What Is Essential Fatty Acid Deficiency

  • Anuradha Sureshchandra BClinPharm, PGDipClinPharm, PGDipBusinessManagement, University of Auckland
  • Margaret Musanga Bachelor of Science - BS, Physical Therapy/Therapist, Universidad CEU San Pablo, Madrid, Spain


Essential Fatty Acid Deficiency (EFAD) is a condition that arises when the body lacks an adequate supply of essential fatty acids, which are crucial for various physiological processes. Essential fatty acids are dietary fats that the body cannot produce independently and must be obtained from food sources. These fatty acids are pivotal in maintaining overall health and well-being.1 In this discussion, we will delve into the definition of essential fatty acids and the significance of these nutrients in the body. We will also provide an overview of essential fatty acid deficiency with references to highlight the importance of recognising and addressing this condition.

Essential fatty acids are a subset of polyunsaturated fats considered essential for the human body. The term "essential" denotes that these fatty acids must be obtained through dietary sources because the body cannot produce them endogenously. The two primary types of essential fatty acids are omega-3 fatty acids (e.g., alpha-linolenic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid, and docosahexaenoic acid) and omega-6 fatty acids (e.g., linoleic acid and arachidonic acid).

Essential fatty acids are indispensable for numerous bodily functions and processes. They are integral components of cell membranes, where they help maintain membrane fluidity and stability. These fatty acids are also precursors for producing important signalling molecules known as eicosanoids, which regulate inflammation, blood clotting, and immune responses.2 Furthermore, essential fatty acids play a vital role in brain development and function and are essential for skin, hair, and nail health.

Moreover, omega-3 fatty acids are known for their anti-inflammatory properties and have been associated with reduced risk factors for chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and neurodegenerative disorders.3 Omega-6 fatty acids are essential for growth, skin health, and hormone production. The right balance between the diet's omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids is crucial for overall health.

Types of essential fatty acids

Essential Fatty Acid Deficiency (EFAD) can occur when there is an inadequate intake of essential fatty acids, specifically omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. These two types of fatty acids have distinct bodily roles and are obtained through dietary sources. This discussion will explore the types of essential fatty acids, their food sources, and their associated health benefits.

Omega-3 fatty acids 

  1. Food Sources: Omega-3 fatty acids are primarily found in cold-water fish, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and certain algae-based supplements. Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and trout are rich sources of omega-3s. Additionally, some fortified foods and dietary supplements contain omega-3 fatty acids.
  2. Health Benefits: Omega-3 fatty acids have been extensively studied and are associated with several health benefits:
    • Heart Health: Omega-3s are known for their cardio protective effects. They can reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering triglyceride levels, reducing blood pressure, and preventing the formation of blood clots.
    • Brain Function: These fatty acids are crucial in brain development and cognitive function. They have been linked to improved memory, mood regulation, and a reduced risk of age-related cognitive decline.
    • Inflammation: Omega-3s possess anti-inflammatory properties and may help alleviate symptoms of inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis.
    • Eye Health: Omega-3s, particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are essential for maintaining eye health and may reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration.

Omega-6 fatty acids

  1. Food Sources: Omega-6 fatty acids are abundant in various plant-based oils, including corn, soybean, sunflower, and safflower. Nuts and seeds such as sunflower, pumpkin, and pine nuts also contain omega-6 fatty acids. Additionally, omega-6s can be found in poultry and eggs.
  2. Health Benefits: Omega-6 fatty acids are essential for the body's growth and development and offer several health benefits:
    • Skin Health: Omega-6s are essential for maintaining healthy skin, promoting wound healing, and preventing excessive dryness.
    • Hormone Production: They are essential for producing hormones, including those involved in regulating blood pressure, blood clotting, and immune responses.
    • Inflammatory Response: Omega-6 fatty acids affect the body's immune response and inflammation. However, maintaining an appropriate balance between omega-6 and omega-3 intake is critical to preventing excessive inflammation.

Balancing the intake of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids is crucial for overall health, as an imbalance can contribute to chronic inflammatory conditions. While both types of fatty acids are essential, the Western diet tends to be disproportionately high in omega-6s compared to omega-3s, emphasising the importance of increasing omega-3-rich foods in one's diet to maintain a healthy balance.4

Causes of essential fatty acid deficiency

Essential Fatty Acid Deficiency (EFAD) can develop when the body does not receive sufficient essential fatty acids, such as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Several causes can contribute to this deficiency; understanding them is crucial for prevention and treatment. 

