Written By Dr. Allen Williams, Ph.D.
A champion of the grass-fed beef industry as well as cutting edge grazing methodology, Allen helps restore natural soil water retention and reduce runoff, increase land productivity, enhance plant and wildlife biodiversity, and produce healthier food. He also serves as Joyce Farms' CRO (Chief Ranching Officer). Learn more about Allen
Fatty acids are the building blocks for fats in our body and in all our foods. They're also a critical component of a healthy diet.
When we eat fats, our bodies break them down into fatty acids that are then used to perform a number of very important functions in the body. One such function is energy storage. When glucose is not available, the cells in our bodies use stored fatty acids as an energy source. Fatty acids also:
Chemically, fatty acids are chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms (a “hydrocarbon chain”). They can be saturated fatty acids or unsaturated fatty acids. The main difference has to do with the amount of hydrogen atoms present and the types of bonds between carbon atoms.
Saturated fatty acids, are carbon chains that are evenly filled with hydrogen atoms, meaning the carbon chains are “saturated” with hydrogen. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature.
Unsaturated fatty acids have one or more carbon atoms connected by double bonds with several missing hydrogen atoms. Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature.
Unsaturated fatty acids that contain just one double bond between carbon atoms are called monounsaturated fats. Unsaturated fatty acids that contain multiple double bonds between carbon atoms are called polyunsaturated fats.
All fats help your body perform vital functions, but you must consume them in proper ratios.
Some fats are only needed in small quantities, while others are needed in more significant quantities. For example, you want to limit your intake of the highly saturated fats such as Myristic and Palmitic fatty acid. However, another saturated fat, Stearic Acid, is very good for you and actually helps to reduce the “bad” form of cholesterol or LDL cholesterol.
There is a group of polyunsaturated fatty acids that are termed “Essential” fatty acids. Essential fatty acids are not manufactured by our bodies and therefore must be consumed in the foods we eat. They are essential to our good health. A lack of essential fatty acids puts us at risk for a host of disease and immune issues and raises the levels of inflammation in the body.
Several of the crucial essential fatty acids include:
The 3 and the 6 in omega-3 or omega-6 fatty acids refer to the position of the first carbon double bond on the fatty acid chain. Since these are all polyunsaturated fats, they have multiple double bonds. If the first double bond is 3 carbons from the end, then it is an omega-3. If the first double bond is 6 carbons from the end, it is an omega-6 fatty acid.
While these essential fatty acids are in fact essential to our health, it is important to understand that we must consume Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids in the proper ratio to each other. The American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Heart Association (AHA) recommend a ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids close to 1:4, or 1 part omega-3 to 20 parts omega-6. Currently, the average American consumes omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in a ratio of 1:20, or
1 part omega-3 to 20 parts omega-6. This imbalance interferes with the body’s ability to absorb essential fatty acids properly and puts us at risk of increased inflammation.
The problem is, omega-6 fatty acids are abundant in our modern diet. They are present in corn oil, sunflower oil, canola oil, soybean oil, and in almost all of the processed foods we tend to consume. We never have to worry about consuming enough omega-6 fatty acids in a typical Western diet. However, omega-3 fatty acids are far less common in the American diet, and certainly less prevalent in processed foods. Some of the best sources of omega-3 include fish from the cold waters of the ocean such as wild salmon, tuna, and sea trout. Other good sources include flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, and walnuts. However, flax seeds are extremely hard and do not break down well in the gut, so most of what we would eat passed straight through our bodies undigested.
We need to purposefully add foods to our daily diet that include significant amounts of omega-3 and have a proper balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. Beyond the foods previously mentioned, this also includes pasture-raised proteins, such as grass-fed beef, grass-fed dairy and grass-fed lamb. These can be affordably incorporated into our daily meals and are a delicious part of a healthy diet.
In summary, fatty acids are necessary for the body to function properly. Without good fats in our diet we are at extreme risk for numerous diseases and disorders. Low fat diets can put us at risk for significant increases in body inflammation. They can also put us at risk for early onset of dementia. Our brain is an organ that must be bathed in fat at all times. Our brain, as an organ, contains the highest amount of cholesterol of any organ in the body. This is by design. Fats in the brain work much like oil does in an engine. Take away the oil in an engine and the engine seizes up. Take away good fats in the brain and our brain gradually “seizes” up.