Essential Fatty Acids: Not so Essential after All | Chris Kresser
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Essential Fatty Acids: Not so Essential after All

by Chris Kresser

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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 essentialand thus necessary in the dietfor 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 oilwe are actually reducing the amount of the fatty acids that are truly essentialDHA & 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.

  1. Thanks Chris! I purchased CMJ’s report after reading your summary & it was well worth the money.

  2. The confusion seems to be inevitable as stated above. What of the work of Johanna Budwig? Not only did she do the science, she proved it as successful, way beyond the role of placebo, in curing many cancers. Do we trust, at least somewhat, that the ‘proof of the pudding…’? She lived healthily into her nineties, dying from an accident…but her healthy longevity could be accounted for by several factors. However,the flax oil didn’t cause obvious damage. The healthiest man I have ever met is now 70. The hospital wants his blood to give to children with leukaemia. He has phenomenal physical and psychological strength and stamina. . His mother was deeply spiritual and loved God and her son unconditionally. She never shouted at him once but showed love at all times. Did that have a physiological effect on the brain or body, when he was in the womb as well as after birth? His diet is poor by my standards, so that would be a considered negative…but with no apparent effect. His microbiome is possibly part of the picture..he’s never taken anti biotics. Placebo might be an ongoing thing for him…or the chemicals of great inner happiness. I don’t know. I’m amazed by him and have been for twenty years. Genetics…epigenetics…’genetics aren’t what was thought’ etc. etc. So it continues. I’ve become fascinated by our incredible biological selves but it’s obvious that they are only part of the story. As for the oils…I might go with Johanna Budwig. Does anybody else have the hands on results so well defined and documented? Bless us all!

    • I disagree. There is an optimal amount of these nutrients and when exceeded there are negative consequences. While the answers are yet unclear, these observations should not be ignored.

  3. Chriss:

    While I enjoyed your Cholesterol articles, I certainly don’t agree with this writing.

    It is a myth that n-6 PUFAs contribute to EXCESSIVE oxidation and inflammation (when taken in correct ratios -i.e. n-6 4:1-).

    The real culprits are junk diet ratios of PUFAs n-6 to PUFAs n-3 of 20:1 and the use of ADULTERATED vegetable oil sources like CANOLA, corn, safflower, sunflower, soy, etc.

    Clean, cold pressed sources of PUFAs n-6 like virgin cold pressed Pumpkin seed oil, evening Primrose oil, borrage oil, high Linoleic acid Safflower oil and flaxseed oil for the n-3 PUFAs are healthy and beneficial, in fact you would die without n-6 PUFAs.

    And yes, I agree, long chain PUFAs n-3 like EPA and SPECIALLY DHA are very poorly converted from ALA sources in the human body, so they are to be supplied BESIDES the correct 4:1 ratio of n-6 to short chain n-3s UNADULTERATED PUFAs source.

    Best regards,

    Marcelo Oswaldo, M.D

    • Dr. Oswaldo,

      I agree. I think the science is emerging about fatty acid balance. And the distinctions between the various fatty acids and their ratios should be made. Like anything else, oversimplification and overcompensation can be dangerous. Omega 6 is not necessarily the enemy. In particular, arachidonic acid. It has a purpose in our biochemistry (ie inflammation to address toxins, disease, etc.), but it has its own anti-inflammatory properties as well. Too much EPA disrupts this process, which may lead to immunosuppression and all the uglies that come along with that. Not to mention the sources of EPA (along with junk Omega 6 in cooking oils) are typically rancid and toxic. This is all to say, it’s about balance. Kane and Yahuda suggest a 4:1 omega 6 to omega 3 ratio. As Dr. Oswaldo states above, too much omega 6 via rancid oils and processed foods sends this off balance. What people should also understand, and Chris is pointing out, is that overdosing on rancid fish oil can create a separate issue.

  4. Chris i think that Peskin is correct in regard to oxygenation of the cells based on scientific studies. Fish oil is simply garbage which is well marketed. Besides i would rather go with a MIT engineer and physiologist than a nutritionist, thank you very much!!!

  5. Chris–
    I perhaps erroneously recall that you were using krill oil yourself.. Could you clarify if that’s true
    and of so do you continue using it?
    Like others I’m caught up in a ball of confusion
    over all this – expecially the fisj oil factor. I had
    until very recently been using fish oil with
    religious regularity…a pundit recently associated
    fish oil consumprion with dark age/liver spots
    such as on the head/face…suggesting that in
    more ways than one fish oil ages its users.
    Thanks For This Forum,

    Sam Fidman

  6. It doesn’t fit in. I don’t agree with Peskin, and neither does the scientific evidence. Less than 0.5% of ALA gets converted to DHA – even in healthy people.

    • I have read Peskin on this and all information says he is the leading work on this and his science has never been challenged. Can you quantify your remarks that the science doesn’t add up?

    • Peskin has published the science to back up his claims. Not saying he is right or wrong, but please show the science that backs up your claims so were can compare. What I do know (without any science) is that we are overdosed on over-processed/over-heated oils. No other animals do this. It’s only when animals either eat people food or animal food processed by people do they have health issues. As for humans, before all the junk food, heart disease (and many other diseases) were almost nonexistent — and they did it without taking supplements. Maybe if we eat clean, eat natural we won’t need to depend on as many pills to fix what we have broken by poor diet. Just saying…… :-).

    • “Less than 0.5% of ALA gets converted to DHA – even in healthy people” because in normal healthy people there is VERY LITTLE physiological demand. There is 11 times more Omega-6 based tissue in the human body so the body concentrates on producing the Eicosanoids that are in greatest physiological demand.

