Essential Facts on Essential Fats

Get straight on essential fatty acids, and benefit your heart, brain, mood and more.

| November/December 2006

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.

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