Eat the Fat
Fatty acids are essential to our bodies and have a number of important jobs to do. They are critical building blocks of cell membranes for every single cell in our bodies. In fact, our brains are made up of about 60% fat! They’re sources of energy, they slow the absorption of food helping to regulate energy absorption, help with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins - A, D, E and K. They help regulate our body temperature, cushion our organs to help protect them from injury, and enable the proper use of proteins. They’re also important building blocks for hormones, they increase satiety and make food taste better (my favorite).
“In fact, our brains are made up of about 60% fat!”
Two types of polyunsaturated fats are considered essential. The essential fatty acids are Linoleic Acid (LA) - Omega 6 and Alpha-Linoleic Acid (ALA) - Omega 3. There are four other types of fats that are considered conditionally essential. These are Gamma-linolenic Acid (GLA), Arachidonic Acid (AA), Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA).
The essential fatty acids (LA and ALA) can’t be manufactured by the body so we must get them in the food we eat. While both AA, EPA and DHA are not considered essential and can be made by our bodies, these are the fatty acids with the most impactful roles in the body. DHA is critical to maintaining proper brain function and managing mood. It’s also associated with lower risks of cardiovascular disease. EPA is critical to healthy cell membranes, mental health, and our bodies anti-inflammatory systems. While we can make EPA and DHA, the conversion process to make them is extremely inefficient. The most efficient way to get the AA, EPA and DHA our bodies need is through our food. The best source of EPA and DHA is wild-caught fish like sardines, salmon, tuna and mackerel. While you can get EPA and DHA from plant foods like flax and chia seeds and walnuts, it’s difficult for the body to use. Converting the ALA from these plant foods to DHA or EPA is very inefficient. Not only that, it can be even less efficient in some individuals who lack the necessary cofactors for the conversion, like adequate amounts of Vitamin B3 and B6, magnesium and zinc. Additionally, other factors can inhibit this conversion, including intake of trans fatty acids, aspirin, NSAIDS, alcohol and steroids.
We should aim for a 1:1 ratio of Omega-6s to Omega-3s.
One critical role of fatty acids is the formation of prostaglandins, which are required for both pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory processes in our bodies. We need a balance of both the pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory prostaglandins for our bodies to heal. When we have an injury or illness, our bodies inflame to heal before they begin the anti-inflammatory process. We need all three types of fats, Omega-6, Omega-3 and saturated fats to build the three different types of prostaglandins that our body requires for healing - both pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory.
What makes a fat good vs. bad is not the type of fat or the source of the fat, but the manner in which it’s processed. We need a variety of healthy fatty acids in our diets for optimal health -- this includes saturated fats, polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats. Take note, this includes saturated fats!!
So which fats are good and which are bad?
Health issues related to fatty acid deficiency are extremely varied and include musculoskeletal issues, endocrine issues, cardiovascular issues, immune issues, allergies and skin problems, as well as depression and other mental health issues.
Historically, human diets have included a very wide variety of foods in their natural forms. This natural and varied diet resulted in a balanced intake of the various types of fatty acids with a ratio of about 1:1 Omega 6s to Omega 3s. These days with big agriculture and industrial food production, most people tend to eat too many toxic fats like hydrogenated fats and highly processed vegetable oils, that results in a higher ratio of Omega-6s. Now we tend to eat very few Omega 3s. Balancing our ratio of Omega 6s to Omega 3s would go a long way to helping us manage inflammation and positively impacting fatty acid related deficiencies like allergy and immune related problems, neurological and mental health issues and so much more.