Ever heard of vitamin F? Perhaps the F stands for "fat." Otherwise known as essential fatty acids (EFAs), vitamin F is actually a blend of the healthiest fats that boast some major health benefits.
The two essential fatty acids in this vitamin are linoleic acid (LA), an omega-6 fatty acid, and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid, Toby Amidor, RD and nutrition partner with the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED), tells LIVESTRONG.com.
And they're dubbed "essential" because the body can't produce them on its own. "Although the body has the ability to turn ALA into EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), the process by which that happens isn't so efficient," says Amidor. While the National Academy of Medicine only deems ALA essential, some health professionals consider EPA and DHA to be essential, too, since it is best to get them directly from food sources [instead of relying on your body to convert ALA]."
While most people get enough of the omega-3 ALA, as well as omega-6 fatty acids — a type of polyunsaturated fat found in vegetable oils, nuts and seeds — they tend to be lacking in the longer-chain, marine-based omegas: EPA, which contains anti-inflammatory properties, and DHA, which is vital for brain and retinal function, Amidor explains.
Why Does Your Body Need Essential Fats?
For years, researchers have been discovering a multitude of health benefits from these nutrients. Indeed, people who ate a diet rich in omega-3s were observed to have lower blood pressure readings, according to a July 2017 study in the Journal of Hypertension.
Older adults who tested with high blood levels of omega-3s derived from seafood were more likely to experience healthy aging — which just means living without any major chronic disease or any mental or physical dysfunctions, according to an October 2018 study in the BMJ. The authors speculate that a possible reason for this outcome could be the EFA's ability to regulate blood pressure, heart rate and inflammation.
Increased levels of omega-3s — specifically DHA — were also associated with a reduction in breast density (a biomarker for breast cancer risk) in obese postmenopausal women, according to medical investigators from Penn State.
And the benefits don't end there. An eating regime that lacks omega-3s is associated with poor brain health, such as memory loss and difficulty problem solving, a February 2012 study published in Neurology found.
The Best Sources of Healthy Fats
The daily Adequate Intake (AI) — an adequate level of nutrition that is established when there's insufficient evidence to develop a Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) — for omega-3s is 1.6 grams for adult men and 1.1 grams for adult women. Females who are pregnant should get 1.4 grams per day, while those who are breastfeeding can take 1.3 grams. (The National Academy of Medicine has only established an intake level for ALA since it's the only type of omega-3 that has been deemed as "essential.")
Americans tend to opt for omega-3 supplements — after all, nearly 19 million adults in the United States popped omega-3 pills in 2012, according to the National Health Interview Survey. However, Amidor points out that the healthiest sources of vitamin F can be found in right in your local supermarket.
"Choose a fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel or sardines, in order to get the most EPA and DHA and their heart, brain, eye and prenatal health benefits," suggests Amidor. Just 3 ounces of wild Atlantic salmon is packed with 1,967 milligrams of omega-3s — which amounts to an impressive 123 percent of the AI.
If you're vegetarian or vegan, Amidor advises taking an omega-3 supplement with 250 to 500 milligrams of EPA and DHA each day. "There are also vegan supplements made from marine microalgae, the original food source of omega-3s that fish feed on," she adds.
Read more: 5 Omega-3-Packed Recipes That Aren't Fish
Vegetable oil contains fat that has been extracted from the seeds of plants, and in some cases from the seeds of fruits. The American Heart Association (AHA) suggests substituting solid fat foods such as butter, margarine and lard with canola, corn, olive, peanut, safflower, soybean or sunflower oil. Choose vegetable oils that are highest in heart-healthy ALA, including flaxseed oil. One tablespoon contains 454 percent of your AI!
Look for flaxseed oil that's stored in a dark bottle and refrigerated since the active ingredients can be destroyed when exposed to heat, air or light, according to Penn State researchers. That also means you should avoid cooking with flaxseed oil. Instead, use it to dress salads, add it to dips or drizzle it as a garnish for recipes.
Nuts and Seeds
Amidor recommends adding vitamin F-rich nuts and seeds to your eating plan. Think almonds, walnuts, flax, pumpkin and chia seeds. In fact, the American Institute for Cancer Research has deemed walnuts a cancer-fighting food due to its array of nutritional compounds, including anti-inflammatory ALA. A one-ounce serving provides 161 percent of the omega-3 AI.
What's more, about 65 percent of the fats in chia seeds come from omega-3 fatty acids, which offer heart-protective effects, an April 2016 review published in the Journal of Food Science Technology reports_._ A one-ounce serving of this seed offers an impressive 316 percent of the AI.
- NIH: "Omega-3 Fatty Acids"
- The BMJ: "Serial Circulating Omega 3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids and Healthy Ageing Among Older Adults in the Cardiovascular Health Study: Prospective Cohort Study"
- Penn State: "Omega-3 Fatty Acids May Lower Breast Cancer Risk in Postmenopausal Obese Women"
- Neurology: "Red Blood Cell Omega-3 Fatty Acid Levels and Markers of Accelerated Brain Aging"
- NIH: "Use of Complementary Health Approaches in the U.S./National Health Interview Survey"
- MyFoodData.com: "Nutrition Facts for Wild Atlantic Salmon"
- AHA: "Healthy Cooking Oils"
- Penn State: "Alpha-Linolenic Acid"
- MyFoodData.com: "Flaxseed Oil"
- American Institute for Cancer Research: "Walnuts"
- MyFoodData.com: "Nutritional Facts For Walnuts"
- NCBI/Journal of Food Science Technology: "Nutritional and therapeutic perspectives of Chia"
- MyFoodData.com: "Nutrition Facts for Chia Seeds"
- Journal of Hypertension: "Whole Blood Omega-3 Fatty Acid Concentrations Are Inversely Associated With Blood Pressure in Young, Healthy Adults"