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Understanding Fats and Oils

Detoxify, Maintain Circulation, Build Your Defense System, and Balance Your Health

One of the most misunderstood aspects of nutrition involves fats. This page will define some of the terms associated with fats and clear up some of the misconceptions. Don't worry if you don't understand the technical information at first. As you read to the end, the importance of the beneficial fats will be very clear to you. You will learn the best oils to cook with and which ones are very damaging to your health. You will also learn the terminology used in describing oils.

To start out, all fats are made up of three elements: Carbon, Hydrogen, and Oxygen. How these elements are arranged together will define the characteristics of the fat and will determine whether it is saturated, unsaturated, its melting point, etc.

Here is the structural formula of Butyric Acid, one of the fats in butter. It is one of the simplest short chain saturated fats and the most healthy of all the saturated fats.

[Butyric Acid]

All fats basically have the same structure. There is always a methyl (CH3)at one end and a carboxyl (COOH) at the other side. The main difference between fats is how many carbons there are in the string. This next diagram represents Capric Acid, a fat found in goat's milk.

[Capric Acid]

Both of the examples above represent saturated fats.Each carbon atom in the chain is saturated with as many hydrogen atoms as it can possibly hold. These fats are generally sticky and not very flexible. As the length of the carbon chains gets longer, these saturated fats become more and more dangerous to the human body. Unsaturated fats are different. They have some of the hydrogen atoms "missing" and this changes their characteristics. The next diagram is an unsaturated fat called Gamma-Linolenic acid (GLA)

[Gamma-Linolenic acid (GLA)]

This particular example is an omega-6 oil. What this means is the first double bond begins at the carbon located 6 away from the omega end. An omega-3 oil has the first double bond located 3 away from the omega end. In a double bond two pairs of electrons are shared between two adjacent atoms. The double bond is formed between the two carbon atoms. This bond brings the atoms closer together than a single bond and is stronger than a single bond. In chemistry annotation the double bond is signified by the double (parallel) lines. When you think of essential fatty acids, you are thinking about these unsaturated fats with their double bonds. When we say essential, we mean that it is something that must be supplied by the diet and is absolutely essential for good health.

The example just above shows the fat molecule in the cis configuration. This means that the "missing" hydrogen atoms are on the same side of the molecule. Since the hydrogen atoms have a negative charge they will repel each other on the side with the full complement, causing the fat molecule to bend into a "U" shape. When this happens the fat can't aggregate or become sticky, but it is very fluid and life giving to the body. On the other hand, when the hydrogen atoms are "missing" on the opposite sides, they are in what is called the trans configuration, some of the most dangerous fats known. Here is an example of GLA in the trans-configuration:

[Trans Gamma-Linolenic acid (GLA)]

You will notice that each of these two molecule models are identical as far as the number of atoms that make them up. The only difference is that in the trans-configuration the carbon atom has been rotated putting the missing hydrogen atoms on opposing sides. When you take a cis-configured fat molecule and heat it, it will turn into the trans-configuration. This is called a trans-fatty acid.

Along with trans-fatty acids there are other forms of fats that are very dangerous to our health. They are hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils. These oils are heated to a high temperature in the presence of hydrogen gas and made to absorb the hydrogen atoms to fill up the places where they are "missing." What they are in effect doing is to take a healthy, unsaturated fat and turn it into a artery clogging saturated fat in order to take cheap oils and to make them harden at room temperature (as in margarine). The partially-hydrogenated oils are the worst because they contain the greatest amount of trans-fatty acids and toxic substances.

For cooking, the saturated fats are the best as they will not turn into the trans-configuration. Butter is good for this purpose. The next best are the mono-unsaturated oils like olive or canola oil. Mono-unsaturated means there is only one double bond in the molecule. It is unsaturated only one time. When you buy oils for cooking, remember the most healthful oils in their natural state are the most dangerous when heated. You should also buy oils that come in opaque containers. The oils that come in clear containers have been chemically altered by the light they are exposed to, producing free radical acids and rancid oils.

In closing of the chemistry part of this essay, I would like to present the diagrams of the two most important essential fatty acids. They are Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA). These are both long chain omega-3 oils.

[Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)]

EPA

[Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)]

DHA

How Fats are used in the body

Collectively, essential fatty acids (EFAs) are known as vitamin F. They are found in vegetable oils such as almond, hazelnut, walnut, soybean, sunflower, sesame, olive, canola, also in the seeds from borage, flax, mustard, pumpkin, and evening primrose oil. EPA and DHA come only from fish that live in very cold water.

