Secret 4: The essential fats of life

The Essential Fats or Essential Fatty Acids, are fats you must have in your diet for good health; often termed "good fats" as opposed to the "bad fats."

Did your Mother ever explain the fats of life to you?

No? Well let me explain. The Essential Fats or Essential Fatty Acids, are fats you must have in your diet for good health; often termed "good fats" as opposed to the "bad fats." In fact we have good fats, bad fats, and the downright ugly, and I admit it can be quite confusing.

It has long been known that saturated fat in the diet can increase the risk of heart disease from atherosclerosis (fatty plaques on blood vessel walls) by raising blood cholesterol. But unsaturated fat is more likely to form free radicals by lipid peroxidation which can lead to cancer and may accelerate aging. Therefore, both saturated and unsaturated fat have health hazards. There have been many studies done which support the idea of reducing fats in the diet. A study on the "Effects of Dietary Patterns on Blood Pressure" by Lawrence J. Appel, has shown that reducing dietary fat from 36% of total calories to 26% of total calories can significantly lower blood pressure within 8 but one.

For many years nutritionists have recommended substituting mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fats for saturated fats, but a more recent recommendation is to substitute protein and carbohydrate calories for fat calories. Fats (especially animal fats) are the primary vehicle by which pesticides enter the body. Some people might conclude that it would be a good idea to eliminate all fat from the diet. But eliminating all fat is not a good idea as some are classed as essential fats.

Your body needs essential fats to function properly

Nearly half of the dry weight of the brain is fat, and a quarter of this is cholesterol. Cholesterol is an essential part of sex hormones, bile acids, D vitamins and steroid hormones from the cortex of the adrenal gland, among other important substances. Cholesterol does not need to be eaten, because the liver and other tissues can manufacture cholesterol from saturated fats.

Omega-3 essential fats are used in the formation of cell walls, making them supple and flexible, and improving circulation and oxygen uptake with proper red blood cell flexibility and function.

Too much saturated fat in the diet results in excessively high blood levels of cholesterol that can end up being deposited in atherosclerotic plaques on blood vessels, leading to cardiovascular disease. High blood cholesterol also depresses the immune system and thereby increases the incidence of cancer. Excessive blood cholesterol is more often caused by eating too many saturated fats than by eating cholesterol itself. Aside from cholesterol, most other fat in the body is constructed from what is known as fatty acids. A fatty acid is a long straight chain of carbon atoms (studded with hydrogen atoms) that has an acid group (carboxylic acid) at one end (the water-soluble end). The rest of the fatty acid is oil-soluble.

Omega-3 (Linolenic Acid)

Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA) is the principal Omega-3 fatty acid, which a healthy human will convert into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and later into docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). EPA and the GLA synthesized from linoleic (Omega-6) acid are later converted into hormone-like compounds known as eicosanoids, which aid in many bodily functions including vital organ function and intracellular activity.

Omega-3 essential fats are used in the formation of cell walls, making them supple and flexible, and improving circulation and oxygen uptake with proper red blood cell flexibility and function. Omega-3 deficiencies are linked to decreased memory and mental abilities, tingling sensation of the nerves, poor vision, increased tendency to form blood clots, diminished immune function, increased triglycerides and "bad" cholesterol (LDL) levels, impaired membrane function, hypertension, irregular heart beat, learning disorders, menopausal discomfort, itchiness on the front of the lower legs, and growth retardation in infants, children, and pregnant women.

Found in foods: Flaxseed oil (flaxseed oil has the highest linolenic content of any food), flaxseeds, flaxseed meal, hemp seed oil, hemp seeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, Brazil nuts, sesame seeds, avocados, some dark leafy green vegetables (kale, spinach, purslane, mustard greens, collards, etc.), canola oil (cold-pressed and unrefined), soybean oil, wheat germ oil, salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, albacore tuna, and others. One tablespoon per day of flaxseed oil should provide the recommended daily adult portion of linolenic acid, although "time-released" effects of consuming nuts and other linolenic-rich foods is being studied, and considered more beneficial than a once-daily oil intake. Fish oil contains very little alpha-linolenic acid, but is rich in the omega-3 derivatives EPA and DHA. Fish are at the top of a food chain based on phytoplankton (algae) that manufacture large amounts of EPA and DHA. Nonetheless, fish can be high in toxic methylmercury.

