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What Is Fatty Acid Metabolism?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 21 September 2014
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Fatty acid metabolism is an internal process for breaking fatty acids, an important part of the diet, into usable components. The body uses pieces of fatty acids for everything from building new proteins to storing energy. These chemical structures are necessary for survival, and eating a balanced diet is critical to make sure people get enough fatty acids from diverse sources so they can meet their dietary needs. Disorders of metabolism involving fatty acids can potentially cause health problems.

The process of fatty acid metabolism starts in the gut, where secretions from the bile duct start to make fatty acids soluble so the body can absorb them through the intestinal wall. The liver and pancreas produce enzymes capable of cutting fatty acids down into usable chunks, and these fatty acid components circulate in the blood. The body stores some against future needs for energy, and uses others as building blocks for new projects. Any unnecessary fatty acids circulate back to the gut or kidneys for elimination so they do not build up in the body.

Fatty acid metabolism generates usable chemical compounds the body can link together in new ways to form components of cell membranes, hormones, and other chemicals in the body. Without the right fatty acids, the body can have trouble finding the building supplies it needs to repair injuries, send signals along hormone pathways, and engage in other activities. This can result in the development of illness over time.

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In addition to being useful materials for constructing things inside the body, fatty acids are also energy dense, and provide an excellent method for storing energy. Burning fatty acids for calories is far more efficient than using other structures, like carbohydrates. Fatty acid metabolism allows the body to store fatty acids for use in the future, in addition to supplying them directly to sites where the body always needs energy, like the brain. People with high energy demands, like athletes, need to eat substantial numbers of fatty acids to meet energy needs.

Metabolizing fatty acids can result in good and bad compounds. Some fatty acids are beneficial and may actively reduce the numbers of harmful compounds in the body. Others may be harmful and could expose people to risks like coronary artery disease. A person's diet determines the composition of fatty acids in the body, as fatty acid metabolism depends on the raw materials available. Precursors to harmful compounds can be present in large numbers in some diets, leading people to produce more bad fatty acids than their bodies can safely eliminate or process.

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