      As locally produced cell signaling molecules, the eicosanoids including Omega-3 derivatives Eicosapentanoic and Docosahexanoic Acids are made by the body ONLY when needed and ONLY in the amounts needed.

      Supplimentation of EPA, DHA and the base substrate Omega-3 can easily constitute physiological overdose levels of 20 to 500 times in excess of natural physiological demand.

      “What is not understood by most physicians is that derivatives are made in the body, from the parent EFAs,1 on an “as needed” basis in extremely limited quantities. Consumption
      of derivatives from food is therefore not necessary, yet fish oil consists entirely of DHA and EPA in supra-pharmacological OVERDOSES, thereby overdosing the patient and causing damage instead of health. Few, if any, physicians ask to see the “normal standard” values of physiologic DHA/EPA amounts in tissue and plasma compared to the parent PEO amounts in tissue and plasma. When they discover the truth of how little DHA and EPA there should be in relation to how much they’ve been administering, physicians are shocked and dismayed that they have been (unknowingly) harming their patients.”

      http://brianpeskin.com/pdf/about/PeskinPrimer.pdf

    • Parent to Derivative Ratios—Surprise! The Conversion is
      Much Less Than Everyone States.

      The major metabolic route of ALA (parent omega-3) in the body is betaoxidation. This means that parent omega-3 is mainly burned for energy—not incorporated into cellular structure or used for derivatives—your body requires very little and will attempt to remove an excess if it can. ONLY
      very little parent omega-3 is required for proper cell membrane structure.

      However, if you are “overdosing” from supplements, based on incorrect advice, the excess will be forced into the cell structure as the Lipids 2000 medical journal stated. ALA accumulates in specific sites in the body of mammals, and only a small portion of the dietary ALA is converted to DHA (Sinclair, A.J., et al., “What is the role of alpha-linolenic acid for mammals,” Lipids 2002 Dec; 37(12): 1113-23).

      Is there more confirmation of the fact that PEO derivative amounts in the body converted from ALA and LA are normally extremely low? YES. The medical journal Lipids Research published, “Long-chain conversion of linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid in response to marked changes in their dietary intake in men,”10 with the very same type of result back in 2005, if anyone would care to look:

      “Although an increased intake of dietary ALA might be expected to upregulate ALA conversion, this has . . . not been found…”

      “Overall conversion rates of LA and ALA, calculated from peak [13C] LCP concentrations adjusted for dietary influences on pool sizes of LA and ALA, were low and of similar magnitude overall for AA and EPA (0.18% and 0.26%; Table 2). LA→DGLA and AA formation was significantly lower on the FXO diet in each case, with ALA→EPA and DPA formation on average higher on the FXO diet, although the differences were not significant. Conversion of tracers to DHA was much less. [Note: We see PEO conversion rates of less than a mere 1%. The same less than 1% conversion rates held for DGLA, DHA, and DPA.]

      “Few studies have attempted more than relatively crude estimates of isotope transfer from tracer into the various trace pools, and it is recognized that AUC values will overestimate true conversion rates and provide only approximate relative rates of transfer.” [Note: This is why so many health professionals have been misled into thinking the PEO-to derivative conversion rates are much higher than they actually are.] (Emphasis added.)

      There you have it. The conversion from “parents” into “derivatives” has been overestimated by most researchers, yet occurs naturally. Pharmacological overloads of derivatives, particularly from fish oil (or evening primrose oil alone and borage oil alone), are not required and can be extremely harmful.”

      http://brianpeskin.com/pdf/reports/CAMB-Fish-Oil-Fallacies-Report.pdf

  7. Hi Chris

    How does the work of Brian Pleskin fit into this picture. I am confused. Brian Peskin recommends we should be consuming more Omega6 fats from “parent essential oils” and less Omega3 fats. And that the body has the ability to derive EPA & DHA from these parent oils as needed.

    Regards
    gogogo5

  8. 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.

  9. Paul,

    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.

  10. 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?

    • It might be useful, Paul, if you would explain to the class precisely what is true and why WAPF is “no more nearer finding out” than “the rest of the fundamentalists.” Might also help if you explain what you mean by “fundamentalist.” I mean, if I decided to be a fundamentalist about water freezing at 32 degrees Fahrenheit on the Earth’s surface, would I be wrong?

      Society seems to be developing an extreme allergy to people making definitive statements. And I can see where that comes from, because so often a person will declare some thing to be so and defend that idea to the death, only to be proven wrong later. But the fun thing about definitive statements is they are falsifiable. And society would be far better served if it would set to work attempting to falsify statements like that rather than dismiss them because they are not couched in weaseling.

      • Not to be a jerk two years later, but since you did this already I feel compelled to reply.
        If you became fundamentalist about water freezing at 32 degrees Fahrenheit on the Earth’s surface, yes, you’d be wrong. Because the Earth is not smooth, tides exist, and ‘the surface’ could also technically be the top of the mountain. Pressures vary not only from region to region but day to day in the same exact spot based on the weather. So yes, you’d be right to say the statement. But to be a fundamentalist and a devout believer that this is absolutely true is incorrect.

        The guy is just questioning a firm statement on a chemically very complex topic. And since this is a scientific inquiry, questioning should be encouraged. Always. And asking the man to cite his sources is the right thing to do. Many times studies are conducted with flawed methodologies. And we realize after the fact the error. Many times people extrapolate data about white, middle aged, obese, diabetic males to the entire population. Which works sometimes, but not always and should be questioned. Questioning and skepticism is the basis of science. Have your food beliefs all you like, but don’t try to pass them off as noble.

        “And society would be far better served if it would set to work attempting to falsify statements like that rather than dismiss them because they are not couched in weaseling.” Seriously? Please explain the difference between questioning to falsify and weaseling.

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