Back in medical school, we were taught that fat was bad because it clogged your arteries and accumulated in unwanted and unsightly parts of our bodies.
At the time, it was at the beginning of the ‘no-fat’ craze that’s been so prevalent in the past half-century. No one bothered to distinguish between different types of fat. The message was
just ‘Fat = Bad’.
In fact, fats in the diet were downright vilified – often with very little research to support that view – for as long as two or three decades!
Now, the pendulum has swung in the other direction: carbohydrates have become the bad guys, and fat is back. The mainstream is even starting to accept high fat diets!
And to me, that’s a good thing – because fat is actually a component of many essential areas of our bodies (and I’m not talking about the fat that collects around your middle).
The human brain is nearly 60 per cent fat. I was privileged to be able to actually touch a human brain back in medical school – and you know what? It feels like lard. And recent studies have shown that your fat-filled brain actually needs MORE fat for optimum performance. Furthermore, the membranes of the cells and organs are actually a whopping 80 per cent fat – and those membranes are critical in controlling whether or not messages can reach cellular DNA, which controls your body’s processes on a second-to-second basis. Your DNA is heavily influenced by those environmental messages – whether they’re good (neurotransmitters, oxygen) or bad (toxins).
And if you were to manipulate this natural process by keeping the bad stuff out and getting the good stuff in, it could have remarkable benefits on the health of your brain, heart, skin, and overall immune system.
But what’s critical is making sure you get all the fats that you need – and in just the right amounts.
Not all fats are created equal
Early on in my medical career, I became interested in how foods actually work to improve our health or tear it down. And now, I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned about fat. A particularly health promoting kind of fat is the ‘polyunsaturated fatty acids,’ or PUFAs, for short. There are two essential forms of PUFAs that you may have already
heard about, for better or for worse: omega-6s and omega-3s.
Omega-6 fatty acids come from something in the diet called linoleic acid, which you can find in many cooking oils (safflower, grapeseed, olive oil, etc.) as well as argan oil, almonds, egg yolks, chicken fat, and lard.
In the presence of enough zinc, the linoleic acid undergoes a relatively complicated enzymatic reaction. It changes form a few times… and then eventually becomes a very powerful anti-inflammatory messenger called prostaglandin A1 (PGA1).
It may also undergo further conversion into arachidonic acid (AA) – one of the most common fatty acids found in the human brain.
But many nutritional writers have warned about eating too many oils like safflower, sunflower, walnut, and others, pointing out that they become inflammatory messengers (and their precursors).
Some even tried to make them into the enemy – which, as I’ll explain later, they most certainly are not. Meanwhile, a whole new wave of research identified the health-promoting value of the omega-3 fatty acids.
This type of PUFA comes from another fat called alphalinolenic acid, which is then converted into messengers called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). As you may have noticed, EPA and DHA have become the fatty acid rock stars of nutrition. Predominantly extracted from cold water fish, these two fatty acids play major roles in the balance of inflammation and anti-inflammation in the body, largely by their conversion into biochemical messengers known as eicosanoids.
They have roles in protecting the cardiovascular system… keeping the skin moist and as an effective barrier… and even in the control of autoimmune diseases.
DHA in particular is very active in the development of the brain of infants and even seems to have a role in controlling mood disorders like depression. As the momentum built up around omega-3s, though, people started to forget that the omega-6 fatty acids can actually be good for you.
It was no longer a matter of ‘Fat = Bad.’ The equation transformed into something more like ‘Omega-6 Fatty Acids = Bad, Fish Oil = Good.’
But that, too, turned out to be an oversimplification of the matters of fat.
It’s still not as simple as choosing one over the other
Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally on board with the wonders of adding omega-3 fatty acids to the diet. In fact, I include EPA and DHA as a part of the nutritional programme I provide to most of my patients. But as is often the case in medicine, a little bit of a good thing has been somewhat exaggerated. You see, the body works with the critical balance of BOTH inflammation and anti-inflammation. Driving us too much in one direction (that is, all anti-inflammatories and no pro-inflammatories) can cause a problem as well.
And while it’s certainly progress to realize that omega-6 fatty acids are quite different than the omega-3s, don’t make the mistake of thinking that there are no variations within those two subset categories.
The problem with omega-6 fatty acids, for example, is that most of us aren’t getting the right type of them. Many of the omega-6 oils that we have in our diet today have been adulterated, processed, or otherwise altered in some way by the time they get to you (including having the vitamin E removed so it can be sold separately). And, then when you use them for cooking, the heat alters them even further.
Instead, it’s a good idea to go the purest route possible, back to the source of the fatty acid: the ‘parent,’ as it’s called. In the case of omega-6 fatty acids, the parent oil is linoleic
acid (LA), which is found naturally in plants. When you eat those plants, the oil enters your body unadulterated – and once it’s in there, it can be converted into the proper balance of inflammatory and anti-inflammatory components, making it available to repair the all-important lipid membranes that control our bodily functions.
Likewise, the parent omega-3 oil, alpha linolenic acid (ALA), is available naturally in fish AND plants (including flax oil) – and that’s helpful if you don’t have access to healthy, wild-caught fish (and most of the world’s population doesn’t). Thankfully, nature is usually pretty good at providing what people need, where they need it.
Based on the research, there appears to be a preferred ratio of LA to ALA: four parts LA to one part ALA. Extensive work has been done to prove that this 4:1 ratio of parent essential oils is critical to brain function including cognitive function, mood stabilization, and brain development.9 According to other studies, this ratio also appears to be critically important in chronic diseases… from cardiovascular health to cancer.10
To get the right ratio, you can use a combination of fish oil and flax or linseed oil, and eat more walnuts, sunflower seeds, and other foods rich in LA and ALA.
Supplement formulas with this precise ratio are also available in both oil and oil capsule form.
Wishing you the best of health,
Dr. Glenn S. Rothfeld
Nutrition & Healing
Vol. 10, Issue 11 • November 2016
Full references and citations for this article are available in the downloadable PDF version of the monthly Nutrition and Healing issue in which this article appears.