Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, we heard that fat is bad — that it causes obesity, increases cardiovascular problems and promotes adult-onset diabetes. But these days, the tide has turned for fats. Now, essential fatty acids — those that play a vital role in the body — are all the rage, and getting enough of them seems to be the hot health topic of the moment.
Like so many health issues, the understanding about the benefits or deficits of fats has shifted over time. It turns out that while some fats are bad for us — notably the saturated and trans fat varieties — certain fats could be the key to reversing some of our nation’s most plaguing problems, such as ADHD, heart disease, arthritis, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and more. But which fats are good, and which fats are bad? And from what sources should you get the good ones? Read on, and get the fast facts on healthy fats.
What EFAs Can Do For You
Get straight on essential fatty acids, and benefit your heart, brain, mood and more.
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are just that: essential. That means your body can’t manufacture them so they must be obtained through food or supplements, and there is at least one biochemical reaction in the body that requires the nutrient. Essential also means that if you don’t get enough, for long enough, you will experience degenerative deterioration that worsens over time and affects every part of the body — every cell, tissue, gland and organ, says Udo Erasmus, doctor of nutrition, author of Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill (Alive Books, 1993) and owner of Udo’s Choice, a manufacturer of EFA supplements. The good news? “Essential also means that if you are going down because you’re not getting enough and you bring enough back into the diet, then all symptoms of deficiency are reversed,” Erasmus says.
One of the main reasons EFAs have such a positive and far-reaching effect in the body is that they control inflammation. One of the primary health benefits “is the ability of the essential fats to act as precursors for tissue-like hormones known as prostaglandins,” says Ann Louise Gittleman, diet expert, best-selling author of The Fast Track Detox Diet (Morgan Road Books, 2006) and former director of nutrition at the Pritikin Longevity Center. “Prostaglandins in and of themselves have many benefits. They control cellular activity on a moment-to-moment, day-by-day basis, and there are two sets of them that are specifically anti-inflammatory,” Gittleman says. “That’s why it’s so important to the prevention of disease, now that we know that inflammation is the root cause of many degenerative diseases.”
The Heart of the Matter
Sources of EFAs
Essential fatty acids come from plenty of sources. Here’s a basic guide to EFA supplements:
- Fish oil: Fish oil contains a good mix of omega-3 and omega-6 fats. However, you also can get enough fish oils in your diet by consuming one to two servings of fatty fish per week. Make sure that both the fish you eat and the fish oil supplements you take are toxin- and mercury-free.
- Flaxseed oil: One of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids, flax contains large amounts of ALA, which the body converts to DHA and EPA. Flaxseed oil also has some added benefits: it doesn’t contribute to the overfishing problem; has no risk of mercury contamination; and plant oils can be certified organic. Also, plant oils are more minimally processed than fish oils, thereby retaining more of the oil’s nutritional value. Add uncooked flaxseed oil to meals in salad dressings, shakes and smoothies, or over cooked or raw vegetables. You also can take supplements.
- Evening primrose oil: Containing large amounts of the omega-6 fatty acid gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), evening primrose oil is beneficial for the immune system and for regulating hormonal function.
- Blended oil supplements: A good way to obtain a healthy mix of essential fatty acids is to supplement with a blended omega supplement. These contain the proper ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids (anywhere from 1:1 to 4:1), and some include omega-9 fatty acids. Make sure that your supplement uses organic vegetable matter and toxin- and mercury-free fish sources.
The Vocabulary of EFAs
Omega-3, omega-6, omega-9, EPA, DHA, ALA, EFAs, PUFAs . . . confused yet? Here’s a breakdown of the vocabulary nutritionists throw around when they’re talking about these essential elements of our diets.
EFAs: Essential fatty acids. These include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center’s online overview, it is important to maintain the proper balance between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Most omega-6 fatty acids tend to promote inflammation, and omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation. An inappropriate balance of these essential fatty acids contributes to the development of disease, whereas a proper balance helps maintain and even improve health. A healthy diet should consist of roughly one to four times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids. The typical American diet tends to contain 11 to 30 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids and many researchers believe this imbalance is a significant factor in the rising rate of inflammatory disorders in the United States.
