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Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids and Health

Anna Sramek, RD
August 20, 2023
November 6, 2023

Eating fat is essential for our health. We know which fats, like trans and saturated fat, to limit. But what are the fats that are good for us? In this article, we are going to talk about polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). We will discuss what PUFAs are, which PUFAs we should eat, and which foods are the best sources. This guide should help you to start adding more PUFAs into your diet to improve your health today!

What are PUFAs?

A fat molecule is made up of a fatty acid chain. When there is 1 double bond in the chain, it is a monounsaturated fatty acid. PUFAs are fat molecules that contain two or more double bonds. 

The double bond in the fatty acid structure changes the functionality of the fat, making it liquid at room temperature. 

Types of PUFAs

The two major classes of PUFAs are omega-3 and omega-6 fats. These fats get their names based on the placement of the double bond in the chain. 

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids have the first double bond in the fatty acid chain on the third carbon from the methyl group. The three main omega-3 fats we monitor are EPA, DPA, and DHA.

Type of Omega-3 fat

Food sources

Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)

Walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, canola oil, soybean oil

Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)

Fatty fish (salmon, anchovies, sardines, mackerel), fish oil, krill oil, algae oil

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

Fatty fish (salmon, anchovies, sardines, mackerel), fish oil, krill oil, algae oil

Omega-6 Fatty Acids

Omega-6 fatty acids have the first double bond in the fatty acid chain on the sixth carbon from the methyl group. The two main omega-6 fats are linoleic and arachidonic acid.

Type of Omega-6 fat

Food sources

Linoleic acid (LA)

Soybean, corn, safflower oils

Arachidonic Acid (AA)

Meat, organ meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs

Health Benefits of Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fats

Omega-3 and 6 fats are important for various functions in our body. They also convert themselves into other essential fatty acids our body needs. Health importance of PUFAs include:

  • Developing the structure for our cells, especially in the eyes and brain
  • Developing signaling molecules for the immune, pulmonary, and cardiovascular system
  • Lowering triglyceride levels
  • Reducing inflammation, especially in rheumatoid arthritis
  • Improving skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis

While these two PUFAs help manage our health, it is important to have a balance of these nutrients.

Omega-6: Omega-3 Ratio

The ratio of intake between these two PUFAs is important to prevent any complications in health. Before industrial agriculture, the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio was 1:1 to 4:1, which is optimal. Now, this ratio is closer to 20:1. A higher omega-6:omega-3 ratio is associated with inflammation in the body that can contribute to cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes. 

Here are a few tips to make sure you have an optimal omega-6:omega-3 ratio intake:

  • Limit highly processed oils like soybean, canola, and safflower oils. Choose healthier oils like extra-virgin olive oil or avocado oil
  • Avoid processed or packaged foods
  • Eat more nuts, seeds, and seaweed
  • Choose grass-fed beef over generic beef
  • Eat 1-2 servings of fatty fish a week
  • If fatty fish is not available, choose a high-quality omega-3 supplement like fish or krill oil supplement. For vegetarians or vegans, try algae oil. To make sure your supplement is high-quality, check it through  


The two PUFAs we want to look out for are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Having too many omega-6 fats compared to omega-3’s can increase the risk of health complications. Choose healthier sources of PUFAs like nuts, seeds, fatty fish, or a high-quality omega-3 supplement to make sure you are getting the right balance to be the healthiest version of yourself. 

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