Fats – Essential To Life
Saturated fats – animal fats from meat and dairy are generally solid at room temperature (e.g. butter, lard). Saturated fats are unnecessary and potentially harmful - their intake should be restricted. By contrast, Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) are unsaturated fats that are typically oils at room temperature. They are vital to the body yet we cannot make them ourselves – they need to be a regular part of our daily diet. What makes saturated fats ‘bad’ and EFAs ‘good’ relates to their function in the body.
Cell Membranes – EFAs are crucial for the integrity of membranes, fluid balance and functioning of cells.
Hormones – EFAs are needed for the production of hormones and prostaglandins which regulate many important functions in the body including inflammation, nerve transmission, heart function and hormonal cycles. When saturated fats are converted to prostaglandins their effect is pro-inflammatory. Essential fatty acids, found in evening primrose oil, flaxseed oil or borage oil, can be taken daily to promote the healthy functioning of the uterus and help regulate hormone production. These essential fatty acids should be taken with vitamin E, which also helps stabilize hormones.
Brain development – brain tissue contains a very high concentration of fatty acids and is particularly high in DHA from fish. Adequate levels are particularly important for the rapid brain and neural development that occurs in early life.
EFAs are unsaturated fats – they tend to go rancid quickly. As a result they are commonly removed from processed foods to help extend shelf lives. If you are deficient in EFAs, you will probably start to see subtle warning signals such as dry skin, lifeless hair, cracked nails, fatigue, dry eyes and high blood pressure. With time, if the body’s needs are not met, problems become much more serious and can include depression, heart disease and cancer.
Boosting your level of EFAs, by diet or supplementation, can help skin conditions, boost mental clarity, reduce the risk of heart disease and help inflammatory conditions such as arthritis.
So where do we find EFAs?
EFAs can be divided into two groups depending on the length of their fatty acid chain: Omega 3 (derived from alpha-linolenic acid) and Omega 6 (derived from linoleic acid).
Some of the best foods for linoleic acid are: sunflower seeds, sesame seeds and pumpkin seeds (and cold pressed oils from these sources), almonds, pecans and walnuts. Plants such as borage and evening primrose contain a direct source of GLA – a fatty acid one step down from linoleic acid.
Some of the best foods for Omega 3 fatty acids are oily fish in the form of salmon, mackerel, tuna and herring (these are particularly high in both EPA and DHA – Omega3 fatty acids which are very important for brain and heart health). The best vegetarian sources of alpha-linolenic acid are linseed (flax) seeds and oil.
How the body handles EFAs
If healthy, you can make prostaglandins from linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid, but if you have a history of allergies in your family you may be atopic and have a problem with conversion. In this case supplementation of GLA may be appropriate.
A number of essential vitamins and minerals act as co-factors for the fatty acid conversion, a deficiency of these nutrients can inhibit prostaglandin formation. Try to ensure your diet is high in Vitamin B6, magnesium, biotin, calcium and zinc. Avoid trans-fats (as found in hydrogenated fats, margarines etc), coffee and alcohol – all of which inhibit essential fatty acid metabolism.
Balance of Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids is critical to prostaglandin metabolism. Omega 3 fats help drive the Omega 6 pathway, when out of balance inflammatory prostaglandins may be formed.
A diet that includes a regular serving of oily fish and a daily handful of seeds – sunflower, pumpkin and sesame mixed (or oils from these sources) should provide a balanced intake of both Omega 3 and 6 EFAs.