Essential Fatty Acids Why are they the “good” fats?

Well, they are not necessarily good, in fact. There are several types of fatty acids and you need to understand them, at least in outline, otherwise enthusiastic supplementation will make your health worse. Here is a simple tutorial that will clear away the confusion. It does away with the tendency to explain it all in excruciating detail, so that it becomes too much for the layman.

Start by dividing essential fatty acids (EFAs) in your mind into 3 groups:

  • the omega-3 fatty acids
  • the omega-6 fatty acids and “the rest”.

Then it gets easy because we can:

  • drop “the rest” (omega-9s and stuff), you can make special enquiries if you are interested.
  • state that everyone is getting far far too much of the omega-6 fatty acids and you should not supplement them at all, unless you are already on a really tip top diet.
  • Talk about urgent supplementation of omega-3s, which is one of the biggest and most disastrous nutritional shortages in our civilized world.

You see essential fatty acids are just what they are named “essential” (don’t worry about why they are fats or why they are called acids). In a sense these fatty acids are like vitamins; your body cannot make them but needs them for optimal health. Lack of essential fatty acids, we now know, can lead to premature ageing, cancer, arthritis and a host of other ills. Fatty acids are essential for maintaining healthy cell membranes and that means they have impact on all aspects of our health. But probably the most important organ is the brain, which is approximately 40% fats and needs to be maintained properly.

A proper balance of fatty acids means the right proportion of the group called omega-3s to the omega-6s (again I think it sheds no light to explain why they are given these labels, so I’ll skip it). Suffice it to say that omega-6s are very common and are present in excessive quantities in most manufactured foods. They come from a variety of sources but certainly grain seeds, which are used as wheat and corn flour in literally hundreds of thousands of propriety food products. The typical American diet feeds the individual an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of anything up to 50:1. It should be 1:1. Corn oil, which gushes with omega-6 fatty acids, is one of the most widely distributed food ingredients there is and its effect is dire.

Why? you ask, when omega-6 I’ve already said is essential. Because of the matter of balance. If you get too much omega-6 then this squeezes the omega-3s, which then go into a relative deficiency state. The consequences of low levels of omega-3 fatty acids are very bad. They include at least the following: hardening of the arteries, hypertension, increased blood clotting (risk of heart attacks), diabetes, cancer, obesity, arthritis and other degenerative diseases, premenstrual tension, infertility and more. Doesn’t this begin to sound like this is a list of civilized society’s diseases? Well it is! All because we eat junk, loaded with omega-6 fatty acids and very low of necessary omega-3s. Now you see why I tell you, whatever you have read, to dump the omega-6 supplements right away. Omega-6 supplementation will make your health much worse until you have corrected the chronic deficiency of omega-3s!

To avoid unnecessary omega-6s, you are advized to avoid sunflower, corn, soy, safflower, canola, or products that contain these oils. That means no hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats, no margarine, no vegetable oil, no shortening. These oils are chock full of omega-6 fats and will only worsen your omega 6:omega 3 ratio.

It’s blunt but easy to understand. The trouble is there are many ignoramuses out there telling you different and telling you you need omega-6s. Often these are the people who are selling omega-6 products of course, like oil of evening primrose, borage, star flower and the like. If you’ve tried these oils and found your hair and nails became brittle and poor, this imbalance of 6 to 3 is the reason; you made things worse. There are many misguided products on the market which attempt to address the problem comprehensively by combining omega-3s with omega-6s in the same package. This still won’t work, because it does not address the all-important ratio of 6:3. These are OK for people who have been on the health kick for years, have corrected their EFA imbalances and now require to supplement both in the correct ratio (about 2:1 is the maximum, twice as much 6 as 3). But everyone else needs to take omega-3 entirely alone (I’m not saying you don’t need any omega-6s but that you can get enough to be going on with from a good nutritious diet, with healthy fresh food); I’m talking here about supplementing.

You need to aim at an intake ratio of about 1:1 for the first six months. The only way you are going to achieve that is by taking lots of omega-3 only supplements. Where do you get omega-3s? Well, that’s part of the problem, because they are not widespread in nature. The best source was fish oils. You will read lots of good stories about the benefits of fish and seafood, such as the eskimo diet. I am utterly convinced by the scientific soundness of the findings that such a traditional diet is enormously beneficial. The trouble today is that fish is very polluted, with mercury, PCBs and other pesticides. It’s no longer a natural foodstuff. I’m not saying don’t eat fish – eat lots, it’s good for you. But when it starts being processed, which concentrates pollutants, then it can become dangerous. Some health food manufacturers have had to be warned that their EFA product contains illegal levels of DDT, DDE and so forth. If you choose to take fish oil capsules make sure they are guaranteed free of pollutants. Make sure they have balanced EPA and DHA: take one capsule per 10 kilogrammes of body weight a day. That could mean 8- 12 capsules for some people, which may be expensive.

That leaves us with vegetable sources. All plants contain omega-6 and omega-3 fats. But some are noted for high levels of one or the other. The best source of omega-3s in the plant kingdom is the seed of the flax plant (flax seed, also known as linseed). Take pure flax seed cold-pressed extract in the same quantities you would a fish oil. Other sources of omega-3s are: extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil (read more about the health properties of coconut oil), avocados, and organic butter, or better yet grass-fed organic butter.

But, surprise! The best possible source of omega-3 is beef! (information from a study at Iowa State University in August 2001). Not the fatty stuff from your ordinary supermarket meat counter, for sure. But grass-fed free-range beef is found to have a 6:3 ratio of 0.1:1. Or to turn that around, free-range beef has 10 times more omega-3 than it has omega-6, which is ideal for correcting years of chronic deficiency. The cow is, in effect, your supplement manufacturer: it gets the omega-3 from the grass! So get grinding that chuck steak and eat plenty of burgers! Beware though: food suppliers always try to trick you. They advertize “grass fed” beef which is not what I am referring to. Of course ALL beef is grass fed – for part of its life. But the ordinary commercial beef animals are switched to grains for fattening up in the final months (you know, the stuff the government lackey’s keep insisting is what we need to eat for optimum health. Now obesity is the “norm”). Eating this grain-fed beef will worsen your 6:3 ratio.

The only way you can be sure you are getting truly grass-fed free-range meat is to have a guaranteed supply and that means either an organic health food supplier you trust, or phoning the farmer direct and asking the questions (assuming you trust the answers you get).

Another good source of omega-3s, recently cited, is cheese from the milk of alpine fed cows. A study from the Department of Medicine, Kantonsspital Baden, and the Federal Institute of Technology, Zürich, Switzerland studied 40 different cheese, using gas chromatography, and came to the conclusion that omega-3s were four times higher than in other cheeses. Emmental had 40% opf the grass-fed total and, suprisingly, cheese from linseed-supplemented cattle had only 49% of the healthy EFAs of the grass-fed types [High omega-3 fatty acid content in alpine cheese: the basis for an alpine paradox. Hauswirth, C. B., Scheeder, M. R. L., Beer, J. H., Circulation 2004 Jan 6;109(1):103-107]

Vegetarians and even more so vegans, of course, must work extra hard to correct their 6:3 ratio.