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What are essential fatty acids?

Fats are essential for nutrient absorption, hormonal control, brain tissue, nerve fibers, reproductive cells and lean tissue acquisition. They act as messengers supporting proteins, help absorb fat-soluble vitamins, are involved in the transport of nutrients across cell membranes, start chemical reactions needed for your metabolism and are critical for maintaining proper immune functions. They are also the body’s main way of storing energy for later use providing us with a slow-burning source of calories and insulate and protect your organs. However excessive consumption of fats can lead to a range of health problems such as obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, cholesterol build-up and diabetes.

As a rule of thumb, you should aim to get about 30% of your daily calories from fats. Unlike the basic units of proteins and carbohydrates (amino acids and simple sugars) which can pass through the small intestine without being altered, fats need to be broken down into free fatty acids and monoglycerides before they can then be absorbed and resynthesized in the lining of the small intestine. Because they are lipids, the scientific name for fat-like molecules that do not dissolve in water, they then need to combine with proteins to form a lipoprotein which can dissolve in the bloodstream and be transported around the body for use.

Triglycerides, cholesterol and other essential fatty acids all belong to the fat family. We mainly eat triglycerides which consist of a glycerol molecule linked with three fatty acid molecules. These triglycerides perform a number of important functions in the body but are especially good at energy storage because they have more than twice the calorific density of proteins and carbs (9 calories per gram compared with 4 calories). We’ll look at these in more detail in following blogs.

Triglycerides are either broken down into smaller molecules which can be used for various body functions and energy or stored for later use as body fat (called adipose tissue). If you have too much excess fat in your diet then this can lead to a build-up of visceral fat which is fat stored within your abdominal cavity and around your organs such as the stomach, pancreas, liver and intestines. Excess visceral fat can result in a number of negative health effects such as inflammation (as we saw earlier), diabetes, heart disease, increased risk of cancer and hormonal dysfunction.

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