Despite its name, vitamin F is not really a traditional vitamin. It’s a fat — two fats, actually. Namely alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and linoleic acid (LA). Without these fatty acids, it’s impossible to live a healthy life.
ALA and LA are both types of polyunsaturated fatty acids. Polyunsaturated fatty acids do a lot of important things, including protecting nerves. Without them, your blood cannot clot, and you can't even move your muscles. However, your body can’t make its own ALA and LA. They have to come from your diet.
So why are two fats sometimes referred to as a single vitamin? The mix-up dates back to 1923, when the two substances were first discovered. At the time they were misidentified as a vitamin. The label stuck, even though their nature as fats was proven only a few years later. An umbrella term used today to refer to ALA, LA, and their related omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids is “essential fatty acids.”
The two fatty acids that make up vitamin F are used by your body in many different ways. They are a key component of our cell membranes. They are also important for our retinas to develop and function properly.
Some other health benefits of vitamin F include:
Our brains are loaded with polyunsaturated fatty acids. We need them to generate the energy we use to think and operate on a daily basis. For developing infants, it’s especially important for their bodies to have enough essential fatty acids. Without them, the neurons and synapses of the brain don’t develop properly.
High intake of both ALA and LA appears to be associated with reduced risk of coronary heart disease and cardiovascular mortality in general. Replacing saturated fatty acids with polyunsaturated fatty acids has also been shown to lower cholesterol in the blood.
There is compelling evidence that omega-3 fatty acids like ALA may help to slow age-related cognitive decline.
There is some evidence showing that a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids, including ALA, may help to reduce inflammation in people with rheumatoid arthritis. This can result in reduced joint pain and stiffness.
Amounts and Dosage
There is no established safe upper limit on vitamin F consumption. For most people, their diet provides more than adequate amounts of these essential fatty acids. However, for those with certain health problems, specific dosages may be recommended by a doctor or dietician. Dosages are commonly given in grams per day and are ingested via various dietary sources.
Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are found in a wide range of foods. ALA is found most often in plant-based foods, while LA is common in vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, meat, and eggs. Generally speaking, LA is more abundant in the foods we eat.
Here are some common dietary sources of essential fatty acids:
- Many vegetable oils — including soybean oil, canola oil, safflower oil, and flaxseed oil
- Seeds and nuts, including chia seeds, sunflower seeds, and walnuts
- Leafy green vegetables like spinach, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts
- Fish, in particular salmon and albacore tuna