A fat consists of a glycerol backbone and 3 fatty acid chains (triglyceride). The chains may be all the same acid or different acids. The chains vary in length and their names depend on the number of carbon atoms and double bonds (if any) in the chain.
Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) are the fats that humans cannot synthesise, and must be obtained through diet. EFAs are long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids derived from linolenic, linoleic, and oleic acids. There are two families of EFAs: Omega-3 and Omega-6. Omega-9 is necessary yet “non-essential” because the body can manufacture a modest amount on its own, provided essential EFAs are present. The number following “Omega-” represents the position of the first double bond (counting from the terminal methyl group on the molecule). Omega-3 fatty acids are derived from Linolenic Acid, Omega-6 from Linoleic Acid, and Omega-9 from Oleic Acid.
EFAs support the cardiovascular, reproductive, immune, and nervous systems. The human body needs EFAs to manufacture and repair cell membranes, enabling the cells to obtain optimum nutrition and expel harmful waste products. A primary function of EFAs is the production of prostaglandins, which regulate body functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, blood clotting, fertility, conception, and play a role in immune function by regulating inflammation and encouraging the body to fight infection. Essential Fatty Acids are also needed for proper growth in children, particularly for neural development and maturation of sensory systems, with male children having higher needs than females. Fetuses and breast-fed infants also require an adequate supply of EFAs through the mother’s dietary intake.
EFA deficiency is common, particularly Omega-3 deficiency. An ideal intake ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids is between 1:1 and 4:1, with most people only obtaining a ratio between 10:1 and 25:1. The minimum healthy intake for both linolenic (Omega-3) and linoleic (Omega-6) acid via diet, per adult per day, is 1.5 grams of each. One tablespoon of flaxseed oil can provide this amount, or larger amounts of other linolenic-rich foods. Because high heat destroys linolenic acid, cooking in linolenic-rich oils or eating cooked linolenic-rich fish is unlikely to provide a sufficient amount.
EFA deficiency and Omega 6/3 imbalance is linked with serious health conditions, such as heart attacks, cancer, insulin resistance, asthma, lupus, schizophrenia, depression, postpartum depression, accelerated aging, stroke, obesity, diabetes, arthritis, ADHD, and Alzheimer’s Disease, among others.
These are the biggest dietary cause of high LDL levels (“bad cholesterol”). When looking at a food label, pay very close attention to the % of saturated fat and avoid or limit any foods that are high (over 20% saturated fat). They are found in animal meats, including beef, veal, lamb and pork, as well as poultry, butter, cream, whole milk and whole cheeses. Plant sources include coconut and palm kernel oil and cocoa butter.
These are fats that contain only one double bond in the fatty acid chain. They help to lower blood cholesterol if used in place of saturated fats. Sources include avocado, olive oil, canola oil and peanuts.
These are fats that contain many double bonds in the fatty acid chain. They help to lower blood cholesterol if used in place of saturated fats; polyunsaturated fatty acids have a greater impact than monounsaturated fatty acids. Sources include fish oils, seafood and vegetable oils, especially safflower, sunflower, corn or soy oils.
These fats form when vegetable oil hardens (hydrogenation); hydrogen atoms end up on different sides of the chain and this type of configuration is called “trans”. Trans fats can raise blood LDL levels or “bad” cholesterol; “bad” because it is a significant contributor to the plaque deposits that line the arteries. They can also lower HDL levels (“good cholesterol”). Trans fats are also produced naturally by the bacteria that live in the rumens of cows, sheep, goats and other ruminant animals and occur naturally in small quantities in some meats, butter and dairy products. The trans fats from the two sources are slightly different in structure and appear to have different health effects. Trans-fatty acids are found in fried foods, commercial baked goods (donuts, cookies, crackers), processed foods, and margarines.
FDA’s regulatory chemical definition for trans fatty acids is all unsaturated fatty acids that contain one or more isolated double bonds in a trans configuration. Under the Agency’s definition, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) would be excluded from the definition of trans fat. CLA can be considered a “good” trans fat. Its health benefits may include fighting cancer, enhancing immunity, and ridding the body of fatty, artery-clogging plaque.
This term refers to oils that have become hardened (such as hard butter and margarine). Foods made with hydrogenated oils should be avoided because they contain high levels of trans fatty acids, which are linked to heart disease. The terms “hydrogenated” and “saturated” are related (as complete hydrogenation yields saturation).