Omega-6 (Linoleic Acid)

Linoleic Acid is the primary Omega-6 fatty acid. A healthy human with good nutrition will convert linoleic acid into gamma linolenic acid (GLA), which will later by synthesized with EPA from the Omega-3 group, into eicosanoids. Some Omega-6’s improve diabetic neuropathy, rheumatoid arthritis, PMS, skin disorders (e.g. psoriasis and eczema), and aid in cancer treatment. Although a typical western diet provides an excess of linoleic acid, often it is not converted to GLA because of metabolic problems caused by diets rich in sugar, alcohol, or trans fats from processed foods, as well as smoking, pollution, stress, aging, viral infections, and other illnesses such as diabetes. It is best to eliminate these factors when possible, but some prefer to supplement with GLA-rich foods such as borage oil, black currant seed oil, or evening primrose oil.

Found in foods: The primary source of omega-6 fatty acid in the diet is linoleic acid from the oils of seeds and grains. Sunflower, safflower and corn oil are particularly rich sources of linoleic acid, which is at the root of the omega-6 fatty-acid family. Evening primrose oil and borage oil are high not only in linoleic acid, but the omega-6 derivative gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). Avocado is 15-20% oil, mainly monounsaturated, but also high in linoleic acid. (Avocado has the highest fat content and the highest fibre content , soluble as well as insoluble, of any fruit.)

Omega-9 (Oleic Acid)

Although important, Omega-9 is not technically not an EFA, because the human body can manufacture a limited amount, provided essential EFA's are present. Monounsaturated oleic acid lowers heart attack risk and arteriosclerosis, and aids in cancer prevention.

Although important, Omega-9 is not technically not an EFA, because the human body can manufacture a limited amount.

Found in foods: Olive oil (extra virgin or virgin), olives, avocados, almonds, peanuts, sesame oil, pecans, pistachio nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, etc. One to two tablespoons of extra virgin or virgin olive oil per day should provide sufficient oleic acid for adults. However, the "time-released" effects of obtaining these nutrients from nuts and other whole foods is thought to be more beneficial than consuming the entire daily amount via a single oil dose.

It has been estimated that thousands of years ago the diet of human hunter-gatherers consisted of approximately equal parts of omega-3 and omega-6 essential fats. Since the beginning of agriculture there has been a steady increase in omega-6 at the expense of omega-3 fat in the human diet. This process accelerated about 50 years ago as cattle began to be fed increasingly on grains rather than grass.

Recommendations by nutritionists to eat margarine rather than butter (polyunsaturated rather than saturated fats) only increased the trend toward omega-6 consumption. Currently, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the western diet is 7-to-1 or more. A deficiency in Omega-6 is highly unlikely as it makes up a large proportion of most of the vegetable oils present in the diet, for example, 76% of safflower oil, 71% of sunflower oil, and even 32% of some margarines.

Omega-3 however, is present in much lower proportions (only 1-2% of many vegetable oils) and does warrant concern. There are good reasons to believe that this imbalanced essential fatty acid ratio has led to increased cancer, heart disease, allergies, diabetes and other afflictions. Much of the reason for this lies in the membranes of our cells.

In the face of all the data, there remains the question "What omega-3 and omega-6 essential fats should be included in the diet, and in what quantities & proportions?" Optimum dietary benefit from fat for most people would come from a program of reduced total fat, reduced saturated and unessential fat, and increased proportions of omega-3 (relative to omega-6) essential fats.

An excellent balanced source of Omega-3 and 6, can be found in flax seed oil.

To ensure adequate intake of Omega 3 in proportion to Omega 6, add about 2 teaspoons (10gm) of organic flaxseed (linseed) oil to your diet. Flaxseed oil is an excellent source of Omega-3 (55%) and can be included in the diet in a variety of ways (e.g. in salad dressing, in smoothies, added to breakfast cereal, or dribbled lightly over stir-frys, casseroles etc.), but it must be added after cooking. Heating above 160°C changes the shape of the fatty acids from the cis (bent) form to the trans (straight) form. The presence of trans fatty acids, rather than cis, fatty acids in cell membranes makes the membranes stiffer, which may reduce the function of the cell-membrane receptors that clear cholesterol from the bloodstream. 

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