Essential (EFA’s) & Non-Essential Fatty Acids (NEFA’s) - Getting The Balance Right

Getting the balance right can be difficult!

What are Essential (EFA’s) and Non-Essential Fatty acids (NEFA’s)?

Essential fatty acids (EFA’s) are, as the name implies, ‘essential’ to our bodies in maintaining our homeostatic balance i.e. our normal bodily functions. They are deemed indispensible to our body because of our inability to synthesise these endogenously (within the body), meaning we have to consume them via our diet. Non-essential fatty acids (NEFA’s) can be derived both within the body and via the food stuffs we consume. Both EFA’s and NEFA’s are pivotal in maintaining the integrity of cell membranes, normal function of our nervous system, vision, cognition and memory, nutrient metabolism and cell growth.

What are the benefits of EFA’s and NEFA’s?

In fitness and health, it is essential that we maintain the integrity of our cells. If our goal is to develop toned, lean mass (skeletal muscle), whilst crucially maintaining the health of our heart, lungs and brain, we must ensure our bodies receive adequate rest and nutrition.
In the right distributions, both dietary Non-essential fatty acids (NEFA’s) and EFA’s are vital in the above mentioned processes. Many consumers neglect or struggle to identify and consume the natural sources of these fatty acids, or consume too much of the omega- 6 and 9 (linoleic acid and gamma- linolenic acid) in relation to omega-3 fatty acids (alpha-linolenic acid), which can be damaging to our health. An ideal ratio is within the range of 2:1 – 4:1 respectively, but research has found that our actual intakes were in fact around 20:1, therefore they endeavoured to provide us with the ideal 2:1:1 ratio of 3, 6 and 9 fatty acids (Erasmus, 2011).

How does this affect our health and training?

Too many people train too hard and don’t allocate enough time to rest when trying to develop their ideal physique/figure, or meet a certain goal in fitness and sport. Meussen et al. (2006) explain how an inevitable consequence of more work than rest is overtraining syndrome (OS) or Non-functional overreaching (NFOR). OS and NFOR can result in prolonged damage and reduced capacity to repair damaged tissue/cells, resulting in some form of ‘prolonged maladaptation’ causing a plateau in strength, joint integrity, energy, physique/figure, neurochemical, hormonal regulations and thus mood, which will negatively (cumulatively) hinder our training goals.

The protective properties of EFA and NEFA’s make them, in my opinion (backed by research and application), a vital addition to anyone’s supplement stack/routine. Getting the balance right is difficult, many of us either don’t have the time to cook several meals a day, never mind have the time to eat them, many of us may not be aware of the risks of fatty acid deficiency or imbalances, many may not know the ideal sources of such fatty acids in the diet and more still may find them expensive and impractical.

EFA oils are useful, carefully balanced blends of essential and non-essential fatty acids which can accompany a healthy balanced diet (never use as a replacement). They contain approximately 65mg of phytosterols per tablespoon (found mainly in the sesame seed, evening primrose oil, oat bran and germ oils found in EFA oils) which serve to inhibit absorption of cholesterol from the gut, and positively impact on our immune function (vital to reducing the effects of overtraining and heart disease). One of the main ingredients comprising most EFA oils is flax seed oil. Flax seeds are an excellent source of polyunsaturated fatty acids (Omega-3) which (amongst many other beneficial properties) have anti-inflammatory effects on our body. When we train, we place our bodies under strain causing damage/catabolism, with damage comes inflammation and inflammatory cytokines, reactive oxygen species and a hormonal surge of cortisol. We therefore need to replenish our bodies EFA’s (omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids) and NEFA’s such as the omega-9 fatty acids in order to help counteract this catabolic (tissue breakdown) phase. The anti-inflammatory benefits of omega-3 fatty acids are not limited to the muscles, they also improve the ratio between good (HDL) and bad (LDL) cholesterol, whilst reducing oxidation of LDL (bad) cholesterol in our arteries which can lead to atherosclerosis (plaque like substance in our arteries) and cardiovascular disease.

Therefore EFA oils could prove beneficial to many of us when adhering to a fitness and training regime, bodybuilding or physique enhancement routine, or indeed for our health in general.


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About the Author

Job Role Qualified Dietitian and Sports Nutritionist Qualifications BSc (Hons) Sports Science | BSc (Hons) Dietetics Tom has always participated in sport both recreationally and competitively which led to an unquenchable thirst for information on anything health, nutrition and fitness. After leaving school Tom went on to play for a football academy during which time he studied Sport and Exercise Science. From here he went on to study a BSc (Hons) Sport Science at UEA followed by his second BSc (Hons) degree, this time at the University of Hertfordshire studying Dietetics. Tom has worked in the fitness, educational and clinical nutrition industry starting out at David Lloyd Health and Leisure Clubs. He then went on to work as a Dietitian (RD) in the NHS, during which time he conducted clinics for healthy eating, weight loss and weight gain, as well as specialised consultations on Diabetes, IBS and Coeliac disease to name a few. He has vast amounts of experience at devising diet plans and supplement regimens, as well as working in the community with schools and competitive athletes. As Head Nutritionist and Supplement expert at Discount Supplements Tom is here to provide current and evidence based health and nutrition information to help you reach your health and fitness goals!
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