Inadequate dietary intake

  • Low Consumption of Foods Rich in Essential Fatty Acids: One primary cause of EFAD is a diet lacking in foods rich in essential fatty acids. People who do not regularly include sources of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in their diet, such as fatty fish, nuts, seeds, and certain oils, may be at risk of developing EFAD.5 This is particularly common in populations with limited access to such foods or those following diets restricting their fat intake.
  • Fad Diets and Food Restrictions: Fad diets or extreme dietary restrictions that eliminate entire food groups can also lead to EFAD. Some individuals may adopt diets that severely limit fat intake, believing it to be a healthier option. Such restrictions can result in an inadequate supply of essential fatty acids, as the body relies on dietary sources to obtain these nutrients.

Malabsorption issues

  • Digestive Disorders: Various digestive disorders can interfere with absorbing essential fatty acids. Conditions such as Crohn's disease, celiac disease, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may disrupt absorption, preventing the body from effectively utilising its dietary fats. Inflammation or damage to the intestinal lining can be a common factor in these disorders.6
  • Liver or Pancreas Problems: The liver and pancreas play essential roles in the digestion and metabolism of fats. Liver diseases, such as cirrhosis, and pancreatic disorders, such as chronic pancreatitis, can impair the production and secretion of digestive enzymes necessary for breaking down and absorbing fats. As a result, individuals with these conditions may struggle to absorb essential fatty acids properly.

Symptoms of essential fatty acid deficiency

Essential Fatty Acid Deficiency (EFAD) manifests through various symptoms, including:

Diagnosis of essential fatty acid deficiency

Diagnosing Essential Fatty Acid Deficiency (EFAD) involves a multifaceted approach to assessing the patient's clinical status and nutritional intake.

  1. Clinical Evaluation: Clinical evaluation involves a thorough physical examination to identify signs and symptoms associated with EFAD. Healthcare professionals may look for common indicators such as dry and scaly skin, hair loss, cognitive impairments, or growth and developmental issues (especially in children). This evaluation may also note skin conditions like dermatitis and eye problems.
  2. Blood Tests: Blood tests play a crucial role in diagnosing EFAD. A blood sample can be analysed to measure the levels of essential fatty acids, including omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, in the bloodstream. A deficiency in these fatty acids can indicate EFAD. Other relevant markers, such as plasma lipids and lipid profiles, may also be examined to provide further insights into the patient's nutritional status.
  3. Dietary Assessment: Assessing the patient's dietary habits is essential in diagnosing EFAD. Healthcare professionals may inquire about the individual's diet, including the frequency and quantity of foods rich in essential fatty acids, such as fatty fish, nuts, seeds, and oils.7 A detailed dietary history can help identify inadequate dietary intake as a potential cause of EFAD.
  4. Medical History: A comprehensive medical history is valuable in diagnosing EFAD. Information regarding underlying medical conditions, digestive disorders, liver or pancreas problems, or a history of fad diets or food restrictions can offer crucial insights into the potential causes of EFAD.1

Health consequences of EFAD

  1. Skin Problems: EFAD often manifests as dry and scaly skin. It can also lead to conditions like dermatitis, characterised by inflammation, itching, and skin redness. In severe cases, EFAD can result in skin lesions and impaired wound healing.
  2. Cardiovascular Issues: Inadequate intake of essential fatty acids, particularly omega-3s, is linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular problems. EFAD may contribute to elevated levels of triglycerides and unfavourable changes in lipid profiles, potentially raising the risk of heart disease.
  3. Cognitive and Mental Health Problems: Essential fatty acids, especially omega-3s, are vital for brain development and function. EFAD can result in cognitive impairments, affecting memory, learning, and mood regulation. Some studies suggest a link between EFAD and mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.
  4. Immune System Disorders: EFAD can compromise the immune system's function. Essential fatty acids play a role in immune responses and inflammation regulation. A deficiency in these nutrients may lead to immune system dysfunction, making individuals more susceptible to infections and inflammatory conditions.
  5. Growth and Developmental Delays: EFAD can be particularly concerning in children. Inadequate intake of essential fatty acids during early development may lead to growth delays, developmental issues, and cognitive impairments. These effects can have long-term consequences on a child's overall well-being.

Prevention and treatment 

Prevention and treatment of Essential Fatty Acid Deficiency (EFAD) involve strategies to ensure an adequate intake of essential fatty acids and address underlying causes.

Dietary modifications

  • Balanced Diet: Ensure a well-rounded and balanced diet that includes foods rich in essential fatty acids, such as fatty fish (e.g., salmon, mackerel), nuts (e.g., walnuts, almonds), seeds (e.g., flaxseeds, chia seeds), and oils (e.g., olive oil, canola oil). This helps prevent EFAD by providing the necessary nutrients.
  • Healthy Fat Sources: Choose healthy sources of fats, emphasising monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats over saturated and Trans fats. This promotes overall cardiovascular health while supporting EFAD prevention.


