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Ever since Julius Fast wrote The Omega-3 Breakthrough in the late 1980s, essential fatty acids (EFAs) have seen a steady gain in popularity. EFAs are needed by the human body, but the body can’t make them on its own. Therefore, they have to be consumed through food. These wonder-fats come with many astounding benefits, nourishing the skin, hair, heart and brain. They help reduce the incidence of heart disease, help prevent cancers, skin disorders, diabetes and even (according to some studies) depression.

Celebrity dermatologist Nicholas Perricone, who treats everyone from Bruce Willis to Jennifer Lopez and Heidi Klum, has made EFAs star players in all his books. The Perricone Prescription is a 28-day programme which combines his patented skincare products and supplements with an Omega-3-rich diet that helps reduce inflammation, which he considers the base of all health problems. A study conducted by the University of Illinois, Urbana–Champaign, US, in April found that a diet rich in Omega-6 could cure skin problems such as dermatitis.

So what exactly are these essential fatty acids? Anoop Misra, president, and Seema Gulati, chief project officer, National Diabetes, Obesity and Cholesterol Foundation, New Delhi, explain:

The Omega fats break up Omega fatty acids. There are many types of EFAs, the most important being Omega-3 and, to some degree, Omega-6. Omega-9 is necessary, but the body can generate a modest amount on its own provided other EFAs are present. Omega-3 fatty acids are derived from linolenic acid, Omega-6 from linoleic acid and Omega-9 from oleic acid.

How they help

Omega-3 fatty acids are used in the formation of cell walls, making them supple and flexible by improving circulation and oxygen uptake. They are also known to reduce inflammation through the body—in the blood vessels, joints and elsewhere. Omega-3 deficiencies are linked to decreased memory and mental abilities, tingling sensation in the nerves, poor vision, increased tendency to form blood clots, diminished immune function, increase in triglycerides and bad cholesterol (LDL) levels, etc.

Vegetarian sources of Omega-3 include wheat, pearl millet, pulses, green leafy vegetables, fenugreek, flax seed, mustard seeds, nuts, canola oil, soybean oil, mustard oil, etc. Meat eaters can get their dosage from cold-water fishes such as salmon, tuna, sardines or Indian fishes such as Gangetic blow fish and puffer fish.

Omega-6 fatty acids play a crucial role in brain function as well as normal growth and development. They help stimulate skin and hair growth, maintain bone health, regulate metabolism and maintain the reproductive system. Omega-6 fatty acids are present in wholegrains and in most cooking oils. Using soybean, canola, olive, mustard and flax seed oil in combination and rotation along with certain food items such as kidney beans and fenugreek, combined with the Omega-3 sources mentioned earlier, should take care of the overall EFA requirement.

Omega-9 fatty acids lower cholesterol levels, reduce atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), reduce insulin resistance, improve immune function and provide protection against certain types of cancers.

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