BY DR. BAYNE FRENCH
Author and Functional Medicine guru Mark Hyman, MD said “Science is a veritable graveyard of closely held beliefs that once seemed obvious and completely in line with common sense. Certain ideas become so entrenched that they seem to be natural laws. That is, until they are proven false.” Oh but if the proven false part were only that easy.
Over and over are falsehoods exposed, in science, public health, medicine and many other domains, yet the status quo remains durable. Max Planck, the German physicist, father of the quantum theory and winner of the 1918 Nobel Peace Prize knew it: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it”. And regular consumption of the wrong essential fats may just expedite that dying part.
Fat is a macronutrient of confusion, bias, fallacy and paradox: Fats are found inside of atherosclerotic plaques in arteries, but that fat doesn’t come from our diet; most Americans are trying to reduce fat deposits in their bodies but are now being told (by people like me) to eat more of it; the fats I will admittedly malign in this article are the ones designated as “Heart- Healthy” by our trusted American Heart Association (AHA). Yep, nutritional planetary spurges like soy oil and corn oil are good for your heart!
Here’s a snip from the AHA Heart-Healthy application PDF:
“Begin to leverage the certification of your product(s)”? My soul is filled with the entrepreneurial spirit, but this is pushing it. I’m reassured though that they won’t certify soda or desserts…
In this article we’ll take a little walk through the woods of essential fats. It’ll be perilous. We may get lost because there is no reliable map, or well-trotted path. It’s a good thing you’re all in elite shape because it will be exhausting. Oh, and there’s predators along the way. Many in fact. But we’re armed. Armed with a desire to learn, and autonomy to curate for ourselves. We’ve also shucked the dead weight of tour guide “experts”. Instead, you’ve got me. Sure, I’m a cognitive colossus, and practically have a PhD in weaponry, but I’m not sure where we’re going either, and to be honest I’m a little scared. Because even as I type this I don’t have an outline. Let’s go! A journey of a thousand miles starts with…ah heck I can’t remember but I’ll be near the front with the fanny pack.
Fat in all its complexity and variability is made up of only a few components. The fat, or adipose, in our bodies and that yummy white matter on a (hopefully grass-fed) steak is composed of chains called fatty acids. They consist of a backbone of carbon atoms linked together with “bonds”, and with hydrogen and oxygen atoms hanging on.
Fats are categorized by how long the carbon backbone is and how the carbon atoms are linked to each other. Single carbon to carbon connections are called “single bonds”. Double carbon to carbon connections are called “double bonds”.
- No double bonds in the chain is a saturated fatty acid. It is “saturated” with hydrogen atoms.
- A single double bond in the chain is a monounsaturated fatty acid.
- Two or more double bonds in the chain is a polyunsaturated fatty acid.
Please reread the above definitions. If you are going to be responsible for your health, you MUST have a basic understanding of, well, the basics.
There are many, many subtypes of each of these types of fats. It’s important to know that most foods that contain fat have a combination of many different fatty acids, of each type. For example, butter. Depending on the type of butter, it contains over 60% saturated fat, nearly 30% monounsaturated fat, and about 5% polyunsaturated fat. There’s also protein and vitamins in butter. Coconut oil, meat fats, and vegetable oils are all blends of fatty acids, nuts and seeds too, and each usually gets categorized by what type of fat predominates.
Let’s build a fire a talk for a spell. Circle up! Young’uns in the middle! So far it sounds pretty simple right? Well, the Agricultural Revolution, animal husbandry (probably not a Woke term huh. Don’t care), and the Industrial Revolution resulted in dramatic changes to our food, and our fat. Altered crop genetics (hybridization and modification), confined and unnatural animal feeding, soil nutrient depletion, chemical use (antibiotics, hormones, herbicides, and pesticides), and refinement of vegetable and seed oils are some examples of food “advancements”. The quantity, integrity, and ratios of fats now differ dramatically from our natural foods.
Below are examples of fats. The top fatty acid is saturated. Note there are no double bonds in the main carbon chain. The second example is a mono-unsaturated fatty acid. See the solitary double bond in green? The third is the ubiquitous poly-unsaturated fatty acid, omega-6. See the last double bond (from right to left) between the 6th and 7th carbons? The last is the omega-3 poly-unsaturated fatty acid.
