Essential fats are so called because they are essential for our survival and they cannot be manufactured by your body.
They are consumed from our diet.
These essential fats are part of the poly-unsaturated fats.
Generally, most of our calories intake and energy comes from fat.
Food taste good because of the fat and it also gives us the feeling of fullness.
Our muscles, nerves, membranes and blood vessels, all contain fat.
Fat is essential for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K in the body. Even a healthy skin and hair are maintained by fat.
So fat is important.
There are 3 main types of fats – saturated, monounsaturated and poly-unsaturated.
Hydrogenated fats are man-made and is similar to saturated fats.
Saturated fats are usually solid or almost solid at room temperature. They turn even harder when chilled.
In general, the harder and more stable a fat is, the more saturated it is.
Saturated fats stimulates the production of LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol) and therefore increases blood cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease more than dietary cholesterol itself.
Saturated fats are found mainly in animal products.
They are a rich source of arachadonic acid , excess of which can stimulate inflammation.
Hydrogenated fats are unsaturated fats that has hydrogen molecules added thus making artificial saturated fats.
Trans-fatty acid is formed when vegetable oil hardens through this process.
Unsaturated fat is unstable and hydrogenation provides product stability thus increasing product shelf life.
These can block the processes of the useful unsaturated fats.
Hydrogenated fats are found in margarines and most processed foods.
High heat used in cooking with such oils creates trans fatty acids, changing the chemical structure of healthy polyunsaturated fats into something very unhealthy.
These fats have one hydrogen molecule missing from their structure.
Monounsaturated fats typically remain liquid at extremely low temperatures.
Olive oil has the richest source of mono-unsaturated fat sometimes referred to as omega-9.
Consumption of large amount of olive oil is a healthy option as
- it means less dependency on saturated and hydrogenated fats
- it is a powerful antioxidant compound especially extra-virgin olive oil
Monounsaturated fat lowers total blood cholesterol by lowering LDL cholesterol without lowering HDL cholesterol.
There are many types of poly-unsaturated fats, depending on how many hydrogen molecules are missing, in which order and where.
Polyunsaturated fats are a good source of the essential fatty acids that lower triglycerides and fight inflammation, lower LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol but they also lower HDL cholesterol
From these poly-unsaturated fats are 2 important, essential fats.
They are called essential because they cannot be manufactured by your body but have to be obtained from our diet.
These two essential fats are:
- Omega-3, which are found mainly in oily fish, flax sees, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, soya and hemp seeds, and
- Omega-6, which are found in vegetables. seeds and nuts. Note hydrogenated fats are still referred to as omega-6 fats.
Note that when unsaturated oils are left out in the open air for extended periods of time, eg in deep fryers, they oxidize and turn rancid, which also creates trans fats.
So even though polyunsaturated oils have been touted as the healthy choice, you have to treat them carefully — and most food suppliers and restaurants don’t.
Essential Fats are required for the production of prostagladins, which contributes to either inflammation or anti-inflammation.
To understand the role of the essential fats lets look at 3 compounds first.
Prostaglandins are manufactured in every cell and they have different roles and they are made from essential fatty acids.
They can either have an inflammatory (ie contribute to allergies) or anti-inflammatory effect (ie reduces the problems of allergies).
The prostaglandins produced in excess that lead to inflammation are called PGE2, and that which subdue inflammation and allergic reaction are called PGE1 & PGE3.
PGE1 & PGE3 thus protect the body against the deterioration effects of PGE2 prostagladins such as high blood pressure, sticky platelets, inflammation and lowered immune function.
Arachadonic acid & Leukotrienes
Arachadonic acid (AA) promotes wound healing and blood platelet stickiness and is needed in nerve, brain and eye health.
Only a small quantity is required and excess are converted to leukotrienes which promotes inflammation.
AA is found in saturated fats and they are converted to PGE2 and the synthesis of IgE immune cells involved in atopic allergy.
Omega-3 fats work against the conversion to PGE2 by replacing the AA in cell membranes.
It takes a few months to see the effect of increase intake of omega-3 in your diet.
Role of Essential Fats
Linoleic Acid (LA) and Gamma-linolenic-acid (GLA)
LA, a member of the omega-6 fats, is converted by an enzyme called D6D (delta-6-desaturase) into a fatty acid called GLA.
(NB: GLA can also be obtained from evening prim rose oil, starflower oil etc or from supplements)
GLA is then converted to DGLA (dihomogamma-linolenic acid), which can:
- be converted to PGE1, which inhibits inflammation and enhances white blood cells performance in the immune system or
- be converted to arachadonic acid, which eventually are converted to leukotrienes and PGE2 and thromboxanes. These causes inflammation and block clot formation.
PGE3 & omega-3
The other essential fatty acid is ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) which is a member of the omega-3 fats.
The ALA is then converted to EPA (eicosapentanoic acid) and DHA (Decosahexanoic acid).
The highest concentration of these 2 poly-unsaturated fats are found in oily fish.
From the EPA & DHA, PGE3 are produced. These are critical hormones regulating cellular activity.
PGE3 has anti-clotting properties and reduces inflammation
Omega-3 replaces the AA in the cell membrane.
Numerous studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids help lower cholesterol and blood triglycerides
Fish and Plant oil supplement
In the past, the most common form of supplementation was cod liver oil.
Today, it is more adviceable to take fish oil because the liver oil could be contaminated and the liver is the most toxic organ.
Superior cod liver oil would be the best bet if you prefer cod liver oil.
For vegetarian, flaxseed oil is a good source of omega-3.
Point to note is the balance between omega-3 and omega-6. For optimal health, you need a ratio of omega–6 to omega–3 fatty acids somewhere between 1:1 and 4:1.
The typical modern diet now usually provides a ratio of too much omega-6, as high as 30 times the amount we need.
If you have a deficiency in omega-3 fat, but not omega-6 (which is easily consumed through eating vegetables) it can make the condition worse if supplementing with GLA omega-6 such as evening prime rose.