Here are some ways EFAs are used in the body: EFAs make up the very foundation of cellular structures. The cell membranes are made up of substances called phospholipids and EFAs make up an essential portion of these phospholipids. EFAs help retain proteins within the membranes and have a significant effect on the materials entering and exiting the cell.They are also very significant in the process of electron transport which the cell uses for cellular energy and cellular communication.

The flexibility of the cell membrane is critical for the life of the cell. Dietary saturated fats will pack together and become very stiff. They are dangerous to cells, especially artery walls where they will harden them. Conversely, unsaturated cis configured fat molecules tend to kink, making flexible links in our cell walls. This promotes cell wall flexibility, fluidity, and permeability leading to greater health to our cells. Although all of the Omega-3 oils are important to our health, the long-chain Omega-3 oils EPA and DHA are the most important of all primarily because of their chain length and the large number of double bonds they contain. This makes these oils very flexible and fluid. This is of great importance in the brain and nervous system where the flexibility of the cell membranes are protecting irreplaceable cells. Once you lose brain or nerve cells they are gone forever.

EFAs make up 25% (by weight) of the tissues of the brain and eyes. They are required for the normal growth and repair of the skin, blood vessels, and nerve tissue. They are necessary for efficient respiration and they strengthen the white blood cells of the immune system so that they can have unrestricted access to the cells to protect you from bacteria and viruses. EFAs also have lubricating qualities. This helps to lower blood cholesterol as it increases the solubility of cholesterol deposits allowing the body to wash them from the artery walls.This may help to prevent cardiovascular disease and stroke. Omega-3 is known to lower the LDL cholesterol that leads to heart disease.

The importance of maintaining adequate levels of EFAs, especially Omega-3 oils, cannot be overemphasized. But as I've said, not all Omega-3s are created equal. EPA and DHA are so much superior to the other Omega-3s, like flaxseed oil and the others, that I now only recommend EPA and DHA for the Omega-3s. I'm not saying the others are harmful, (if they are good quality and raw), but now that we know about the vastly superior quality of the longer-chain Omega-3s, all the others pale in comparison. Their presence affects every aspect of health and biological function so the quality and purity of these essential oils must be very high to deliver all the benefits we are speaking of. The most abundant energy source in the body comes from EFAs and is involved in every process of the body. Growth, health, stamina, development, reproduction, emotional well being, immunity, and brain function are strongly influenced by EFAs. You need high quality and you need it everyday! Here are more of the benefits:

EFAs help to transport oxygen throughout the body. We could literally suffocate to death despite an abundance of oxygen if it could not reach the cells. EFAs promote the transportation of oxygen from the lungs through the capillaries and blood cell membranes to our individual cells.Also EFAs attract oxygen that protects the cells from viruses, bacteria, and pollution.

EFAs help the body to metabolize fats, due in part to its oxygen attracting properties. They facilitate the transportation of oxygen throughout the body thereby increasing the metabolic process in both speed and function. This results in increased fat burning. Increasing the amounts of "good" fats leads to a natural decline in the body levels of "bad" fats including artery-clogging LDL cholesterol.

One of the most important aspects of EFAs is that they are the precursors to certain beneficial prostaglandins which are hormone-like substances that regulate all cellular processes. Prostaglandins cannot be formed without EFAs. To list a few of their many functions, prostaglandins:

  • regulate cell division
  • direct hormone levels
  • activate helper T-cells
  • enhance nerve function
  • control inflammation
  • and govern every aspect of the cardiovascular system

Due to natural chemical reactions in the brain, EFAs, particularly omega-3 oils, are essential for normal brain development. In animal studies it has been shown  that a diet deficient in Omega-3s causes the resultant offspring to exhibit permanent learning disabilities. Due to the chemical reactions in the brain, EFAs have a positive effect on all brain functions including mood and perception. Some medical researchers are currently studying the effects of EFAs on schizophrenics and juvenile delinquents who fail to respond to counseling. The positive effects of EFAs in the diet are being studied for their effects on some cases of depression, mental acuity in the elderly, fatigue, irritability, menopausal problems, migraine problems, dry skin, hair loss, hyperactivity, diarrhea, inflammation, psoriasis, high blood pressure, blood platelet aggregation, and slow wound healing.

This is just a short discussion of fats. There is much more. For further reading, I recommend Fats and Oils by Udo Erasmus. I do hope that this stimulates you to want to learn more. This subject of fats and oils is one of the most important topics if we want to achieve real health!

 
This document is supplied for information and educational purposes only. It is not intended to recommend or prescribe any treatment for any condition or illness. Contact a doctor or medical professional who is trained in the use of natural nutritional supplements before adding any new protocol or when starting any health or exercise program. 

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