Fats are confusing. Bad fats, good fats, omega-3s, saturated, unsaturated, trans…it can be difficult to keep them all straight. Not to mention that fat was targeted as THE macronutrient to avoid in the 1980s-1990s thanks to low-fat campaigns by organizations such as the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. A couple decades later, we’ve realized that fat wasn’t necessarily the issue with the standard American diet. Fats play a vital role in how our body functions, so it’s important to know which ones are best for you.
Our series on fats continue. This time we’re talking about PUFAs – polyunsaturated fatty acids!
Table of Contents
A Refresher…Saturated vs. Unsaturated
In a general sense, fats are either considered saturated or unsaturated. A saturated fat means that all of the carbon atoms in the fatty acid chain are joined with a single bond, and the remaining bonds are attached to a hydrogen atom. This chemical structure allows for the fat to be solid at room temperature. Think animal fats, butter, and coconut.
Unsaturated, on the other hand, means that adjoining carbons on the fatty acid are connected by one or more double bonds. A monounsaturated fat signals that there is one double bond in the structure. A polyunsaturated fat means that there are multiple double bonds. Unsaturated fats are normally liquid at room temperature.
It’s worth mentioning here that there is such thing as a trans fat. This type of fat is mainly a result of industrial fat production. Trans fats are found in products such as margarine or other highly refined “foods.” This type of fat is linked to instances of cardiovascular issues like obesity and heart disease and should be avoided at all costs.
What’s a PUFA?
Polyunsaturated fatty acids are categorized into two subgroups: omega-3 and omega-6. Their categorization is determined by where their double bonds fall on the chain in relation to the end molecule.
Both omega-3s and omega-6s are considered essential fatty acids. This means that our body cannot produce these on our own and we have to consume them in our diet.
You’re probably familiar with (or at least you’ve heard of) omega 3’s. There are three different types of omega-3 fatty acids – ALA (alpha-lenolenic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). The body is able to best use the DHA and EPA forms. It can somewhat convert ALA into DHA and EPA, but the body cannot use ALA as readily as the other two. Omega-3 fatty acids come from food sources such as fish (mackerel, herring, sardines, and salmon especially), walnuts, chia seeds, ground flax seeds, and hemp seeds. EPA and DHA are most commonly found in seafood (look for wild caught fish) while ALA come from seeds and nuts. You can also get omega-3’s in the form of supplements including fish oil and cod liver oil.
These fatty acids are known for being extremely anti-inflammatory. This is important for reducing the risk of heart disease, stroke, atherosclerosis, and cancer. They’ve also been linked to proper hormone production, mood regulation, and cell membrane maintenance.
Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Omega-6 fatty acids also play a vital role in how our body functions. They help regulate metabolism, maintain brain function, and promote skin and hair growth. Two forms of omega-6’s are linoleic acid and arachidonic acid. Linoleic acid can be found in nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils such as corn, sunflower seed, and safflower. Arachidonic acid comes from sources of meat.
Most omega-6’s in the standard American diet are known as pro-inflammatory. Yes, they are essential and our body does need them to carry out certain metabolic functions. But, compared to omega-3’s, omega-6 fatty acids often lend themselves to creating inflammation in the body instead of battling it.
A note about grass-fed beef: studies have shown that grass-fed beef is higher in the omega-3 PUFA ALA and lower in arachidonic acid. Just another reason to shell out a little more money for high-quality meat.
A Note about Oxidation
In a polyunsaturated fatty acid, the double bonded carbon links are missing their hydrogen atom. This means that the fatty acid is chemically unstable and incredibly prone to oxidation. When these fatty acids get exposed to heat, light, or even air, they can transform into free radicals. When consumed, free radicals can do damage to the body – negatively impacting cell membranes, DNA, and more. It’s important to store oils and seeds in a way that will limit their exposure to heat and light. Storing these in dark-colored containers and keeping them in the refrigerator will help limit the chance of oxidation.
The Ratio is Key
The ratio of omega-6’s to omega-3’s that a person gets in their diet is CRUCIAL. The ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 intake is 4:1 with more benefits seen at a 2:1 ration. The average American is eating closer to 20:1. It is worth noting that inflammation is a normal process that our body needs to experience occasionally. When inflammation becomes chronic (like when a person is consuming many more omega-6’s compared to omega-3’s) this is when it leads to problems like heart disease and joint pain.
It’s not enough to only consume more omega-3’s in your diet. It’s also important to decrease your intake of omega-6’s. This can be done by cutting out a lot of processed foods from your diet – especially products that contain soy, corn, and sunflower oil. Also, eliminating your consumption of grain-fed meats and aiming for grass-fed can make a big impact.
Adding wild-caught fish, fatty fish oil, algae, and the nuts and seeds mentioned above (and storing these the correct way to avoid oxidation) will boost omega-3 status.
Following a Paleo diet gives you a simple way to cut out the pro-inflammatory omega-6’s and increase your consumption of anti-inflammatory omega-3’s. Add in a healthy dose of nutrient-dense colorful vegetables, fiber-full fruits, and other healthy fats, and you are well on your way to long-term, sustainable health.
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