This term refers to oils that have become partially hardened. Foods made with partially hydrogenated oils should be avoided because they also contain high levels of trans fatty acids.
EFA’s and Omega Series
Omega-3 (Linolenic Acid, Alpha Linolenic Acid, ALA )
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 synthesised 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. EPA needs to be available in adequate amounts for the production of series 3 prostaglandins (PGE-3).
Omega-3s 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, and growth retardation in infants, children, and pregnant women.
Sources include flaxseed oil (flaxseed oil has the highest linolenic content of any food), flaxseeds, flaxseed meal, hempseed oil, hempseeds, 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. Flaxseed oil is also a good source of lignans. Lignans have the ability to decrease oestrogenic activity by blocking the oestrogen receptor sites in tissues thus acting as an oestrogen antagonist.
Flaxseed oil used for dietary supplementation should be kept in the refrigerator or freezer, and purchased from a supplier who refrigerates the liquid as well.
Omega-6 (Linoleic Acid)
Linoleic Acid is the primary Omega-6 fatty acid. A healthy human with good nutrition will convert linoleic acid (ALA) into gamma linolenic acid (GLA), which will later by synthesised, with EPA from the Omega-3 group, into eicosanoids.
Gamma-linoleic acid (GLA)
GLA is an Omega-6 essential fatty acid (EFA). GLA promotes the secretion of prostacyclin. GLA makes blood corpuscles more flexible, aids in regeneration of capillaries, and helps to nourish nerves. Combining GLA with vitamin C helps to increase its efficiency.
GLA has also been documented to effectively activate brown adipose tissue (brown fat); brown fat has the primary function of initiating a prostaglandin driven pathway to burn white storage fat. This makes it attractive to athletes wishing to lose weight.
Studies show that GLA-prostaglandin production is significantly inhibited by the common consumption of normal everyday items like margarine, man-made oils, peanut butters, salad dressings and fried foods to name a few. This is due to the fact that most available brands of these contain specific trans-fatty acids, which directly shut down GLA-prostaglandin production, and stall the function of Na-K-ATPase: And this obviously directly affects the Sodium/Potassium Pump, which is not good.
The bottom line is that when the Na-K-Pump is not working correctly, our thermogenic response to foods decreases and we in turn realise unwanted weight whether we diet or not.
Scientific research has demonstrated that genetically obese individuals have lower levels of GLA than normal and ineffectual Na-K-Pumps as well (the latter is normally the result of the prior). They are simply destined to burn much less fat as fuel for energy thus producing as much as 50% less heat from their meals than the rest of us.
GLA is also used as a supplement for alcoholism, asthma, high cholesterol, diabetes, eczema, high blood pressure, fibrocystic breast disease, premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and rheumatoid arthritis.
Although most people obtain 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, ageing, 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.
Omega-9 (Oleic Acid)
Essential but technically not an EFA, because the human body can manufacture a limited amount, provided the other essential EFAs are present.
Monounsaturated oleic acid lowers heart attack risk and arteriosclerosis, and aids in cancer prevention.
Good Omega-9 sources include 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.
High heat, light, and oxygen destroy EFAs, so when consuming foods for their EFA content, try to avoid cooked or heated forms. For example, raw nuts are a better source than roasted nuts.
Replace hydrogenated fats (like margarine), cholesterol-based fats (butter/dairy products), and poly-saturated fats (common cooking oils) with healthy EFA-based fats when possible. For example, instead of margarine or butter on your warm (not hot) vegetables, use flaxseed and/or extra virgin olive oils with salt. (This tastes similar to margarine, as margarine is just hydrogenated oil with salt.)
Sprinkling flaxseed meal (ground seed) on vegetables adds a slightly nutty taste. Whole flaxseeds are usually passed through the intestine, absorbing water only and not yielding much oil. Also, it’s best not to use huge amounts of flaxseed in its meal (ground seed) form, as it contains phytoestrogens. The oil is much lower in phytoestrogens. Adding flaxseed and/or virgin olive oil to salads instead of supermarket salad oil is another healthy change. Replace oily snack foods, like potato chips and corn chips, with nuts and seeds. Extra virgin olive oil or grapeseed oil are best to use for cooking oil, as they withstand high heat well.
Fats should make-up maximum 30% of total daily calories with a focused effort made to eat adequate amounts of EFA’s and reduce the intake of trans-fats. It really is not all that difficult to do if you just take a few minutes to plan each day’s dietary needs.