Part of the difficulty of understanding fats and oils stems from the word itself: fat. In today’s culture, the word “fat” has negative connotations, largely due to the ‘low-fat’ marketing movement. It’s important though to recognize that not all fats are created equal—nor are they inherently evil. Omega 3 and omega 6, for example, are essential to our health. Fat consumption directly affects our cellular health and brain function. The types of fat you eat, and the ratios you consume, are key to optimizing your body’s physical and mental performance. Take the brain, for example, which contains over 100 billion neurons. 60% of that nerve material is comprised of saturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids.
The Low-Down on Fats
Fats and oils come in two varieties: phospholipids which contain a phosphate group and two fatty acid tails; and triglycerides, which boast three. Phospholipids are the tiny building blocks that automatically assemble into protective membranes surrounding every cell and organelle. They are the beginning of all life on the planet, and they are 70% fat. Triglycerides are the fats our body stores—the ones we regard as “bad.” Carbohydrates are converted into triglycerides and stored as body fat if not burned for energy.
The length of the fatty acid tails has a strong bearing on a fat’s nutritional value. Generally, shorter chains are easier for the body to convert into energy; while longer and more complex chains pose greater challenges.
Fats are further distinguished by their molecular structure: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. These labels speak to a fats stability, or the risk they carry of being oxidized. Oxidation leads to inflammation,the culprit behind many chronic diseases.
Here’s a deeper look at each type of fat and the best food sources to find them:
- Saturated Fatty Acids (SFAS): The most stable of the fatty acids, they are plentiful in animal proteins such as butter, beef, eggs, chicken, and fish. Saturated fats like butter, lard, and coconut oil are solid at room temperature. The chemical structure of a saturated fat is a long single chain of carbon atoms hooked together with a single bond. The hooks of single bonds makes these fats saturated.
- Monounsaturated Fatty Acids (MUFAs). These include Omega- 9, the most well-known of which is oleic acid, as found in olive oil. Monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature but will solidify or turn cloudy when put in the refrigerator. They have the same long carbon chain as saturated fats but also have one double bond. The double bond is the point of unsaturation. The classic oils that are rich in monounsaturated fatty acids are olive oil and canola oil.
- Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFAs). The least stable of all, including highly fluid fats like seed and nut oils. Polyunsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and will stay liquid when put in the refrigerator. Instead of one double bond, polyunsaturated fats have two or more double bonds. They also have the same long carbon chain as saturated fats and monounsaturated fats but with the addition of two or more double bonds. These double bonds are what makes them the least stable of all the fatty acids.
However, instability doesn’t mean that PUFAs are bad for you. Two of the most important polyunsaturated fats in our diet are omega-3 and omega-6. In fact, they’re not just important; they’re essential. The important thing is to protect these delicate fats from oxidation. Unlike SFAs and MUFAs, the essential fatty acids (EFAs) cannot be produced by the body. They can only be sourced from the food or supplements we consume.
Omega-3 in the Body
Omega-3 plays an integral role in cells throughout your body, especially on receptors in cell membranes. They trigger the production of hormones that help regulate heart and blood function, which in turn can help prevent heart disease and stroke. Studies also suggest that omega-3 fatty acids can help control chronic inflammatory diseases, like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
There are three common types of omega-3 fatty acids, which occupy two different molecular levels:
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is the first level. It’s found in vegetables and plants, especially in nuts and seeds such as flax, hemp, chia, canola, and walnuts. It’s also prevalent in soybeans.
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are the second and third level omega-3 fatty acids, meaning they can be metabolized from ALA; however, this process is not very efficient—especially as we age (1).
EPA and DHA are both dynamic and powerful nutrients, with a wide range of functions that influence the brain, the sensory organs, synaptic and cardiac activity. Wild-caught, cold water fish and caviar are excellent sources of EPA and DHA—which has led to much mis-information concerning fish oil.
Omega 6 In the Body
Omega-6 fatty acids are the predominant dietary essential fatty acid family, and have a vast number of management functions throughout the body. They help regulate all cell signaling, boast the highest concentration of energy, and make up nearly 15% of red blood cell membranes.
Linoleic acid (LA) is the top-level omega-6, and is found in most nuts and seeds such as safflower, sunflower, and corn. It is vital to the function of the mitochondria by supporting cardiolipin, a phospholipid that plays an important role in energy metabolism (2).
Gamma-linolenic (GLA), Dihomo-gamma linolenic acid (DGLA), and Arachidonic acid (AA), are the secondary downstream Omega- 6 fatty acids. Good sources of AA include egg yolks, animal proteins, and dairy products.
