While we have been programmed to believe that all fat is bad and must be eliminated from foods, loading up on fat-free bread, cereal, crackers, pasta, and potatoes has only created more problems. Since this country has climbed aboard the fat-free bandwagon, here’s what has happened:
Obesity has increased by more than 23 percent.
Adult-onset diabetes has skyrocketed.
The incidence of certain kinds of heart disease has increased.
Depression has become a widespread national disorder.
Immune system viral infections, such as chronic fatigue, and other illnesses are rampant.
Why Some Fats Are “Essential”
Unlike harmful fats that our bodies seem to hold onto far too readily, the body cannot produce essential fats. Their importance lies in the fact that they are precursors to the hormone-like prostaglandins and regulate every bodily function at the cellular level, including water retention, sodium balance, and fat metabolism.
While a fat-free diet is not necessarily associated with every disease state, the fact is that many diseases have increased while fat intake has declined. Since we’ve become afraid to eat fat, an estimated 80 percent of Americans now consume a diet deficient in EFAs.
A well-functioning immune system is the body’s best defense against any foreign invader—from the common cold to cancer. A diet containing protective nutrients including EFAs can strongly influence the performance of white blood cells, the front-line warriors against infection and cancer.
Benefits of the Specific EFAs
Three of the best-researched omega fats are the omega 3s, omega 6s, and omega 9s. Both the omega-3 and omega-6 families of oils are made up of essential fatty acids. The omega 9s are not considered true EFAs, but they are included here because of their health-supporting properties.
Omega 3s. The body converts the primary omega-3 fatty acid alpha linolenic acid (LNA) into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and then into docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). EPA is the fatty acid responsible for the low level of cardiovascular disease found in the Eskimo population, even though that native diet is high in saturated fats. The EPA in cold-water fish blocks the potentially damaging effects of saturated fats by preventing blood platelets from clumping together and clogging arteries. EPA has also been found to strengthen platelet walls, which offers further protection from heart attack and stroke.
The second derivative of LNA, DHA is the most prevalent fat in the brain and nervous system. It cushions the neurons, ensuring that the body’s electrical signals will reach their destinations easily. As the cushioning erodes over time, the body needs to have enough dietary omega-3 oils (or you need to take DHA supplements) to keep the brain and nervous system protected. As the primary building block of the retina, DHA is also critical for vision and plays a direct role in the healthy functioning of the eye.
EFAs also have a role in psychological health. Depression is just one of the disorders linked to low brain levels of essential fatty acids. In a group of study patients, reports Donald Rudin, MD, “Omega-3 fatty acids produced improved behavior [and] contributed to feelings of well-being.” Many of these patients “also experienced a lessening of their physical problems. Thus, there are many possible benefits from omega oil supplementation, including greater peace of mind.”
Omega 6s. Linoleic acid (LA) is the foremost omega-6 fatty acid. After LA is absorbed, the body converts it into gamma linolenic acid (GLA), arachidonic acid (AA), and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). GLA and AA are important as raw materials for production of some of the prostaglandins, the hormone-like substances that control the functioning of most of the body’s life-sustaining systems. Because the body cannot store prostaglandins, sufficient levels of EFAs must be consumed daily to meet the body’s prostaglandin requirements.
In addition, AA must be present in the brain for healthy functioning, and GLA helps to combat allergy symptoms and inflammatory diseases such as eczema, psoriasis, arthritis, and asthma. GLA also can promote weight loss by increasing the body’s fat-burning ability.
Omega 9s. While not technically EFAs, the monounsaturated fatty acids, omega 9s, are critical for maintaining heart health, reducing breast cancer risk, and boosting the effects of the omega-3 fatty acids in the blood. For those among us who are struggling with extra weight, the monounsaturated omega 9s play an important role in creating a significant satiety response. This helps us guard against between-meal cravings for sugar and the unhealthful trans fats in processed foods.