What Are Essential Fatty Acids?


Quick Answer

Essential fatty acids, also known as omega-3 fatty acids, are necessary for the optimal functioning of the human body, but they must be consumed because the human body doesn't manufacture it on its own, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. They assist cell production, visual development and neurological growth, and they have cardiovascular benefits. Essential fatty acids include alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

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What Are Essential Fatty Acids?
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Full Answer

The Harvard School of Public Health explains that DHA and EPA can be made by the body by way of ALA, but the process is not efficient enough to meet the body's needs. Accordingly, eating foods that contain these nutrients, such as fish, is still just as important as consuming ALA. Women can convert these nutrients better than men, which is likely due to the effects of estrogen.

WebMD explains that DHA is especially important for a fetus during the last trimester of a pregnancy and on through the first six months of life. Breast milk naturally contains a mixture of essential fatty acids and conditionally essential nutrients, including DHA, and infant formulas have also added these ingredients. Essential fatty acids can also prevent many common ailments of the human body. DHA can help prevent Alzheimer's disease and dementia. Additonally, EPA and DHA can help control type 2 diabetes, and the anti-inflammatory effects of essential fatty acids can ease rheumatoid arthritis symptoms.

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