Omega-3: Omega-3 is the star of the omega family because it is the one that seems to offer the greatest health benefits, though it is most frequently lacking in Western diets. Omega-3 fatty acids are found naturally in whole grains and seeds, such as soybeans, canola, walnut and flaxseed, and in fatty fish, such as salmon, lake trout, tuna, sardines, mackerel and herring.
Omega-6: These fats generally are too prevalent in the American diet. They are found in eggs and poultry, baked goods, most vegetable oils, whole-grain breads and cereals. A high intake of omega-6 fatty acids compared with omega-3 fatty acids can be detrimental to health; however, omega-6 fatty acids are essential and shouldn’t be completely eliminated from the diet.
Omega-9: Not classified as an essential fat because the body can manufacture it, omega-9 is still a beneficial fat. It is found in monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil.
EPA: Eicosapentaenoic acid. This is a specific type of omega-3 fatty acid. Humans can synthesize EPA from alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). EPA is specifically useful for the immune system, and it has anti- inflammatory benefits. EPA is found in fatty fish, as well as in human breast milk.
PUFA: Stands for polyunsaturated fatty acids; the essential fatty acids fall within this category.
DHA: Docosahexaenoic acid. This is a specific type of omega-3 fatty acid. Humans can synthesize DHA from alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). DHA is specifically useful for the brain and eyes, as well as for healthy sperm production. It also reduces triglyceride levels in the blood, which can in turn reduce the risk of heart disease. Insufficient DHA lowers serotonin levels in the brain, which may be why omega-3s improve brain disorders, such as ADHD and Alzheimer’s disease. DHA is found in fatty fish and human breast milk.
ALA: Alpha-linolenic acid. This is a specific type of omega-3 fatty acid that can be consumed as an alternative to DHA and EPA because the body converts ALA into these two substances. Although one must consume more ALA to obtain enough EPA and DHA, ALA is five times more resistant to damage than either EPA or DHA. ALA is highly concentrated in flaxseed oil; it is also in canola, soy, perilla and walnut oils and is found in wild plants, such as purslane.
GLA: Gamma-linolenic acid. An omega-6 fatty acid that occurs in plant oils, such as hemp seed oil, evening primrose oil and borage oil. Although many omega-6s are thought to increase inflammation, GLA is inflammation-reducing. Most Americans consume enough GLA because it can be produced by consuming linoleic acid, prevalent in meats and cooking oils that are common in American diets.
Linoleic acid: Sometimes called LA, this is an omega-6 fatty acid found in vegetable oils, particularly sunflower oil. Generally abundant in the Western diet, LA must be converted to GLA to be fully utilized in the body.
Fats haven’t gotten a bad rap for no reason at all: Both excess saturated fats — found in red meat, chocolate, whole milk, butter, cream and cheese — and the body’s biggest enemy, trans fats — found in margarines, shortening, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, fried foods and many prepackaged foods — wreak havoc on the body, raising bad cholesterol and lowering good cholesterol and increasing the risk of heart disease, obesity and stroke. However, one of the EFAs’ biggest claims to fame is that they actually combat cardiovascular disease and its associated risk factors, including high cholesterol, high blood sugar and high triglycerides, among others. An overview of studies on omega-3s’ effects on heart health released by the American Heart Association in 2002 revealed that randomized controlled trials “demonstrated that omega-3 fatty acid supplements can reduce cardiac events (e.g., death, nonfatal [myocardial infarction], nonfatal stroke) and decrease progression of atherosclerosis in coronary patients.”
And research published in the Berkeley Wellness Letter has shown that omega oils, particularly alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) found in flaxseed, can decrease the risk of thrombosis, or blood clots; regulate blood pressure; decrease total cholesterol and LDL, or “bad” cholesterol; and improve arterial health by strengthening cell membranes. Because of EFAs’ ability to reduce blood clots, they also reduce risk of both heart attack and stroke. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center’s (UMMC) Omega-3 Fatty Acids study overview, eating at least two servings of fish per week has been shown to reduce risk of stroke by up to 50 percent. But do follow recommended doses: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends consuming no more than 3 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per day (the equivalent of three large servings of fish daily), with no more than 2 grams from supplements. Consuming more can increase one’s risk of slower blood clotting and bleeding problems.