Although health enthusiasts now agree that pasture-raised butter and free-range eggs are healthy, Omega-6 fats — especially Arachidonic Acid—are often misconstrued as “bad” because they are inflammatory. However, as is the case with many nutrients, there is a bit more to it than that.
Digging Into the Science
Since the 1960s, numerous scientists have explored the correlation between the diet and the fatty acid composition of nerve membranes, believing that fatty acids could affect learning and behavior disorders, as well as chronic inflammatory diseases.
Among the first were renowned researchers Drs. Johanna Budwig and Donald Rudin, who ran experiments with flax oil: a fat that is high in omega-3 ALA. Both recorded significant improvements in patients with disorders ranging from Schizophrenia to mucous colitis. However, these gains were only short-term, and were followed by reversals in trends.
Throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s, further studies hinted at the role that ALA may play in learning and brain development (3) . While omega-6 was previously recognized as important for normal health and brain development, omega-3 was being given the same distinction. It became apparent that EFA quantities didn’t matter,but ratios did (4).
The breakthrough came in 1993, when Dr. Shlomo Yehuda, a psychology professor at Bar Ilan University in Israel, conducted a study that subjected rats to diets containing different ratios of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids. His goal was to test a basic hypothesis: is the ratio of LA to ALA the key factor in mediating the beneficial effects of PUFAs in the body,and especially in the brain?
By recording their performance in learning trials, Yehuda discovered that the optimal balance was four parts of omega-6 linoleic acid (LA) and one part of omega-3 a-linolenic acid (ALA): a ratio he referred to as Special (Formula) Ratio 3 (SR-3). SR-3 was a major breakthrough, since prior dietary efforts focused only on omega-6 or omega-3, but not how they might affect one another.
In 2005, Yehuda corroborated his findings with a study on college students suffering from test anxiety. Those who were given supplements calibrated to SR-3 reported:
- Better appetite
- Improved mood
- Better ability to concentrate
- Less fatigue
- Improved ability to organize / prepare
- Reduced cortisol levels
Striking the Right Balance
Put simply, there is a finite amount of space for EFAs in our cells, which means that omega6 and omega-3 fatty acid families wind up competing against each other. Excess omega-3 will suppress omega-6; however, this is not true the other way around.. Achieving the 4:1 ratio is therefore essential to optimizing cellular health.
While it may seem counterintuitive to give the “upper-hand” to inflammatory omega-6s, understanding fatty acid disturbances requires a shift in thinking about inflammation itself. While it can cause a host of problems, inflammation is predominantly a signal that something else is wrong; in other words, vilifying omega-6 is a bit like shooting the messenger.
This is a danger that comes from consuming too many omega-3 fatty acids like fish oils as well, a trend that BodyBio has observed in over 80% of red blood cell fatty acid tests (RBCFAs) that we perform every year. Without inflammation, no healing can begin, for no white cells and platelets would be summoned to the site of a cut.
Clarifying Arachidonic Acid
It’s also important to mention that we have also vilified Arachidonic acid (AA) - claiming that it is inflammatory. How many of you have been told that AA is plentiful in the brain, and is of such importance that it is essential to infant development? AA is abundant in human milk, but as babies are weaned, the amount of dietary AA provided by solid foods is low. AA is an eicosanoid which is a precursor to leukotrienes, prostaglandins, and thromboxanes, which evolve into important mediators for immunity and immune response. So much emphasis has been placed on DHA as a most benevolent molecule in brain development that reports have overlooked its potential to suppress AA benefits.
Clarifying Linoleic Acid
Finally, Linoleic acid (LA) is also vital to the function of the mitochondria as it supports cardiolipin, a phospholipid that plays an important role in energy metabolism.
Linoleic n-6 is required for mitochondrial activity in the form of cardiolipin, an absolute factor in the prevention of CVD, neurological disorders, and the debilitation of several infectious diseases*. Additionally, LA is metabolized to anti-inflammatory eicosanoids as series 1 prostaglandins, as well as to the moderately inflammatory substances that start the healing process. The best forms of Linoleic n-6 are pure and wholesome oils that include safflower, high-LA sunflower, evening primrose, and borage oils.
Correcting Your EFA Intake + Finding the Best Sources
So how should you go about achieving the optimal 4:1 ratio in your diet? Just like the science behind the ratio, the answer isn’t so straightforward. Getting these vital fatty acids into the body is largely a question of purity and integrity: concepts that encompass more than a single idea. That’s due in large part to the commercial food industry, which is replete with compromised products and aggressive marketing tactics.
