The news media and even many doctors refer to ‘Essential Fatty Acids’ (EFAs) and lump Fish Oils in with the discussion in a way that confuses the use of the term. Strictly, the term applies to only two unsaturated fats (which are fatty acids because they are fats which are acidic); alpha-linolenic acid (LNA) – an omega-3 fat, and linoleic acid (LA) – an omega 6 fat. The term “essential” arises from the fact that the human body cannot make them from any other parent substance, and we must therefore get them from diet. These two fats are created within plants, including algae, and to get them we need to eat the plants that produce them or animals that eat the plants or algae. But, given these two essential fatty acids, we can assemble all other fats required for building and maintaining function of our bodies. It is important to understand that every cell of the body uses multiple forms of fat to build its cell walls and many internal membranes – so eliminating fats from our diet is a really bad idea.
The property of these unsaturated fats critical to our physical function is that their molecules are bent. Saturated fats are straight which makes them useful as building blocks for membranes like cell walls and many other structural components of our body. The unsaturated fatty acids, on the other hand, are useful for making structures that are flexible or can rapidly change shape, like the pores and pumps that dot our cell walls and are used to get nutrients in and waste products out of cells and organelles within cells. If we don’t have adequate intake of these two essential fats, we die! If the proper balance of these two fats in our diet is off, which various authorities peg at about 2:1 (omega-6:omega-3), then we just function badly. The ratio in the Standard American Diet (SAD) of mostly manufactured pseudo-foods is more like 20:1, which is pro-inflammatory.
You may have come to know that the omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory, while the omega-6 fats can be pro-inflammatory, but what is not well grasped by the general public is that omega-6 EFA is prevented from being pro-inflammatory by the presence of adequate omega-3 EFA; so keeping the ratio optimized is critical to health. What do we mean by inflammatory? We mean that one of these types of fats (omega-6) excites our immune system to turn up the defensive fire in all our tissues, eventually leading to diseases such as heart and vascular damage, cancer, dementia, etc, while the other calms it down and lowers the risk of these “diseases of aging”. So why, in these modern times, are we stuck with a diet low in omega-3 fats?
Food and Shelf Life:
You know oil/fat burns really well, which is actually an oxidation reaction; well omega-3 fats are oxidized far more easily than omega-6 fats – they are far more active chemically and go rancid (become oxidized) in a heartbeat. They have very low shelf-life once released from whatever plant source (usually seeds and nuts) they come in, so for decades our food industry has been removing them from any and all manufactured foods (think any and all breakfast cereals) so they can put them on a store shelf for months. Why? Because they start to smell badly within a few days and no one would buy them. Most vegetable oils on the market today are refined; they are processed under heat and chemicals to remove natural components which give color, odor and taste, and most especially any omega-3 fats which spoil rapidly. The dominant oil remaining is linoleic acid (LA) and some oleic acid (the main component of olive oil), along with some nasty fats called trans-fats that our bodies can’t use at all. Every oil that you see on the store shelves in a clear bottle is bad for your health; leading to higher inflammation (tells your immune system to spend more energy attacking your own body). Corn oil, soybean oil and cottonseed oil are all over 50% LA, with nearly zero LNA. If you cook with these you are oxidizing them before they ever hit your mouth, and they become even more effective at promoting inflammation. Inflammation, increasing with age, is at the root of every disease of aging – inflammation is the enemy! The best way to avoid adding to inflammation, with regard to fats and oils is to use only unrefined oils in your diet; including extra-virgin olive oil, extra-virgin coconut oil, real butter (raw, grass-fed if possible), clarified butter and ghee. Unrefined (especially ‘extra virgin’) olive oil has about 10% each of LA and LNA, protected by a mix of beneficial polyphenolic compounds that prevent oxidation of these fatty acids during cooking, and well deserves its reputation as one of the healthiest oils on the planet. The worst solid fat to consume is hydrogenated vegetable oil shortening. The best animal fat to cook with is good old-fashion lard, from pasture-fed pigs. Other raw, unrefined oils can be found for specific dishes and tastes, but study the uses to make sure that cooking is not damaging the oils
The best way to stay healthy for life is to keep inflammation at a minimum, and that takes a certain intake of the omega-3 EFA alpha-linolenic acid, and you pretty much have to deliberately add it to your diet. The very best source of this badly needed EFA is Flax Oil. My favorite is Barlean’s, but you should only buy if the supplier is keeping it refrigerated. It should taste sweet and nutty. If it has the least bit of a taste like paint thinner, it’s already spoiled. We need to get 1-2 tablespoons of this per day to optimize health. I like using it on salads and in yogurt or cottage cheese; do not cook with it or heat it. We can get this EFA in real foods – free-range eggs and poultry, grass-feed livestock, wild-caught seafood and fresh vegetables, but most commercial animal products and prepackaged meals will not have sufficient levels to promote health. The smart approach is to take it as flax oil or other unrefined oil blends high in LNA.
The Impact of Aging:
Aging slows every reaction in our bodies, including our ability to make other fats from EFAs. So as we age it is smart to supplement the oils that we normally make from EFAs, primarily GLA, EPA and DHA, the healthy oils found in Fish Oil and Krill Oil. I already warned about the bogus recent study that played down the benefits of taking these oils; don’t buy into that; take a quality marine oil product on a daily basis along with flax oil to supply the parent EFAs. This strategy will tame the fires of inflammation and most assuredly help you age more gracefully and with greater fitness for life.
For more instructive reading see this very informative article from Life Extension Foundation
Good Living – Frank