Essential Fatty Acids

Article by James Collier BSc (Hons) RNutr - Nutrition Consultant

'Fat' is a word which conjures up negative thoughts when we hear it; we tend to mentally associate the word with poor nutrition and we have traditionally been encouraged to cut down of levels of fat in our diet in order to promote good health. Confusingly, more recently some advocators of the low carbohydrate eating regimens have been telling us to eat more fat.

So, who is right? The answer: neither and both! Now you're even more confused, this article will try to unravel the issues which have been made unnecessarily over-complicated!

Bodybuilding nutrition experts often tell us that we need to eat 'good fats' in order to grow muscle. Whilst certain fatty acids are essential in our diet for good health, (as discussed below) the direct effect of consuming these to stimulate muscle growth is debatable. Obviously, as bodybuilders, we desire optimum health to keep well in order to train hard and grow more efficiently, which naturally includes looking after our heart and circulatory system.

And in the real world, I find it hard to believe that bodybuilders who declare on paper a 'perfect' low fat meal plan, in practice actually do stick to their regimen rigidly, and most of us don't really consume a diet rock bottom low in total fat intake. So then, why do we need to add extra fats? Surely we're getting all of these, and won't more fat in our diet prevent us from cutting?

I am going to discuss the use of fats and essential fatty acids from a fitness and bodybuilding angle. However if anyone wishes to read more into fat manipulation and heart health I thoroughly recommend the book The Heart Disease Breakthrough - The 10-Step Program that can save your Life by Yannios (1999).

Types of Fatty Acids
Fat is an essential macronutrient (if you haven't come across the word 'macronutrient' before it refers to the big nutrients: protein, carbohydrate and fat; whereas 'micronutrient' refers to vitamins and minerals). We need fat for a number of healthy body functions, and without it we die. Moreover, some fatty acids are 'essential' due to the fact that vertebrates lack an enzyme involved in their metabolism, or that insufficient amounts of that fatty acid can be synthesized in the body for it to function effectively for good health.

Fatty acids are the simplest unit of fat. There are a large number of fatty acids which differ in respect of their chain length and their structure. Saturated fatty acids (SFAs) are those which have no double bonds in their structure, whereas unsaturated fats have one double bond (monounsaturates) or more than one double bond (polyunsaturates) in their chain. Fatty acids can also differ in structure at the point of the double bond, making them trans fatty acids which in turn makes the whole molecule look and act somewhat like a saturated fatty acid.

SFAs are most commonly found in foods of animal origin such as meat and dairy produce and trans fats are formed from the hydrogenation of fats (for confectionary and some margarines). Both these groups should be kept to a minimum as they can adversely affect blood cholesterol levels.

Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) are found in high amounts in olive, rapeseed and flaxseed (linseed) oils. Consuming more of these fats as a proportion of our total fat intake may reduce our LDL or 'bad' cholesterol level, whilst keeping HDL or 'good' cholesterol levels high.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are more complicated to explain due to the fact that they are subdivided into three categories depending on where their first double bond appears: omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids (omega may sometimes be abbreviated to ω or Ω). As a general rule increasing levels of PUFAs in our diet as a proportion of total energy intake, has been shown to help reduce the total cholesterol level, however this unfortunately also means the HDL level may be reduced.

Strictly speaking only the fatty acid linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid, is essential as it cannot be synthesised by the body at all (Hunt & Groff 1990). However, some omega-3 PUFAs may also be essential, principally α-linolenic acid (ALA1). However, the omega-3s eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) could be viewed as 'conditionally' essential. Also 'conditionally' essential are arachidonic acid (AA) and γ-linolenic acid (GLA) as they reduce the dietary requirement for linoleic acid.

The essential and 'conditionally' essential fatty acids, their classification and principle dietary sources


Fatty acidType of PUFARich dietary source
Linoleic acidOmega-6Corn, safflower, sunflower, soyabean, peanut oils
α-linolenic acid (ALA)Omega-3Flaxseed, soyabean, rapeseed oils
Arachidonic acid (AA)Omega-6Small amounts in animal fats
γ-linolenic acid (GLA)Omega-6Corn, safflower, sunflower, soyabean oils
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)Omega-3Oily fish
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)Omega-3Oily fish

1Author's note: do not confuse this abbreviation with the popular nutritional supplement alpha-lipoic acid also called ALA!

