Introduction to Fatty Acids


After decades of debate, scientists have come to realize that not all fats are bad, and that the types of fat consumed are more important than the quantity. In fact, certain unsaturated fats are very beneficial and should be purposefully consumed. These include long-chain (LC) polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), such as omega-3s (n-3) and omega-6s (n-6).

The fatty acids in fatty fish—LC omega-3 LC-PUFAs—have been shown to reduce the chance of sudden cardiac death and heart arrhythmias, lessen the likelihood of having a next heart attack, lower certain blood lipids, improve blood circulation, slow the progression of heart disease, and modestly reduce blood pressure. In the largest heart disease prevention trial to date, over 11,000 people in Italy whosurvived a myocardial infarction, reduced their chance of dying suddenly by nearly half (45%) with the consumption of about a gram per day of purified n-3 LC-PUFAs of the kind found in fatty fish. Decades of studies in many countries have shown that people who consume fatty fish regularly are less prone to several chronic diseases.

These findings have spurred thousands of investigations into the ways in which n-3 LC-PUFAs confer their benefits. Dramatic reductions in mortality and disease incidence and progression have prompted the American Heart Association, health educators, and policymakers to encourage the consumption of two fish meals, preferably of fatty fish, per week.

Interest in the content of n-3 LC-PUFAs in neural tissue led to the recognition of their crucial importance in pregnancy for the neurodevelopment of the infant. Clinical research on the effects of n-3 LC-PUFAs in an array of health conditions – from type 2 diabetes, psychiatric and behavioral disorders, immune and inflammatory conditions to certain cancers – is showing the importance of polyunsaturated fatty acids throughout life. Competitive and counterbalancing effects between different types of polyunsaturated fatty acids have turned the thinking about fats and their component fatty acids upside down. This is changing public advice about fatty acid consumption and enhancing our understanding of the fats we need for life.

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