The “Acid group” on the right in yellow is more accurately a carboxy group. It chemically makes fatty acids a bit acidic. The measure of whether something is an acid or a base is called pH. If pH below 7, it’s an acid. If pH above 7, it’s a base. Fatty acids, depending on chain length and other variations are weak acids with a pH of 4-6. They are insoluble in water though (remember that fat and water don’t mix) so probably contribute very little to the overall pH of the human body.
Below is a real-world example of how these fatty acids are incorporated into the body. In addition to burning them for fuel and numerous other vital funtions, they are incorported into the wall surrounding all cells (cell membrane).
This is the surface of every cell in our body, upwards of 40 trillion of them. The pink “head” is a phosphate-containing molecule. The green/blue “tails” are fatty acids. Notice that there are TWO layers. The types of fatty acids incorporated into these membranes have dramatic consequences for our health.
Saturated fat is comprised of fatty acid chains with only single bonds linking the carbon atoms together. There are short chained, medium chained (MCT), and long chain types. Some with odd numbers of carbon and others with even. There are few things subject to more butchered thinking than saturated fat. We’ve eaten saturated fat forever, as much and as often as we could.
So what’s the problem with saturated fat? In the 1950’s Dr. Ancel Keys performed flawed and biased research concluding that saturated fat caused heart disease. The details of these unfortunate events are well covered in The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz. Decades of nutritional policy inexplicably followed, leaving a mark such that “fat is bad” became etched in our psyches. And propagated yet today.
Saturated fat in the diet can raise cholesterol. For many nutritional-dinosaur “experts”, elevated cholesterol levels are what drives heart disease. The story is so much more complicated however, with designation of “good” and “bad” cholesterol as ridiculous as a nursery rhyme. I am very comfortable with the fact that saturated fat does not cause heart disease. This is supported by numerous studies. (DiNicolantonia. Open Heart. 2014; Siri-Tarino et al. Annu Rev Nutr. 2015; Estruch et al. Annu Rev Nutr 2015; Ascherio et al. BMJ. 1996; Chowdhury et al. Ann Intern Med. 2014).
Some of the benefits of saturated fat include providing structure and function to our cell membranes; acting as a precursor to hormone production; bolstering immune function; supplying several essential vitamins; and offering an excellent source of energy (if you’re in rare air and adept at burning fat).
50% of the cell lipid bilayer above is saturated fat, and over 50% of the fat in breast milk is saturated. A brief study of female chest anatomy should make it pretty clear that we are designed to consume it. Saturated fat being vital in infancy but detrimental in adulthood just doesn’t pass my DIMADS (Does It Make Any Damn Sense) Test.
This type of fat is comprised of fatty acids with only one double bond.
Monounsaturated fats are widely agreed upon to be most favorable for your health, and is the primary driver behind many physicians recommending the Mediterranean diet. Known benefits as outlined from numerous sources include weight loss (especially from the mid-section), improved sensitivity to insulin, reduced diabetes risk, reductions in arthritis pain, less LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol) oxidation and reduced risk of blood clots and strokes.
Common sources include olives and olive oil, avocados and avocado oil, numerous nuts, dairy and animal fats. The American Heart Association lists only one the above, olive oil. Instead, it lists oil sources from canola, peanut, safflower and sesame. Although these oils do possess monounsaturated fatty acids, they also have a relatively high fraction of omega 6 fats (described below), and are obtained with high heat and chemical solvents. I don’t buy them or cook with them. However a thin layer of canola between the toes reduces blistering on long runs.
These are fats with more than one double bond and come in two types: omega 6 (O6) and omega 3 (O3). One fat of each type, described below, is truly unique and termed “essential”. We cannot produce them in our bodies. They must be consumed. Other O6 and O3 fats can be made in the body from these two essential types.
The difference between O3 and O6 structurally is the distance the last double bond is from the end. Omega is the last letter in the Greek alphabet. “Omega-3” means the last double bond is between the third and fourth carbon atom from the end of the chain. This is illustrated in the above picture. “Omega-6” means the last double bond in between the sixth and seventh carbon atom from the end of the chain. In the body there are numerous biochemical (functional) differences between O3 and O6 fats.
They, like other fats, play critical roles in the membrane structure, cellular signaling, immune function, hormonal function and inflammatory pathways.
Sources of polyunsaturated fats include vegetable oils (3 S’s and 3 C’s: Safflower, Sun, Soy, Corn, Canola, Cottonseed), nuts, seeds, algae and animals.
