Essential Fatty Acids

You may be hearing more about “Essential Fatty Acids” (E.F.A.s) and their importance in our birds’ diets these days. (Isn’t the term “vital” a dead giveaway?) So, what are they and how can we get them?

We’ve all heard the terms “good” fat and “bad” fat – basically, the bad stuff comes from animal sources, is saturated, and is bad for arteries and cholesterol levels, whereas the good stuff comes from plant sources, is unsaturated, and is actually GOOD for cardiovascular health and cholesterol levels. Essential Fatty Acids, on the other hand, are the finest of the best!

Let’s go scientific for a moment: fats (also known as lipids) are the most concentrated source of energy in the diet. I won’t get into fat categorization here, but will instead focus on the Essential Fatty Acids that are now of importance to our parrots.

Fatty acids vary primarily in terms of saturation and chain length. “Essential” fatty acids are those that are not produced by the body and must thus be obtained from food. Linoleic, Linolenic, and Arachidonic are the three (are you bored yet?). Because they must be nourished, they are “Essential” – for development, nerve, artery, and blood health, visual function, skin suppleness, and good feathers. The Omega 3 Fatty Acids (linolenic) found in flax seed oil and fish are the “Queen” of these. Omega 6 acids (linoleic) are present in maize, safflower, and soybeans and are vital for the delivery and digestion of cholesterol. Canola oil is the finest combined source of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids. Flax seed oil mixed with other oils helps to maintain an Omega balance for optimal health. Linoleic acid, when supplied in the diet, synthesizes arachidonic acid.

African Greys need more EFAs than other species, hence I usually suggest supplementing their food with flax seed oil 3 or 4 times each week. Molting and feather plucking, as well as mating and childrearing, boost demand. Macaws have a greater fat need, therefore I suggest 3 to 4 servings of mixed nuts per day, which are abundant in unsaturated fats and help reduce the body’s saturated fat. Vitamin E is required for the absorption of EFAs, and nuts offer the necessary balance. Many seeds and legumes are also good suppliers of EFAs (including peanuts).

It is important to note that oils may rapidly go rancid when exposed to air, heat, or light. After opening, all oils should be refrigerated. Freezing or refrigerating before opening helps to increase the shelf life as well.

Always verify the freshness of nuts and seeds, and search for aflatoxins in peanuts (toss any that look moldy or otherwise suspicious).

Keep an eye on fat consumption for Amazons, Budgies, Cockatiels, and other overweight birds, but make sure to include some EFAs on a regular basis for ALL birds – simply use moderation if necessary. The return for integrating these essential elements in the daily diet will be improved feathering, immunity, and general health and vigor.

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