Why are fats important?
Fats have vital roles in our bodies. They store energy, are a vital part of our cell membranes, provide insulation for tissues, cushion many of our organs, and carry vitamins around in our blood. Plus they are important for helping us get other nutrients that we need from our diet. Not to mention they are so useful for cooking, by adding lots of flavour, and improving the texture of our foods.1 People might have some concerns about fats, which largely stems from our association with fats and weight gain. Fats can contribute to weight gain because of their their energy storing abilities. When you compare fats with proteins and carbohydrates, fats store a lot more energy, containing double the number of calories.2
- 1 gram of fat = 9 calories
- 1 gram of carbohydrate or protein = 4 calories
What about fatty acids?
Fatty acids are what you get when fats are broken down, because fats are made up of glycerol plus fatty acids. There are many different types of fats, made from many different types of fatty acids, and many different roles for these in our bodies. Learn more about the types of fatty acids.
So why are some “essential”?
That’s because the human body can produce all the fatty acids it needs (some more easily than others) – except for two! So these two, which also can’t be stored for long, are essential fatty acids that we need to get regularly through our diet. Specifically, these are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). They are:
- alpha-linolenic acid, often called an omega-3 fatty acid.4
- linoleic acid, often called an omega-6 fatty acid.4 PUFAs are important for many reasons, including proper growth and development of children and cardiovascular health throughout life.4
Which PUFAs are fundamental for brain development?
The two Omega-3 fatty acids that are fundamental to brain function are:
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): essential for pre and post-natal brain development.
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA): influential on behaviour and mood. Both of these omega-3s function in the cell membranes and have been shown to help support learning.6 In addition, while many omega-6s are associated with inflammation, gamma linolenic acid (GLA) is an omega-6 that actually has an anti-inflammatory effect and when used together with DHA and EPA, can elevate their concentration level in your body. A combination of these omega-3s and omega-6 can help support cognitive function.7
- Chemistry Encyclopedia. Fats and fatty acids. Available at: http://www.chemistryexplained.com/Di-Fa/Fats-and-Fatty-Acids.html Accessed August 2018.
- Food and Nutrition Information Center. How many calories are in one gram of fat, carbohydrate, or protein? Available at: https://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/how-many-calories-are-one-gram-fat-carbohydrate-or-protein Accessed August 2018.
- Biology Dictionary. Fatty acids definition. Available at: https://biologydictionary.net/fatty-acids Accessed August 2018.
- Healthline. Omega-3-6-9 fatty acids: a complete overview. Available at: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/omega-3-6-9-overview#section4 Accessed August 2018.
- National Institutes of Health. Omega-3 fatty acids. Available at: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional Accessed August 2018.
- Kidd PM. Omega-3 DHA and EPA for Cognition, Behavior, and Mood: Clinical Findings and Structural Synergies with Cell Membrane Phospholipids. Altern Med Rev 2007;12(3):207-227.
- Horrobin, D.F. 1992. Nutritional and medical importance of gamma-linolenic acid. Progress in Lipid Research, 31(2): 163-194.