Like with other fat types there are numerous polyunsaturated fats. The O6 linoleic acid (LA) and the O3 alpha linolenic acid (ALA) are the truly essential ones, meaning they must be eaten. Other types of polyunsaturated fats can be created from these two in the body, but can also be eaten. These include DHA, EPA, AA, and GLA. There are a few things of great importance for health that are becoming apparent about these fats. One is by what means are they commercially extracted from foods, and the other is the ratio of O6 to O3 in our diet. We will discuss these issues more later.
LA is the essential form of O6. It is the most widely consumed fat of any kind in America. Vegetable oils are loaded with it, and soybean oil is king. It has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol, and as many physicians still view this as “bad” cholesterol, they love LA. The American Heart Association finds it Heart-Healthy. It is however easily damaged, especially when heated; creating OXLAMS, (oxidized linoleic acid metabolites) which are oxidized, harmful forms of this fat, and will expedite your path down the dying continuum.
ALA is the essential form of O3. It is the primary plant source of O3, including vegetable oils, hemp, flax and chia. It is also found in animal product. As mentioned above vegetable oils contain a lot of LA, which directly interferes with the conversion of ALA to the very beneficial EPA and DHA. Reworded…we need to convert the O3 ALA into useful fats called EPA and DHA. High amounts of O6 fats interfere with this vital conversion.
Following ALA consumption, most is burnt for fuel. 8-20% is converted to EPA and 0.5-9% is converted to DHA. Note the variability in conversion. Like with all things metabolism, humans possess large differences in efficiency of biochemical processes. The researcher Dr. Weylandt (discussed more later) states “…as this conversion is not efficient enough to satisfy health requirements, EPA and DHA are also considered essential”. (Weylandt et al. Biomed Res Int. 2015)
Arachidonic acid (AA) is an omega 6 fat made from LA. It is also found in animals, and interestingly is higher in animals not consuming their native foods, like farmed fish and grain-fed livestock. If the ratio of O6 to O3 is elevated, more AA is produced leading to several compounds that promote inflammation.
EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexanenoic acid) are “semi-essential” in that they are produced from ALA. They are of such critical importance, and their conversion from ALA easily interrupted, that many authorities like Dr. Weylandt view their consumption to be actually essential to optimal health. They may be consumed from wild animals, or raised animals allowed to consume their native foods. The only “plant” source of DHA is algae (which isn’t really a plant, or an animal. They’re Protists). DHA is considered by many to be one of the most important nutrients of any kind to consume. It makes up 25% of the brains weight, 90% of our brains O3 fats and half of the membrane of each nerve cell (neuron). The richest source of DHA in all of nature? Breast milk.
DHA supplementation, among many purported functions, has been shown in a double-blinded manner to significantly improve memory, and reduce errors. (Yurko-Mauro, et al. Alzheimer’s and Dementia 2010). Both of which I could use.
GLA (gamma linolenic acid) is a beneficial type of O6 found in Evening Primrose oil and Borage oil. It is metabolized differently than other O6 fats. Stokel in Life Extension, Jan 2011 details the health benefits of this type of fat.
Trans fats are commercially created fats, through the process of hydrogenation. This causes the fatty acid to flip 180 degrees at its double bond. Forcing hydrogen onto vegetable oil makes these liquid fats solid, aiding in spreadability, transportation and storage. This process was largely driven in the late 1800’s by the abundance of soy oil, and the shortage of butter. Since they are unsaturated, they were advocated as being healthy. Many, many studies have linked the consumption of trans fats to heart disease, diabetes, obesity, dementia, cancer and sudden death. Margarine anyone? More on this later.
In 2006 the FDA required that trans fats be declared on food labels. In 2013 the FDA declared them “not safe to eat”. “Trans fat free” labeled foods may still contain up to 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. They are present in processed foods, and anywhere unstable polyunsaturated vegetable oils are heated. Which is basically every place where most of America eats.
CLA (Conjugated linoleic acid) is a very interesting naturally occurring trans fat found in grass-fed beef and their dairy products and other animals that eat their native foods. CLA is a potent antioxidant and confers protection again cancer, heart disease, diabetes and offers benefit on metabolism and weight loss (Ochoa, et al. Carcinogenesis. 2004; Nakamura, et al. Nutrition & Metabolism. 2008; Castro-Webb, et al. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012).
Please stay with me on this educational journey as I will be presenting parts 2 and 3 of Essential Omega Fats in the weeks to come.