Alpha-linolenic acid (18:3n-3) is essential in the human diet, probably because it is the substrate for the synthesis of longer-chain, more unsaturated n-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5n-3) and docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3) which are required for tissue function. This article reviews the recent literature on 18:3n-3 metabolism in humans, including fatty acid beta-oxidation, recycling of carbon by fatty acid synthesis de novo and conversion to longer-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA). In men, stable isotope tracer studies and studies in which volunteers increased their consumption of 18:3n-3 show conversion to 20:5n-3 and 22:5n-3, but limited conversion to 22:6n-3. However, conversion to 18:3n-3 to 20:5n-3 and 22:6n-3 is greater in women compared to men, due possibly to a regulatory effect of oestrogen, while partitioning of 18:3n-3 towards beta-oxidation and carbon recycling was lower than in men. These gender differences may be an important consideration in making dietary recommendations for n-3 PUFA intake.