In cases where dietary intake alone is insufficient, healthcare professionals may recommend essential fatty acid supplements, such as fish oil capsules or flaxseed oil. These supplements can help ensure an adequate supply of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, mainly when dietary modifications are challenging.

Addressing underlying medical conditions

  • Digestive Disorders: Treat underlying digestive disorders, such as Crohn's disease, celiac disease, or irritable bowel syndrome, to improve nutrient absorption, including essential fatty acids.
  • Liver or Pancreas Issues: Manage liver or pancreas problems through medical intervention or lifestyle changes to enhance the production and secretion of enzymes needed for fat digestion and absorption.

Monitoring and follow-up

Regular nutritional status monitoring and promptly addressing deficiencies are crucial components of prevention and treatment. Healthcare providers may conduct blood tests to assess fatty acid levels and adjust interventions as needed. Regular follow-up visits help ensure that dietary and medical strategies effectively maintain adequate essential fatty acid status.

Preventing and treating EFAD is essential for maintaining overall health and well-being, as essential fatty acids play critical roles in various bodily functions. Early recognition, dietary modifications, and medical interventions, when necessary, are vital to mitigating the risks associated with EFAD.


Essential Fatty Acid Deficiency (EFAD) is a condition that arises when the body lacks an adequate supply of essential fatty acids, such as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. These essential nutrients are critical for various bodily functions, including skin health, cardiovascular health, brain development, and immune system regulation.

Recognising and addressing EFAD is of paramount importance. The consequences of EFAD, such as dry and scaly skin, hair loss, cognitive impairments, and immune system dysfunction, can profoundly influence one's health and quality of life. For children, growth and developmental delays can be particularly concerning.

Prevention and treatment strategies encompass dietary modifications, supplements, addressing underlying medical conditions, and regular monitoring. Maintaining a balanced and nutrient-rich diet that includes foods rich in essential fatty acids and choosing healthy fat sources plays a crucial role in preventing EFAD. Supplements and medical interventions may be necessary in cases of severe deficiencies or underlying health issues.


Essential Fatty Acid Deficiency (EFAD) is crucial for maintaining optimal health. Essential fatty acids, such as omega-3 and omega-6, are essential for various bodily functions, and their deficiency can lead to various health issues. It is essential to recognise the significance of these nutrients and take proactive steps to prevent and address EFAD. Prioritising a well-rounded diet that provides an adequate supply of essential fatty acids is critical to preventing EFAD and ensuring optimal health. Individuals can take proactive steps towards maintaining their overall well-being by understanding the importance of these essential nutrients and making informed dietary choices.


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  2. Innis SM. Dietary (n-3) Fatty Acids and Brain Development. Journal of Nutrition [Internet]. 2007 Apr 1 [cited 2023 Sep 7];137(4):855–9. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17374644/
  3. Salem N, Eggersdorfer M. Is the world supply of omega-3 fatty acids adequate for optimal human nutrition? Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care [Internet]. 2015 Mar 1 [cited 2023 Sep 7];18(2):147–54. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25635599/
  4. Burdge GC, Calder PC. Introduction to Fatty Acids and Lipids. World review of nutrition and dietetics [Internet]. 2014 Nov 24 [cited 2023 Sep 7];1–16. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25471798/
  5. Balbás GM, Regaña MS, Millet PU. Study on the use of omega-3 fatty acids as a therapeutic supplement in treatment of psoriasis. Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology [Internet]. 2011 Jun 1 [cited 2023 Sep 7];73–3. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3133503/
  6. Simopoulos AP. Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Inflammation and Autoimmune Diseases. Journal of The American College of Nutrition [Internet]. 2002 Dec 1 [cited 2023 Sep 7];21(6):495–505. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12480795/
  7. Hanebutt FL, Demmelmair H, Schiessl B, Larqué E, Koletzko B.  Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid (LC-PUFA) transfer across the placenta. Clinical Nutrition [Internet]. 2008 Oct 1 [cited 2023 Sep 7];27(5):685–93. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18639956/
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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MPH – University of Debrecen

Theophilus is a dedicated researcher with a vital Public Health and Zoology foundation. His passion lies in unravelling the intricate connections between nutrition, lifestyle, and cardiometabolic diseases. Theophilus has collaborated on diverse research projects, from systematic reviews to animal studies, highlighting his meticulous approach and technical acumen. Theophilus is dedicated to advancing scientific understanding in nutrition and health, focusing on improving the well-being of diverse populations.

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