Generally speaking, it all comes down to processing, which can alter the molecular structure of fatty acids and negate their health benefits. The biggest offender is touted as one of the best sources for Omega-3 fatty acids, fish oil. Most commercial fish oils are processed using elevated temperatures for extraction, which degrades the fatty acids and leads to the formation of aldehydes: cousins of formaldehyde that cause inflammatory responses in cells.
The same transformation occurs whenever you expose monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids to high temperatures, which includes almost all commercial oils you find in the supermarket, including canola oil. The greater a fat’s unsaturation, the greater its toxicity when heated. While there is no doubt that trans-fats are vile, toxic fatty acids are worse.
A third related problem is dilution. The most notorious example is olive oil, 70% of which has been adulterated with other oils such as sunflower, canola, and walnut. Similarly, where sunflower, safflower, and soybean oils were once high in linoleic acid, now they’re high in oleic acid, which has some benefits thanks to it’s polyphenol content. When shopping for olive oil look for the highest quality extra virgin olive oil you can find to ensure you’re getting a product that hasn’t been heat-treated. Extra virgin means it’s been cold-pressed from the first pressing of olives, so these will have the highest polyphenol levels and also the best flavor (5).
The History of Processed Oils
Highly processed and adulterated oils were introduced to our food system in the 1990’s. Prior to the 1990’s, these oils were used in the soap making business. You may be asking, how in the world did a product in soap move to our plates?!
In the 1870s, two soapmakers by the names of William Procter and James Gambledecided to enter into business together. Prior to their business partnership, soap had been made from rendered pork fat, but these two innovators decided to create a new type of soap made from vegetable oils. In fact, they realized that cottonseed oil— originally labeled “toxic waste”— could actually be used to produce soap!
And that wasn’t all. They also realized that the oil could be chemically altered via a process called “hydrogenation” to turn it into a solid cooking fat that resembled the traditional cooking fat, lard. This is when an oil formerly known as a “toxic waste,” became a staple in the American diet, and with it a rise in health problems.
Ultimately, it’s the over-processing of oils that renders them rancid. Consumption of these oils can have a negative impact on health and are the reason that omega-6 fats have been labeled as ‘disease causing agents. But, we’re here to remind you that there are unadulterated, cold pressed, pure omega-6 oils that are extremely health supportive!
So then, you may be wondering, how do we know which fats are good and which are bad? Here’s are a few quick tips to help you remember what to look for and what to avoid:
- Shorter is better- Avoid fats with longer chains, such as mustard oil, canola oil, peanut oil, and peanut butter. These pose considerable challenge to the liver and the brain because of their size, and are difficult to metabolize.
- Fast food is bad food- Most commercial food products contain MUFAs and PUFAs. The only thing worse is deep frying them in more toxic oils, which changes the chemical constitution to something resembling diesel fuel.
- Cook wisely- Coconut oil, animal fats, butter/ghee, and other saturated fats are the safest to cook with, as they maintain their stability at high temperatures. Save the MUFAs and PUFAs for table oils and remember, they should never be heated.
- Don’t rely on fish oil- Focus instead on consuming whole, wild caught fish from cold waters, such as salmon, sardines, and anchovies. You may also consider BodyBio Kirunal. Made by supercritical CO2 extraction that eschews high temperatures and avoids oxidation, maintaining protectin and resolvin integrity
In addition, you can support your health with a number of dietary supplements, manufactured by those who understand the science behind fatty acids. At BodyBio, our Balance Oil contains a pure mixture of organic and non-GMO sunflower and flax oils to deliver the 4:1 ratio. Together with essential vitamins and minerals, such dietary inclusions will help to elevate lower-order EFA saturation levels.
Another way to consume omega-6 fatty acids is by eating raw, organic, seeds. Seeds like raw pumpkin, sunflower, freshly ground flax, hemp, and chia are all great sources of omega-6 and many of them contain a good amount of ALA as well. Nuts like pistachios, pine nuts, and walnuts are also excellent sources of omega-6 fatty acids. Make sure you always consume nuts and seeds in their raw form - never roasted or salted.
The quality of your life depends on the lipids you ingest, as they play a pivotal role in cellular function. Bioactive oils that display EFAs and phospholipids are especially
(Singh 2005, Chang 2009)
(Bazan 1980,1990, Bourre 1989, Clandenin 1991, Cook 1991, Cunnane 1991, Holman 1991, Scott 1989, Simopoulos 1991, Specter 1989, Wainwright 1992, Weigand 1991)