But don’t think EFA supplements are risky — there are literally thousands of studies supporting EFAs’ cardioprotective benefits. In fact, there are so many that in 2004 the FDA announced it would allow foods containing the omega-3 fatty acids docohexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) to carry a “qualified health claim” regarding heart health. This means that foods containing these omega-3 fatty acids can be labeled “heart healthy.”
It makes sense that the government wants to encourage us to consume these essential dietary elements. As quoted in “Fast Facts About Omega-3s,” an Udo’s Choice information sheet, “a study commissioned by the Dietary Supplement Education Alliance in 2005 found that taking 1 to 2 grams of omega-3s every day could result, over a five-year span, in 384,303 fewer hospitalizations for coronary heart disease in senior citizens and health-care cost savings of $3.1 billion.”
EFAs on the Brain
The fatty acids DHA and EPA — the same components that received the FDA’s qualified health claim — also are incredibly important to brain function. From facilitating brain development in infants to thwarting mental decline associated with aging, fatty acids play a key role in the brain’s ability to function at high levels at all stages of life.
In a study published in 2004 in Neurology, more than 1,600 subjects ages 45 to 70 participated in a five-year study comparing diet and brain function. The results showed that an increased intake of polyunsaturated fatty acids correlated with a lowered risk of overall loss of cognitive function and speed. In addition, higher dietary cholesterol intake was significantly associated with an increased risk of impaired memory.
EFAs are equally important in the developing brains of fetuses, infants and children. “Because these particular fatty acids are exceedingly important in terms of brain and heart health, it’s believed within the next several decades we will be seeing a major increase in brain disorders that will surpass heart disease as the leading cause of death and debility,” Gittleman says. “Brain problems are coming out of the woodwork in kids and teens . . . just look at the ADD and ADHD epidemic, which is directly associated with a deficiency in these particular fatty acids.”
According to an article published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in January 2000, children “with lower compositions of total [omega-3] fatty acids had significantly more behavioral problems, temper tantrums, and learning, health and sleep problems than did those with high proportions of [omega-3] fatty acids.”
Omega-3 deficiency also strongly correlates with a wide range of mental disorders, including depression, bipolar disorder (manic depression), schizophrenia and anorexia. Preliminary studies of several mental disorders have shown symptom improvement with EFA supplementation, but more studies are needed to make any definitive claims.
EFAs also have been shown to speed learning, increase IQ and are very important for women’s diets during pregnancy, Erasmus says.
Fats Against Aging
Omega-3s’ ability to reduce inflammation means these fats also can reduce lots of age-related illnesses, including rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. Inflammation “is the common factor behind degenerative conditions, including arthritis, osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s,” Erasmus says.
The majority of the existing research on joint inflammation focuses on rheumatoid arthritis. According to the UMMC’s overview, “Several articles reviewing the research in this area conclude that omega-3 fatty acid supplements reduce tenderness in joints, decrease morning stiffness and allow for a reduction in the amount of medication needed for people with rheumatoid arthritis.” Whereas the research has shown omega-3 supplementation’s positive effects on rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, the precise amount to produce consistent results has not been determined. In nearly every study reviewed by UMMC, omega-3 supplementation was added to patients’ standard prescription drug treatment and enhanced the positive effects of treatment in nearly every case. As the Arthritis Foundation of New South Wales put it in its 2000 article Omega-3 & a Healthy Diet, “Increasing dietary intake of omega-3 fats should be undertaken by patients even though further research is needed to estimate what are consistently effective intake levels, because there may be favorable effects for them on their rheumatoid arthritis.”
Despite the uncertainty on the ideal dose for rheumatoid arthritis symptom relief, the Pennington Biomedical Research Center found that clinical benefits were observed with a minimum dose of 3 grams a day of EPA and DHA, but effects were not apparent until after 12 weeks of supplementation.
Omega-3s help other age-related annoyances, too. “As a writer of more than 25 health books, I can tell you from personal experience how a couple of tablespoons a day of flax oil has been great for night sweats and mood disorders in menopausal women,” Gittleman says. Research also suggests that EFAs can help improve bone density and reduce risk of osteoporosis.
EFA supplements’ overall health benefits might extend to reducing the risk of certain types of cancer, but more research is needed to determine whether EFA supplementation, and which types of supplements, can help prevent or treat certain specific types of cancer. Those with advanced forms of any cancer should not use EFAs without medical supervision.
Jessica Kellner is coordinating editor of Herbs for Health.