax seed oil; as well as sockeye and Chinook salmon, rainbow trout, crab and tuna. Minimum daily requirements may be fortified with nutritional supplements as well.

You’ve also heard essential fatty acids by the name polyunsaturated fats, and unlike saturated fats – butter, red meat, coconut oil, and cheese – polyunsaturated fats contain all-important omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids.

Let me clarify. The fats found in foods like butter, red meat, coconut oil, and cheese are saturated fats and do not contain essential fatty acids.

Of importance when it comes to healthy skin are the omega-3 and omega-sixes as well as two equally critical subcategories in the omega-3 line known as eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA and docosahexaenoic acid or DHA.

Dietary sources for these include flax seed oil and krill oil which avoid the possibility of consuming the mercury and PCBs found in popular fish oils.

This is Dr. Jim for Be Healthy! Be Happy! Stay tuned for more Skin Health 101 when I expand the conversation on the role of essential fatty acids in skin health. In the meantime, power your path to happiness!


Oregon State University Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center. Online [available at]: http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic