Table of contents
1 Fat in everyday life: tips for healthy fat consumption
2 What is the difference between saturated and unsaturated fatty acids?
3 What fatty acids are there?
Omega 3 fatty acids for healthy blood vessels and a stable immune system ALA DHA and EPA Omega 3 fatty acid foods - What should vegans look out for? Omega 6 fatty acids - stabilize your DNA Omega 9 fatty acids - against diabetes and inflammation Saturated fatty acids - not always unhealthy Trans fats - the really unhealthy fats
4 You should remember these rules of thumb

Fat is absolutely essential for various vital functions in your body. Our body stores fat as energy reserves that it can use whenever it needs an energy boost. This article will increase your understanding of the different types of fat and how they affect your body. Increase your awareness of fat and learn what choices you can make in your everyday life to optimize your fat consumption. Above all, if you consume plenty of healthy fats, you will give your body the tools it needs to keep your brain and cardiovascular system healthy!

Fat in everyday life: tips for healthy fat consumption

If you want to achieve the healthiest fat consumption possible, you should first check how much fat you consume per day compared to the other macronutrients (carbohydrates and proteins). This is easy to do with nutrient trackers. The EU has set the following guideline values for adults who consume 2000 kcal per day:

Fat (total): 70 grams
Of which unsaturated fatty acids: 20 grams
Of which trans fats: 0 grams

Many people eat too much saturated fatty acids and trans fats. To optimize your fat consumption, you should try to integrate as many unsaturated fats as possible into your everyday diet. Here are a few tips on how to do this in practice:

  • Avoid animal fat and use high-quality vegetable fat instead.
  • Use oil instead of butter when frying
  • Snack on nuts and seeds instead of chocolate, cheese or cookies.
  • Swap cheese and sausage for plant-based spreads or avocados.
  • Avoid processed convenience foods in general, especially frozen foods that have been pre-fried or deep-fried.

What is the difference between saturated and unsaturated fatty acids?

Fatty acids are the most calorie-dense form of the three macronutrients: proteins (4kcal per gram), carbohydrates (5 calories per gram) and fat (9 calories per gram). But not all fats are the same. A distinction is made between saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. Within these two categories, there are different forms of these fats, some of which can have very different effects on your body. You can visually distinguish saturated fatty acids from unsaturated fatty acids by observing their consistency at room temperature. In general, unsaturated fatty acids are considered healthier and you should try to replace saturated fatty acids with unsaturated fatty acids in your daily diet.

What fatty acids are there?

Omega 3 - fatty acids for healthy blood vessels and a stable immune system

The three most important omega-3 fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Omega-3 fatty acids are essential components of the membranes that surround every cell in your body. Omega-3s are fats and therefore also provide calories and therefore energy. However, every fatty acid provides energy. The organ-specific functions of omega-3 fatty acids are therefore far more relevant. In general, omega-3 fatty acids are responsible for many functions related to the cardiovascular system, the blood vessels, the lungs, the immune system and the endocrine system (the network of hormone-producing glands).

ALA

ALA is the most important of the omega-3 fatty acids. As an essential fatty acid, your body cannot produce it itself. It is therefore essential that you obtain it from the foods you consume. In addition, your body can convert a small amount of ALA into EPA and consequently into DHA.1 ALA is mainly found in vegetable oils such as linseed oil, chia seed oil, soybean oil and rapeseed oil.

ALA against diabetes

The intake of ALA can reduce blood sugar levels by up to 64%.2 How ALA achieves this is still unexplored, but it is thought that ALA promotes mechanisms that remove fat that has accumulated in muscle cells. This fat reduces the effectiveness of insulin. ALA also alleviates the discomfort of nerve damage and reduces the risk of diabetic retinopathy (damage to the eye retina), which can occur with untreated diabetes.3 The cause of this mode of action has also not yet been found. It is suspected that the strong antioxidant properties of ALA make this possible.4

Even though there is still an urgent need for research in this area, ALA has already established itself as an important active ingredient in preventing complications caused by diabetes, such as heart disease, loss of vision or kidney failure. Of course, ALA alone cannot fight diabetes. However, as a complementary treatment, it appears to be indispensable.

DHA and EPA

EPA is distributed throughout the body. DHA is particularly present in the retina (eye), brain cells and sperm cells. DHA and EPA work best when taken in combination. And they usually are, as both are mainly found in fish and seafood. EPA and DHA help reduce your risk of chronic heart disease and inflammation.5

DHA against inflammation

DHA has strong anti-inflammatory properties. Our modern diets often include a lot of vegetable oils, such as soybean, corn oil or sunflower oil, which are high in omega-6 fatty acids. An increased intake of DHA can counteract the inflammatory effects caused by excessive omega-6 consumption.6 DHA may also lower your risk of chronic, age-related, inflammatory diseases such as gum disease, heart disease and autoimmune diseases.7

EPA for healthy skin

DHA is an important component of your skin cells. However, the intake of EPA in particular promotes healthy, soft, moisturized and wrinkle-free skin. Proven mechanisms of action of EPA on human skin:

  • Regulation of your skin's moisturization and oil production.
  • Reduction of skin ageing.
  • Reducing the risk of acne8
  • Inhibits the hyperkeratinization of your hair follicles (small red bumps that usually appear on the upper arms)
  • When your skin is exposed to strong sunlight, substances are produced that consume your skin's collagen. EPA inhibits the release of these substances9

Omega 3 fatty acids foods - What should vegans look out for?

As already mentioned, most people consume ALA through chia and flax seeds. In addition to ALA, they are also an important part of a balanced breakfast (e.g. in bread, smoothie bowls or breakfast cereals) due to their high fiber content. EPA and DHA are mainly consumed in the form of fish and seafood. Vegans can produce DHA and EPA from their ALA reserves, but only in very small quantities. Our bodies can only convert less than 1% of the available ALA into "physiologically effective levels" of DHA or EPA. The efficiency of these conversion mechanisms varies greatly from person to person. A simple blood test can diagnose how well your body can convert ALA to DHA and EPA; the vast majority of people cannot do this adequately. However, consumption of DHA and EPA is particularly important for cardiovascular and brain health.

Where do fish and seafood get their DHA and EPA from?

Fish consume marine plants such as microalgae. These plants are the primary source of quality EPA and DHA. Thus, EPA and DHA are produced from vegan sources. Unfortunately, the EPA and DHA content of nori seaweed, for example, varies too much for vegans to reliably consume EPA and DHA. The ideal solution for vegans? An omega-3 supplement that does not only contain flaxseed oil (i.e. pure ALA). Take a closer look at the ingredients: It should contain around 50% EPA and DHA per capsule and be produced from algae. As a vegan, you should also make sure that the gel capsules are not made from gelatine.

Omega 6 fatty acids - stabilize your DNA

Just like omega-3 fatty acids, omega-6 fatty acids are healthy unsaturated fats. Just like the omega-3 fatty acid ALA, we need to obtain omega-6 fatty acids from our diet as our bodies cannot produce them themselves and they are required for vital functions. Omega-6 fats play an important role in stabilizing our genes, in maintaining the immune system and in blood clotting. These fats can also alleviate the symptoms of dermatitis and rheumatoid arthritis. However, the effect of omega-6 is still partially unexplored and the opinions of nutritionists differ widely. There are four forms of omega-6 fatty acids:

  • Linoleic acid (LA)
  • gamma-linolenic acid (GLA)
  • Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)
  • Arachidonic acid (ARA)

Compared to omega-3 fatty acids, these four forms of omega-6 hardly differ from each other in terms of their mode of action. Furthermore, a deficiency of omega-6 is very unlikely as it is mainly found in vegetable oils, nuts and seeds.10

The real omega-6 problem: Chronic overdose

There is evidence that humans used to consume omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in equal proportions in their diet, which was beneficial to health.11 However, due to our modern diet, which also consists of highly processed products such as fast food and fried food, this 1 to 1 ratio has become very unbalanced. It is thought that we now consume on average 20 times more omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acids.

An increased ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 leads to an increased risk of chronic inflammatory diseases. These include cardiovascular disease, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), rheumatoid arthritis and Alzheimer's disease (AD).12

Omega 9 fatty acids - against diabetes and inflammation

Compared to ALA (omega-3) and omega-6 fatty acids, omega-9 fatty acids are not essential. This means that your body can produce omega-9 fats itself. In addition, omega-9 is the fatty acid in your body that is most widely distributed. Nevertheless, an increased intake of omega-9 fatty acids can be beneficial to your health. Oleic acid is the most common omega-9 fatty acid and the most common monounsaturated fatty acid in the diet. Oleic acid is the best known and most common omega-9 fatty acid. It is also the most commonly consumed monounsaturated fatty acid in most people's diets.13

Omega-9 against diabetes and inflammation

A diet with unsaturated fats in diabetes patients was able to reduce plasma triglycerides in the blood by 19 percent and the level of bad VLDL cholesterol (VLDL = very low-density lipoprotein) by 22 percent.1415 Mice fed a high proportion of omega-9 fatty acids were able to improve their insulin sensitivity and reduce inflammation.

Saturated fatty acids - not always unhealthy

Here too, the opinions of nutritionists differ to some extent. Most consider saturated fatty acids to be unhealthy. Saturated fatty acids (such as butter or coconut oil) remain solid at room temperature. Unsaturated fatty acids (e.g. olive oil, corn oil or sunflower oil) are already liquefied at the same temperature.

There are many different fatty acids, which are defined by the length of their carbon chains. The saturated fatty acids that you probably consume most often include

  • Palmitic acid
  • myristic acid
  • lauric acid
  • capric acid
  • stearic acid
  • Caprylic acid
  • caproic acid

How do saturated fatty acids affect your health?

Contrary to previous assumptions, it has already been proven that saturated fatty acids do not cause heart disease. 1617

Although it has been proven that certain saturated fatty acids can increase your LDL cholesterol, this does not necessarily lead to heart disease, as saturated fats mainly increase the number of large LDL cholesterol particles in your blood. However, it is mainly the smaller particles that have been linked to heart disease.18

Saturated fatty acids are therefore not necessarily unhealthy, but they are not good for your health either. Whereby the latter applies to unsaturated fatty acids. You should therefore make sure that unsaturated fatty acids make up the majority of your fat consumption.

Trans fats - the really unhealthy fats

The health effects of the fatty acids described above are sometimes controversial, but the consensus on trans fats is that your body doesn't need them - the recommended daily intake is 0 mg. Trans fats are very unhealthy and an increased consumption of trans fats can lead to heart disease.

How do trans fats affect your cardiovascular system?

They increase your LDL cholesterol level and reduce your HDL cholesterol level.19 The bad cholesterol level is increased and the good HDL level is reduced. This causes cholesterol to build up in your arteries, which significantly increases your risk of heart disease and stroke. Swapping your saturated fats for trans fats for just four weeks can reduce arterial dilation (which is essential for a healthy cardiovascular system) by 29%.20

Where can you find trans fats?

Animal food sources, such as red meat or dairy products, contain small amounts of trans fats. However, most trans fats are found in highly processed convenience foods. Trans fats are created when food manufacturers convert liquid oils into more stable fats, such as margarine.

The following table gives you an overview of the various saturated and unsaturated fatty acids and which natural foods contain the most of them:

Foodstuffs Content per 100 g
Omega-6 fatty acids
Soybean oil 50 g
Corn oil 49 g
Mayonnaise 39 g
Walnuts 37 g
Sunflower oil 34 g
Chia seeds 4.9 g (ALA)
Salmon 4 g (EPA and DHA)
Mackerel 3 g (EPA and DHA)
Sardines 2.2 g (EPA and DHA)
Anchovies 1.0 g (EPA and DHA)
Omega-3 fatty acids Omega-9 fatty acids
Olive oil 83 g
Cashew nut oil 73 g
Almond oil 70 g
Avocado oil 60 g
Peanut oil 47 g
Saturated fatty acids
Dried coconut 57.2 g
Butter 50.5 g
Chocolate (85% cocoa content) 24.5 g
Whipped cream 19.3 g
Processed meat products 17.7 g

As already mentioned, you should not ignore the omega-3/omega-6 ratio. Foods that are high in omega-3 and low in omega-6 are particularly recommended. This is the ratio of omega-3:omega-6 in the following foods:

Cod: 29:1
Tuna: 25:1
Spinach: 5:1
Linseed: 4:1
Mangoes: 3:1

You should remember these rules of thumb:

  • Not all fats are the same!
  • Unsaturated fatty acids are generally considered to be good for your health, but you should keep an eye on the omega-3/omega-6 ratio.
  • Saturated fatty acids are neither unhealthy nor beneficial to health.
  • Trans fats are always unhealthy.

FAQ

What are fatty acids?

Fatty acids are fats. The different fatty acids are so called in nutritional science because they contain long-chain carboxylic acids.

Which fatty acids are healthy?

As mentioned above, unsaturated fatty acids in particular are considered healthy. Omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 are all healthy fatty acids. Omega-9 can be produced by your body and omega-6 is found in most vegetable fats. Most people would benefit health-wise from an increased intake of omega-3. Numerous studies have shown the health benefits of omega-3.

What are omega-3 fatty acids?

These are essential fatty acids that your body needs but cannot produce itself. These fatty acids are a basic building block of every cell membrane in your body. The three most important omega-3 fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). They have an anti-inflammatory effect, counteract diabetes symptoms and promote a healthy cardiovascular system and healthy skin.

Collapsible content

Sources

  1. Gerster H. (1998). Can adults adequately convert alpha-linolenic acid (18:3n-3) to eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5n-3) and docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3)?. International journal for vitamin and nutrition research. International journal for vitamin and nutrition research. Journal international de vitaminologie et de nutrition, 68(3), 159-173.
  2. Jacob, S., Streeper, R. S., Fogt, D. L., Hokama, J. Y., Tritschler, H. J., Dietze, G. J., & Henriksen, E. J. (1996). The antioxidant alpha-lipoic acid enhances insulin-stimulated glucose metabolism in insulin-resistant rat skeletal muscle. Diabetes, 45(8), 1024-1029.
  3.  Foster T. S. (2007). Efficacy and safety of alpha-lipoic acid supplementation in the treatment of symptomatic diabetic neuropathy. The Diabetes educator, 33(1), 111-117.
  4. Ghibu, S., Richard, C., Vergely, C., Zeller, M., Cottin, Y., & Rochette, L. (2009). Antioxidant properties of an endogenous thiol: Alpha-lipoic acid, useful in the prevention of cardiovascular diseases. Journal of cardiovascular pharmacology, 54(5), 391-398.
  5. Bradbury J. (2011). Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): an ancient nutrient for the modern human brain. Nutrients, 3(5), 529–554.
  6. Wall, R., Ross, R. P., Fitzgerald, G. F., & Stanton, C. (2010). Fatty acids from fish: the anti-inflammatory potential of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Nutrition reviews, 68(5), 280-289.
  7. Tabbaa, M., Golubic, M., Roizen, M. F., & Bernstein, A. M. (2013). Docosahexaenoic acid, inflammation, and bacterial dysbiosis in relation to periodontal disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and the metabolic syndrome. Nutrients, 5(8), 3299-3310.
  8. Spencer, E. H., Ferdowsian, H. R., & Barnard, N. D. (2009). Diet and acne: a review of the evidence. International journal of dermatology, 48(4), 339-347.
  9. McCusker, M. M., & Grant-Kels, J. M. (2010). Healing fats of the skin: the structural and immunologic roles of the omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Clinics in dermatology, 28(4), 440-451.
  10. Balić, A., Vlašić, D., Žužul, K., Marinović, B., & Bukvić Mokos, Z. (2020). Omega-3 Versus Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in the Prevention and Treatment of Inflammatory Skin Diseases. International journal of molecular sciences, 21(3), 741.
  11. Simopoulos A. P. (2016). An Increase in the Omega-6/Omega-3 Fatty Acid Ratio Increases the Risk for Obesity. Nutrients, 8(3), 128.
  12. Patterson, E., Wall, R., Fitzgerald, G. F., Ross, R. P., & Stanton, C. (2012). Health implications of high dietary omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Journal of nutrition and metabolism, 2012, 539426.
  13. Tutunchi, H., Ostadrahimi, A., & Saghafi-Asl, M. (2020). The Effects of Diets Enriched in Monounsaturated Oleic Acid on the Management and Prevention of Obesity: a Systematic Review of Human Intervention Studies. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.), 11(4), 864-877.
  14. Garg A. (1998). High-monounsaturated-fat diets for patients with diabetes mellitus: a meta-analysis. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 67(3 Suppl), 577S-582S.
  15. Finucane, O. M., Lyons, C. L., Murphy, A. M., Reynolds, C. M., Klinger, R., Healy, N. P., Cooke, A. A., Coll, R. C., McAllan, L., Nilaweera, K. N., O'Reilly, M. E., Tierney, A. C., Morine, M. J., Alcala-Diaz, J. F., Lopez-Miranda, J., O'Connor, D. P., O'Neill, L. A., McGillicuddy, F. C., & Roche, H. M. (2015). Monounsaturated fatty acid-enriched high-fat diets impede adipose NLRP3 inflammasome-mediated IL-1β secretion and insulin resistance despite obesity. Diabetes, 64(6), 2116-2128.
  16. Siri-Tarino, P. W., Sun, Q., Hu, F. B., & Krauss, R. M. (2010). Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 91(3), 535-546.
  17. Hooper, L., Summerbell, C. D., Thompson, R., Sills, D., Roberts, F. G., Moore, H., & Davey Smith, G. (2011). Reduced or modified dietary fat for preventing cardiovascular disease. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews, (7), CD002137.
  18. Dreon, D. M., Fernstrom, H. A., Campos, H., Blanche, P., Williams, P. T., & Krauss, R. M. (1998). Change in dietary saturated fat intake is correlated with change in mass of large low-density lipoprotein particles in men. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 67(5), 828-836.
  19. Brouwer, I. A., Wanders, A. J., & Katan, M. B. (2010). Effect of animal and industrial trans fatty acids on HDL and LDL cholesterol levels in humans--a quantitative review. PloS one, 5(3), e9434.
  20. de Roos, N. M., Bots, M. L., & Katan, M. B. (2001). Replacement of dietary saturated fatty acids by trans fatty acids lowers serum HDL cholesterol and impairs endothelial function in healthy men and women. Arteriosclerosis, thrombosis, and vascular biology, 21(7), 1233-1237.