Following on from our discussion of blood sugar balance last month, the next big part of the picture is our consumption of fatty acids. When addressing ‘The Ugly Truth’ of where our diet has gone wrong, an awareness of the types of fats that we consume is needed, and more importantly the essential fatty acids that these contain.
What are fatty acids?
Essential fatty acids are a group of fats that are biologically active and absolutely vital to our health and the health of every single cell in the body. They are called essential because we have to get them from our diet. Our body cannot manufacture them. There are 2 essential fatty acids – omega 3 and omega 6. You may have heard of omega 9 too, but the body can actually convert omega 6 into omega 9, so it's of much lesser concern. These fatty acids play such a vast and varied role in human physiology. It is really rather mind blowing.
Fatty acid balance
So, we are reliant on omega 3 and omega 6 from our diet. The thing is, our intake of these fatty acids cannot just be willy nilly. We need to get some balance, and I strongly urge anyone reading this to become acutely aware of how to achieve omega balance. Why do we need this balance? If we consume too much of one of them, then we can unleash a whole world of problems upon our physiology. The one that I am talking about is omega 6. This group of essential fatty acid is vital
to the body. Omega 6 fatty acids are used for normal brain function, growth, and development. However, we only need a very VERY small amount of these per day in order to achieve their physiological goals. The good thing is that omega 6 is so ubiquitous in foods, you will only be deficient if you become a breatharian (someone who believes they can survive without food or drink!).
Fatty acid functions
When we consume both omega 3 and omega 6, they go through a series of metabolic pathways. These are streams of chemical reactions that alter them and transform them into end products that play various roles in our physiology. When we consume our required amount of omega 6, it is converted into several important substances that do their jobs nice and quietly. The problem, however, arises when we consume too much omega 6. Once we consume more than we need, omega 6 gets shuttled down a slightly different metabolic pathway and begins to form something called a series 2 prostaglandin. This active compound actually switches on and exacerbates inflammation. Here is the final lightening bolt. Here in the UK we are consuming on average twenty three times more
omega six than we need per day! This means that the average person following a typical UK diet will be putting themselves in a position where they are in a state of chronic (ongoing, long term) sub-clinical (i.e. not immediately obvious, only revealed by blood tests) inflammation within tissues. Why is this a problem? Well, low grade chronic inflammation is linked to many of the chronic diseases that plague us in the west.
Consequences of poor fatty acid balance
Heart disease for example is essentially caused by inflammation. Inflammation of the endothelium (inner skin of blood vessel) is the first thing that occurs. The body then responds to this and attempts to repair it. This is when substances like cholesterol get caught up in it and plaques begin to form in the arteries. Inflammation of the endothelium also makes the vessels less responsive to natural variations in blood flow, contributing to elevated blood pressure. Chronic low grade inflammation is also an important factor in the aetiology of cancer. Ongoing inflammation in a tissue can activate certain genes and affect the natural cycle of cell replication, so being in this state is serious. You won’t be aware of it as it is a slow burner that gives no sign.
How on earth did we get into this mess in the first place? Well, it was the mid 70’s onwards that the message about our diet and what constituted a healthy diet changed drastically. Massive public health campaigns persuaded us that saturated fat was the devil and was the thing in our diet that would ensure an early grave. We were instead encouraged to opt for ‘heart healthy’ vegetable oils and margarines. We were all cooking with sunflower oil and slathering our toast with margarine like it was going out of fashion. Food manufacturers, wanting to appear like the good samaritans, heeded these campaigns too, and started using ‘healthy’ vegetable oil in their foods. There we have it. Suddenly our intake of vegetable oils was way beyond anything that would have ever occurred in our natural diet. Bang… the fatty acid balance took a nosedive.
Firstly, choose the right cooking oils
So what do we do about this? Follow these two steps to make a huge impact on your health:
Reduce your intake of omega 6, and increase your intake of omega 3. Pretty simple! The first port of call here is to be aware of what oils you are using for cooking. I personally only use olive oil and coconut oil. Olive oil contains 63% of its fatty acids as oleic acid aka omega 9 (which has no effect upon the omega 3/omega 6 balance). 13.8% is saturated fat, the remainder being ALA (plant form of omega 3) and a small amount of omega 6. Coconut oil on the other hand, is purely a saturated fat, so contains no polyunsaturated fatty acids whatsoever. Its main fatty acids are the saturated variety such as lauric acid and caprylic acid. That is why I use these two… they have virtually zero bearing upon fatty acid balance.
Secondly, increase your intake of oily fish
What I strive for every day is to consume more omega 3 than omega 6. Omega 3 can almost be considered as the antidote to omega 6. When omega 3 is metabolised, it forms two prostaglandins – series 1 and series 3, both of which are powerful anti-inflammatory compounds. Omega 3 fatty acids also give rise to a newly discovered group of compounds called resolvins, which actively turn down current, active inflammation. The best way to up your omega 3 is via oily fish or a decent supplement. Sadly, the claim that you can get omega 3 from seeds and nuts is not quite so simple. They contain huge amounts of omega 3, but in a form that we cannot process - a form known as ALA. This has to go through a series of enzymatic conversions to be turned into EPA and DHA. Sadly humans are very poor at doing this, with an average of 6% conversion of ALA into EPA, and less than 0.5% of ALA into DHA. Other animals, like oily fish, can do this conversion very easily and store the fatty acids in their tissues, pre formed ready to go, making them the ideal dietary sources of omega 3. Vegans can of course look to supplements but ensure that it contains both EPA and DHA.
So, fatty acid balance is a complex picture, with severe health consequences, but something that can easily be rectified by a couple of simple steps.