Essential Fatty Acid Supplementation
One of the most frequently asked supplement questions at the moment is 'Do I need to take essential fatty acid (EFA) supplements?' The answer to this is some of us may benefit from using EFA supplements whereas others may not; it depends on your diet and lifestyle.

The modern Western diet is abundant in omega-6s from vegetable oils used in commercial cooking. Also eating a balanced varied diet means it's very easy to get a sufficient intake of linoleic acid and AA. This has actually lead to a situation where our intakes of omega-6s are too high in respect of our omega-3s. The optimal ratio of omega-6:omega-3 is as close to 2:1 as possible, however in the UK diet the figure is more like 6:1 or in some areas as much as 20:1. The benefits of a good intake of omega-3s are well documented and they have been associated in numerous studies with good cardiovascular health, reduction in some cancers, improvement in brain function and possibly enhanced athletic performance. You may be interested to know that some population studies have revealed that areas where the ratio of consumption of omega-6:omega-3 is high, cardiovascular disease rates are also high, and in regions where the ratio is nearer to 1:1 the incidence of cardiovascular diseases are significantly lower.

Bodybuilders often consume a lot of oily fish - salmon, mackerel, sardines, pilchards, trout and even tuna - due to their high quality protein content. These fish are also very high in EPA and DHA and so their regular intake is encouraged. However vegetarians obviously do not consume fish, so will need to get their omega-3s from flaxseed oil or from sprinkling ground linseeds on their salads.

Flaxseed oil is a great source of omega-3s and also contains significant amounts of MUFAs. If you are not getting enough of these fatty acids from your food, it may be an idea to supplement your diet with a tablespoon daily. Flaxseed oil is great poured over salads or mixed in fruit juice. However, do not heat flaxseed oil as it is not suitable for cooking with. Rapeseed oil also contains good amounts of omega-3s and is high in MUFAs, and as it can be heated, is a suitable cooking oil, but make sure the rapeseed oil you buy is labelled 'low in erucic acid'. Another good choice of fat to use in cooking is virgin olive oil which is very high in MUFAs.

Cod liver oil supplements have been available for decades but offer little benefit in respect of fatty acid supplementation, as the doses of EFA are quite low. More recently many fish oil supplements have appeared on the market. If you'd prefer to take a capsule than improve your nutrition or incorporate an oil into your diet make sure you choose a good quality fish oil supplement, as some cheaper ones have ineffective low doses of fatty acids and haven't been treated properly in the manufacturing process, becoming rancid and effectively useless.

Optimum oil blends are currently also very trendy concoctions to use as part of a health and fitness supplement stack. These include formulas like Udo's Oil, which is claimed to provide the correct 'ratios' of essential PUFAs. However, as these do not take into account people's individual diets and what EFAs they obtain from their food, which will obviously vary greatly in total fat and fatty acid quantities, I feel it would be preferable to ensure good intake from food and oils, as opposed to formulated blends.

Whilst any keen athlete or bodybuilder should keep their fat intake fairly low, they should be cautious not to consume too little, or they will be limiting themselves of a good source of energy. We also need to ensure we are including good levels of EFAs to ensure efficient metabolic functioning and adequate energy levels for optimal performance.


Key Points:
  • Cut down the amounts of saturated and trans fats in your diet
  • Include foods and oils rich in monounsaturated fats
  • Maintain a moderate intake of omega-6 polyunsaturates
  • Increase your intake of omega-3 fats by consuming oily fish, flaxseed oil or ground linseeds - you may wish to do this by supplementation
  • Enjoy your food!

References cited:
  • Hunt SM; Groff JL. 1995. Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism. West
  • Yannios T. 1999. Yannios T. 1999. The Heart Disease Breakthrough - The 10-Step Program that can save your Life. Wiley