Functional Roles of Fatty Acids and Their Effects on Human Health

JPEN J Parenter Enteral Nutr. 2015 Sep;39(1 Suppl):18S-32S. doi: 10.1177/0148607115595980. Epub 2015 Jul 15.


A variety of fatty acids exists in the diet of humans, in the bloodstream of humans, and in cells and tissues of humans. Fatty acids are energy sources and membrane constituents. They have biological activities that act to influence cell and tissue metabolism, function, and responsiveness to hormonal and other signals. The biological activities may be grouped as regulation of membrane structure and function; regulation of intracellular signaling pathways, transcription factor activity, and gene expression; and regulation of the production of bioactive lipid mediators. Through these effects, fatty acids influence health, well-being, and disease risk. The effects of saturated, cis monounsaturated, ω-6 and ω-3 polyunsaturated, and trans fatty acids are discussed. Although traditionally most interest in the health impact of fatty acids related to cardiovascular disease, it is now clear that fatty acids influence a range of other diseases, including metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, inflammatory diseases, and cancer. Scientists, regulators, and communicators have described the biological effects and the health impacts of fatty acids according to fatty acid class. However, it is now obvious that within any fatty acid class, different members have different actions and effects. Thus, it would seem more appropriate to describe biological effects and health impacts of individual named fatty acids, although it is recognized that this would be a challenge when communicating outside of an academic environment (eg, to consumers).

Keywords: fatty acid; fish oil; health; mechanism; monounsaturated; polyunsaturated; saturated; trans; ω-3.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cardiovascular Diseases* / etiology
  • Cardiovascular Diseases* / metabolism
  • Cardiovascular Diseases* / prevention & control
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 2* / etiology
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 2* / metabolism
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 2* / prevention & control
  • Diet*
  • Dietary Fats / adverse effects
  • Dietary Fats / metabolism
  • Dietary Fats / pharmacology*
  • Dietary Fats / therapeutic use
  • Fatty Acids / adverse effects
  • Fatty Acids / metabolism
  • Fatty Acids / pharmacology*
  • Fatty Acids / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Inflammation* / etiology
  • Inflammation* / metabolism
  • Inflammation* / prevention & control
  • Neoplasms* / etiology
  • Neoplasms* / metabolism
  • Neoplasms* / prevention & control


  • Dietary Fats
  • Fatty Acids