Essential Fatty Acids

You know all about essential amino acids, especially the subgroup known as branched chain amino acids that are absorbed directly into muscle tissue where they serve as one of the primary building blocks of lean mass growth and repair. What you might not be as familiar with are the essential fatty acids (EFAs). Omega-3 and omega-6 fats are referred to as 'essential' because, like essential amino acids, they cannot be produced by your body and must be taken in through diet. Because EFAs are involved in so many functions including the manufacture and repair of cell membranes getting your fill is important.

As it is with every other aspect of your dialed-in diet, balancing EFA consumption can pay healthy dividends. Linoleic acid is the primary omega-6 EFA, and most Americans get more than enough because of the refined and processed food choices they favor. It's the alpha-linolenic (ALA), eicosapentaenoic (EPA) and docosahexanoic (DHA) omega-3 fatty acids we're typically lacking. In fact, the basic Western diet provides between 10 and 25 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3s. Although there's no official recommended daily value, many experts suggest that adults consume 1 grams of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids daily. A tablespoon of flaxseed oil provides at least that amount of both types. Of course, people who lead very active lives can use more of these essential fatty acids than the average Jane and Joe.

Since you're already getting more than your fair share of omega-6 fatty acids, what can you eat to get more omega-3s in your diet? The answer is cold water fish, avocados, along with a number of nuts, seeds and oils including almonds, walnuts, and olive oil. Supplements are another great choice, especially for people who don't care for the flavors of the whole food sources.


Here's another way to put essential fats to work. Endurance athletes learn to consume carbohydrates for energy. They need to refuel with extra carbs since their body's reserves of muscle glycogen can only take them so far during miles of running, biking or swimming. However, by training at a slower, less intense rate, distance training athletes can switch to burning fat for energy. EFAs make a great source for this type of physical fuel since they serve so many other purposes in your body, unlike unhealthy saturated fats.

Even if you're a strength athlete who favors resistance training over cardio, your diet should include at least 15% healthy fats. Since they're going to burn them up during training, endurance athletes can derive between 20% and 25% of their total calories from fats. Avoid the saturated fats in red meat and processed foods, turning instead to the healthy EFAs in cold water fish, nuts, seeds, oils and dietary supplements.
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