Essential fatty acids: not so essential after all

Most health-conscious folks have heard of essential fatty acids (EFAs) by now. It isn’t unusual for a health food store to sell several different brands of fish oils, flax oil and other blends of “essential fatty acids”. We’ve been told that consuming these oils will keep us healthy and protect us from disease.

Today’s nutrition textbooks refer to omega-6 (linoleic) acid and omega-3 (alpha-linolenic) acid as essential components of the human diet, and cite the requirement as something between one and four percent of total caloric intake. When scientists say a nutrient is “essential”, they mean it cannot be synthesized within our bodies from other components by any known mechanism – and therefore must be obtained from the diet.

But are “essential fatty acids” truly essential?

Chris Masterjohn, a PhD candidate in Nutritional Science at the University of Connecticut, has just published a paper which directly challenges the belief that omega-6 linoleic acid and omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid are essential.

His review of the scientific research suggests that omega-6 arachidonic acid (AA) and the omega-3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are the only fatty acids that are truly essential – and thus necessary in the diet – for humans. Further, the true requirement for EFA during growth and development (during childhood, pregnancy or recovery from injury and illness) is less than one-half of one percent of calories when supplied by most animal fats, and even less (0.12 percent) when supplied by liver. In healthy adults, the requirement is “infinitesimal if it exists at all.”

So why is this a concern? Excess consumption of linoleate (omega-6 fatty acid) from vegetable oil will interfere with the production of DHA , while an excess of EPA from fish oil will interfere with the production and utilization of AA. So, by consuming an abundance of the oils which are today heavily promoted as “essential” – vegetable oil and fish oil – we are actually reducing the amount of the fatty acids that are truly essential – DHA & AA.

Finally, it must be pointed out that EFAs of all types, even the health promoting DHA & AA, are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). PUFAs are widely known to contribute to oxidative stress, and oxidative stress directly contributes to many diseases including cancer and heart disease. This is why it is important to restrict our intake of EFAs to as close to the minimum requirement as possible.
Most people are far above this requirement, since vegetable oil is pervasive in the American diet. It’s in just about all processed foods (even the “healthy” ones), fried foods and everything cooked in a restaurant. And many people cook with it at home, without knowing what the dangers are.

The best sources of EFA in the diet are liver, egg yolk and butter from grass-fed animals. Obtaining these foods from pasture-raised animals is important, as they contain significantly higher concentrations of DHA and AA (the truly essential EFAs) and fat-soluble vitamins than their commercial feedlot counterparts.

THS recommendations:

  • Gradually replace all vegetable oils in your diet with healthy traditional fats (which are protected from oxidative stress) such as butter, virgin (unrefined) coconut oil, palm oil, lard and beef tallow.
  • Eliminate (or at least dramatically reduce) consumption of processed and fried foods.
  • Do not take flax oil or fish oil supplements on a regular basis. Cod liver oil is recommended during pregnancy, lactation and childhood to provide extra DHA and to obtain fat-soluble vitamins.

Following these recommendations, along with a nutrient-dense, whole foods based diet low in sugar and rich in essential minerals, should reduce your intake of PUFA to closer to the recommended 0.5 (one-half of one) percent of calories, and ensure adequate intake of the truly essential DHA & AA.

Women who are pregnant or lactating, and perhaps attempting to become pregnant, children, and adults recovering from injury and suffering from chronic, degenerative disease can safely consume up to one percent of calories as PUFA. Studies have suggested that a subset of patients with pre-existing cardiovascular disease also benefit from a moderate dose of fish oil (up to one gram per day); however, in those same studies people with stable angina and with no heart disease at all, fish oil actually increased their risk of heart attack.

Check back here for a future post on what the research has to say about using omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil) in the treatment of heart disease.

Make sure to visit Chris Masterjohn’s website, where you can purchase the excellent full report for $15. It’s a worthwhile investment, in my opinion, if you want to get the straight scoop about EFAs and their role in our diet.

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  4. How too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3 is making us sick We’re consuming up to 25 times more omega-6 fat than we need, and too much...
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  1. Paul Symes’s avatar

    What makes you call yourself a sceptic? You’ve swapped one dogma for another. The Weston Price foundation – which it sounds like you’ve been listening to – is no more nearer finding out what’s true than the rest of the fundamentalists out there. What makes you think the DHA and EPA in cod liver oil is different from that which is in other fish oil?

  2. Chris’s avatar


    I’m confused by your comment. It doesn’t reflect what I wrote in this article. Did you actually read the article?

    I never said there’s a difference between DHA and EPA in cod liver oil and other fish oils. But there are significant other differences, such as a much higher level of vitamin A & D in cod liver oil than in most other fish oils.

    I’d also point out that most fish oils, and most cod liver oils for that matter, are highly processed. The processing for almost every cod liver oil on the market removes the naturally occurring vitamins A & D and replaces them with synthetic variants. Synthetic vitamin A can be toxic to the body in high amounts. So, the commercial fish oils and most brands of cod liver oil are most certainly not like the Green Pastures brand of cod liver oil which uses traditional processing methods to retain the natural vitamins.

    This post has nothing to do with the Weston A. Price Foundation. In fact, the recommendations made here for EPA consumption are lower than what the WAPF recommends. The whole point of the article is that our bodies’ requirement for EPA is much lower than almost everyone says it is.

  3. James Hofmann’s avatar

    I’ve been looking for an explanation for a certain symptom I’ve become familiar with – a painful swelling resulting wherever skin was under pressure, mainly the extremities. Usually a mild swelling, but noticeable. I first noticed this – and realized that it had occurred off and on throughout my life – after trying a heavy omega-3 supplementation with both walnuts and fish oil. Having one or the other was tolerable, but if I had both in one day —- wow, my feet would be in so much pain by the evening that it could literally be difficult to walk. Ending supplements ended the problem, but I also saw similar symptoms resulting from oils high in omega-6 – including vegetable oils commonplace to baked goods, restaurant food, etc. That was the part that was hard to figure out: if it were a problem based on imbalance of one or the other, surely I would be getting different symptoms, not similar ones.
    It took months to figure out first that it was the vegetable oils that were correlating to this symptom, and a few weeks on top of that to come up with the “crowding out” theory. So just now I  googled “excess consumption of efa” and found this blog, confirming everything.
    I’m pretty happy right now.

  4. admin’s avatar

    Hi James,

    Thanks for sharing your story with us! I’m glad your mystery has come to a happy conclusion.

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