Essential: How Much Fat Do We Actually Need?

As we discussed last week, knowing what nutrients are essential — meaning they must be consumed from food, our body cannot manufacture them — teaches us a lot about what we should be eating.

This week we take a look at fats, specifically what fat is essential to consume.

It’s a short list this week. The only two fats that are essential are:

  • α-Linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid, and
  • Linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid

It is interesting to note just how few fats are essential to consume. What this means is that the body can manufacture every other fat necessary for human health. That means we don’t need to consume any other fats, no saturated fat, no cholesterol, etc. Our body can make all we need.

In other words, apart from the two essential fats, we don’t need to purposely eat fatty foods. Unlike other nutrients, we don’t need to try to get enough. If you live in America, you are already getting enough fat in your diet, and likely are consuming far too much of it.

When it comes to Linoleic Acid, the omega-6 fatty acid, you are also getting enough already. In fact you are likely getting too much. Omega-6 is found in abundance in plant oils, such as corn, safflower, and sunflower oil, and also most animal fat. Most processed food contains a lot of these oils, and many people cook with them as well, thus we get more than enough. As we’ll see, most actually get too much.

Essential Fat Plays a Key Role in Heart Disease

Important to the development of heart disease is the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in the diet. Optimal is around 1:1 or 1:2. The average in America is between 1:14 and 1:25. This means we are getting far too much omega-6 and far too little omega 3.

We need to lower our omega-6 consumption and increase our omega-3 intake.

Dropping omega-6 is easy — stop cooking with oils, eat fewer animal products, and less processed food.

Increasing omega-3 is also easy. Add ground flaxseed, about 2 tablespoons a day, to your diet, by adding to smoothies, your oatmeal, or baked goods recipes. You can also eat more walnuts, chia seeds, or dark leafy greens, though flax is preferable for omega-3s.

So what does this teach us about what we should be eating?

It tells us we shouldn’t eat processed foods (duh), added oils (they are not natural), and too much animal flesh.

Our ancestors didn’t have to worry too much about their O3:O6 ratio. Most fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans, have a ratio of about 1:1 or 1:2. So a diet centered on these foods would naturally rest in that optimal range. So this also tells us to eat more plants!

Likewise, since only two fatty acids are essential to consume, this suggests that fat as a macronutrient is relatively unimportant to our thriving. In other words, we just don’t need that much of it. We only need a couple grams of omega-3 and omega-6 every day, and that’s it.

So, work on your essential fatty acid ratio, and don’t worry about the rest. In fact, good evidence suggests avoiding fat — particularly animal fat — helps to avoid obesity and other chronic diseases.

As the great Dr. John McDougall says, “The fat you eat is the fat you wear.”


1 TBSP Ground Flaxseed

3 TBSP Warm Water

Mix, let stand for a few minutes. Replaces one egg