The importance of Fatty acids
Oil and fat are made up of fatty acids. Often people tend to simplfy things by saying satured fats are bad and unsatured fats are good. This it is not this simple as this though.
Fatty acids partly consist of chains of carbon atoms linked together by chemical bonds. These bonds can be either double bonds or single bonds. Basically the bonds consists of electron sharing between the carbon atoms. Sharing of 1 electron from each carbon atom forms a single bond, and sharing of 2 electrons from each carbon atom forms a double bond.
Fatty acids with only single bonds, are grouped as “saturated fatty-acids”, whereas fatty acids with 1 or more double bonds are grouped as “unsaturated fatty-acids” A double bond is more willing to react with atoms or molecyles, and thereby changing the chemical structure. This is what we see when fatty acids react with the surrounding air, and “oxidates”.
One fatty-acid we often hear mentioned is omega-3 fatty-acids.Omega-3 fatty acids also known as N-3, are actually a group of fatty acids, all sharing the trait of a double bond between the 3rd and 4th carbon atom. Likewise Omega-6 fatty acids have a double bond between the 6th and 7th carbon atom.
Omega-3 fats has many important functions in the human body. They are an integral part of cell membranes throughout the body and affect the function of the cell receptors in these membranes. They provide the starting point for making hormones that regulate blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and inflammation. They also bind to receptors in cells that regulate genetic function. Likely due to these effects, omega-3 fats have been shown to help prevent heart disease and stroke, and shows beneficial effects on things like eczema, rheumatoid arthritis, and other inflammatory related conditions. Most likely it also plays protective roles in cancer and other conditions.
The human body can make most of the types of fats it needs from other fats or raw materials. That is not the case for omega-3 fatty acids. These are essential fats—the body cannot make them from scratch but must get them from food.
A huge health problem in todays modern society is that people do not get sufficient amounts of N-3. A typical modern diet is abundant in N-6 and low in N-3. Studies has been done to determine a natural ratio of N3:N6, and are in most cases estimated to be around 1:1-2. This Means that this is the ratio the human body has developed to live on. An average “western” diet have a ratio around 1:10-15.
So, now you are probably asking, where can we get a good source of omega-3 ? To give a simple answer to this, – look towards the sea. The sea contains some of the best sources of N3. Both plant and animal based. The composition of the fatty acids tends to favour a closer ideal of the natural ratio we are ideally looking for between omega-3 and omega-6.
Some plants does contain good amounts of omega-3 as well. Like flaxseeds for example, in which the oil composition can be as high as 55-60% of N-3. One other factor to consider though, when talking about Omega-3, is the different sub types. As mentioned Omega-3 is a Group of fatty acids. Flaxseed oil and most other plant based oil containing N-3 mainly consist of a type of N-3 called ALA. The problem here is that the human body is only able in limited extend to convert this specific fatty-acid into other important types such as DHA and EPA.
Fish generally have a wider range of omega-3’s, and contains all needed subtypes. When choosing a sorce of fish for omega-3, we need to look for a fish than contains a certain amount of oil, a ‘fatty fish’. Fish such as cod and solefish, can be a good source of protein and mikronutrients such as selenium but the amount of oil itself in these fish is rather limited. Size is also an important factor when choosing the right fish. Even though we can look at the sea as a rather natural eco system it has been impacted by industrial man-made products. This can be seen in big fish which are high in the food chain and therefore tend to accumulate large amounts of these products such as; heavy metals and dioxin. These, of course, are poisionious for the human organisim. For this reason, it is better to look for smaller fish such as; mackrel, sardines, anchovies, herring, seabream, etc. Freshness of fish is also extremely important. Unsaturated fatty acids, especially omega-3, are vey fragile and prône to oxydation which will alter the fatty acids and change the useful properties for the body.
In conclusion, a good general rule if you want to get the fatty acids and omega-3 that your body requires you should try to follow this one basic step; to aim for a natural diet. Of course, this is easier said that done as finding a natural diet in modern day society is not necessarily easy, and often it can be a more expensive option as well. Food around us tends to be processed and put together with all different kinds of products as well as chemical acids. Even whole foods tend to be changed a lot from their natural state. Typically you should look for types of foods that have not been changed both in terms of human selection and processing. The diagram here shows a meassurement of the amount of N-3 in lifestock grown up on a natural diet–>grass, and a diet based on industrial produced grains. This could indicate why the amount of N-3 in the diet has decreased along with the industrialisation of our foods.
In the next post we will go more into details on the N3:N6 ratio, why the Omega-3 has decreased, and what other effects the industrialistation of our food products have had on the nutritional value. What you can do to get into a more natural diet.