Excerpt from WHAT YOU MUST KNOW ABOUT VITAMINS, MINERALS, HERBS & MORE by Pamela Wartian Smith, MD, MPH
Many people regard fat as an adversary to their good health. It is true that excessive intake of certain fats can result in serious medical problems. However, not all fats are the same. In fact, your body requires certain fatty acids —a major component of fats —to maintain health and prevent disease. Fats are also an important source of energy and help your body perform a variety of functions. Recognizing the difference between “good” and “bad” fats is crucial as you strive to achieve optimal health.
There are several different types of fats
Saturated fats are “bad” fats because they can raise cholesterol levels and cause unhealthy weight gain. They are primarily found in foods that come from animals, including fatty meats (such as beef and pork) and dairy products (such as whole milk and butter), and are usually solids at room temperature.
Unsaturated fats primarily come from vegetable foods and tend to be liquids at room temperature. They consist of polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats, both of which are “good” fats.
Polyunsaturated fats, which are found in corn, soybean, and safflower oils, can positively affect your body by lowering your LDL (bad) cholesterol. However, they can also lower your HDL (good) cholesterol (For further discussion on cholesterol, see below).
Monounsaturated fats, on the other hand, lower LDL cholesterol but do not affect HDL cholesterol. Yet, the impact made on LDL cholesterol is usually minor. Monounsaturated fats are found in olive oil and canola oil.
Production of most fatty acids occurs within your body from the breakdown of fat molecules, but there are two important polyunsaturated fatty acids —omega-3 and omega-6 —that cannot be manufactured in your body and must be provided through diet or taken as supplements. Therefore, although certain low-fat diets can be healthier than diets high in fat, a major shift in food consumption to a low-fat diet may deprive your body of these essential nutrients.
These two “good” fats are termed essential fatty acids (EFAs). Starting in the section below, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are described further.
Trans fatty acids are another type of unsaturated fat. In nature, they occur only in small dosages that don’t have negative effects on your body (see below for an example of a naturally occurring trans fatty acid).
However, the food industry has started producing this type of fat to help food stay fresh longer. As you will see later in this chapter, manufactured trans fatty acids are very unhealthy “bad” fats. There are even mandates against their use in Europe —but in the United States, they can be found in baked goods, breads, candies, chocolate, frozen dinners, and processed meats.
Your body requires vitamin A, the B vitamins, vitamin C, biotin, magnesium, niacin, zinc, and other nutrients to convert fatty acids into usable hormones. Protein is necessary as well. Proper intake of these nutrients as well as good fats will contribute to your good health. However, alcohol, stress, and certain medications can cause your body to use these fatty acids incorrectly.
At the same time, intake of fatty acids may change the amount of medication you need. For example, increased fatty acid intake may result in your needing less Prozac or insulin. Your healthcare provider can provide you with the knowledge you need to make this decision. Similarly, consult your doctor about your fatty acid consumption if you are taking a blood thinner.
As you will read, some fatty acids have major effects on your blood’s ability to clot. Instead of the complete elimination of fat from your diet, you need to eat less “bad” fats while adding more “good” fats to your eating and nutrient supplementation programs. This chapter will explain which foods contain which fats, the effects each fat can have on your body, and how much of each you should consume.
SATURATED FATTY ACIDS
Saturated fats are “bad” fats because they have negative effects on your overall health. They are the main dietary source of high cholesterol levels and can cause unhealthy weight gain. Saturated fats are mainly found in animal products such as meat and dairy.
Types of Saturated Fats and their Food Sources
- Arachidic acid occurs in peanuts.
- Butyric acid occurs in butter and certain cheeses.
- Palmitic acid occurs in coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils.
- Stearic acid occurs in beef, butter, cocoa butter, mutton, and pork.
Diseases/Disorders that Can Be Caused by High Intake of Saturated Fats
- Coronary heart disease
- Decreased effectiveness of arteries
- Heart disease
- High cholesterol levels
- Weight gain
Cholesterol is a soft, waxy substance that is found in your bloodstream and carried through your body in lipoprotein particles. It is both made by your body and consumed in animal foods. Although needed by your body, the intake of too much cholesterol can clog your arteries, resulting in your heart receiving less blood and oxygen. This can cause serious cardiovascular problems.
There are two types of cholesterol: high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL). LDL is known as the “bad” (or “lousy”) cholesterol because it can form as plaque along your arteries and increase your risk of heart disease. HDL, on the other hand, is the “good” (or “happy”) cholesterol. Its main job is to collect, breakdown, and excrete the LDL that is already in your body. Therefore, your goal for optimal health should include a low LDL count and a high HDL count.
Your doctor will be able to test your cholesterol levels from a blood sample. Ideally, your total cholesterol (LDL plus HDL) should be under 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) and your HDL should be over 40 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). If it is not, your doctor may need to run further tests.
If your cholesterol is high or has a sudden increase, you may wish to change your dietary habits. Although a portion of your cholesterol levels is due to heredity, limiting your intake of “bad” cholesterol while increasing exercise to elevate “good” cholesterol are important steps you can take to lower your risk for heart disease. There are suggestions of vitamins and other nutrients that can help improve your cholesterol levels throughout this book.
The amount of saturated fat in a food can be found on its label. Avoid or limit foods that are high in saturated fat, such as fatty meats and whole-milk dairy products. Instead, eat meats that are lean and high in protein.
ESSENTIAL FATTY ACIDS
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are polyunsaturated fatty acids that are necessary for good health. They cannot be produced by the body, so they must be consumed in food or supplements. The two most important EFAs are omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids.
OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS
Omega-3 fatty acids can lower your cholesterol and reduce your risk of coronary heart disease (a build-up of plaque that can result in a heart attack). They must be consumed in food or supplements. If you rely on food for your omega-3, be sure to eat fish, lamb, nuts, or other foods that contains this fatty acid twice a week.
Types of Omega-3 Fatty Acids and their Food Sources
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- Stearidonic acid (also known as moroctic acid)
Functions of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
● Crucial for many brain functions ● Decrease arrhythmias (irregular heart rhythm) ● Decrease inflammation ● Diminish build-up of plaque in arteries ● Enhance insulin function ● Help convert nutrients from food into usable forms of energy ● Important component of brain structure and function ● Important for mitochondrial function (which is to produce energy for your cells) ● Improve immune function in infants ● Involved in cell-to-cell communication ● Lower blood pressure ● Lower triglycerides (a type of fat that may be directly related to cholesterol levels) ● Make blood less “sticky” and less likely to clot in dangerous places ● May decrease homocysteine levels (therefore decreasing risk of coronary heart disease) ● May protect against ischemic heart disease (which results in a damaged or inefficient heart and can be fatal) ● Necessary for normal development and function of your adrenal glands, brain, eyes, inner ear, and reproductive tract ● Needed to make certain prostaglandins (hormones which affect inflammation, decrease menstrual cramps, and increase immune function) ● Provide structural support for the membranes (outer walls) of your body’s cells ● Raise HDL (good) cholesterol ● Reduce premenstrual syndrome (PMS) ● Used to manufacture red blood cells
Symptoms of Omega-3 Deficiency
● Age-related memory decline ● Arthritis ● Asthma ● Behavioral changes ● Brittle nails ● Craving fatty foods ● Dandruff ● Depression ● Dry skin ● Excessive urination ● Fatty infiltration of the liver ● Growth retardation ● Hair loss ● Impaired immune response ● Impaired motor coordination ● Increase in allergies ● Increase in arthritis ● Inflammation ● Learning disorders ● Mental deterioration ● Mood swings ● Psychological disturbances ● Thirst ● Tingling feeling in arms or legs
Causes of Omega-3 Deficiency
● Alcoholism ● Carnitine deficiency ● Decreased intake of “good” fatty acids ● Decreased intake of nutrients needed as cofactors ● Excessive consumption of omega-6 fatty acids ● Inability to absorb fatty acids ● Increased intake of sugar ● Increased intake of trans fatty acids ● Stress ● Type I diabetes
It is important that your intake of omega-6 fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids maintain a proper ratio–between 3:1 and 6:1–or you may become deficient in omega-3. This is because the two EFAs compete for use in the body. Unfortunately, the standard American diet is very high in omega-6 and very low in omega-3, so most Americans maintain a ratio of between 10:1 and 25:1.
You should either eat foods (such as fish) that are high in omega-3 twice a week or take daily omega-3 supplements. Have your doctor measure your essential and metabolic fatty acids. This test is available through Genova Diagnostics and other laboratories.
Take vitamin E when ingesting omega-3 fatty acids to prevent oxidation. (Oxidation is a chemical process that results in free radicals in your body. You should also consume vitamin A, the B vitamins, vitamin C, biotin, magnesium, niacin, zinc, and protein to convert all fatty acids into usable hormones.
Omega-3s can become rancid if oxidized before eaten. This can be prevented through refrigeration. If you have trouble “burping them up,” you can put them in the freezer. This does not destroy their effectiveness.
Diseases/Disorders that Can Be Treated with Omega-3
● ADD/ADHD ● Arthritis (rheumatoid and degenerative) ● Asthma ● Atherosclerosis ● Autism ● Autoimmune disorders ● Bipolar disorder ● Cancer of the breast, colon, lung, prostate, and skin (prevention) ● Cardiovascular disease ● Cerebral palsy ● Certain benign tumors (inhibits) ● Chronic fatigue syndrome ● Cognitive decline ● Crohn’s disease ● Depression ● Diabetes (prevention and treatment) ● Down’s syndrome ● Drug abuse ● Eczema ● High blood pressure ● High cholesterol ● High triglyceride levels ● Inflammation ● Irritable bowel syndrome ● Memory decline ● Menopausal symptoms ● Menstrual cramps ● Migraine headaches ● Multiple sclerosis ● Neuropathy (nerve disorder) ● Postpartum depression ● Psoriasis ● Schizophrenia ● Stroke (prevention, recovery) ● Type II diabetes ● Unwanted blood clots
Food Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
● Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) occurs in canola oil, dark green leaves, flax, hemp seed, soy bean, and walnuts. ● Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) occurs in fish (such as albacore tuna, mackerel, salmon, and sardines), lamb, and nuts. ● Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) occurs in fish (such as albacore tuna, mackerel, salmon, and sardines), lamb, and nuts. ● Stearidonic acid (also known as moroctic acid) occurs in black currant seeds.
OMEGA-6 FATTY ACIDS
Omega-6 fatty acids must be consumed in food or supplements. Like omega-3s, omega-6 fatty acids are crucial to good health. They help your body produce prostaglandins, which are important hormones, and they have many other bodily functions. However, most Americans consume significantly more omega-6 fatty acids than they need, which can lead to a number of health problems.
Types of Omega-6 Fatty Acids
- Arachidonic acid (AA)
- Dihomogamma-linolenic acid (DGLA)
- Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA)
- Linoleic acid
Functions of Omega-6 Fatty Acids
● Essential for normal development and function of your adrenal glands, brain, eyes, inner ear, and reproductive tract ● Help convert nutrients from food into usable forms of energy ● Involved in cell-to-cell communication ● Lower LDL (bad) cholesterol ● Make blood “sticky,” which allows it to clot ● Necessary for brain development and function ● Needed to make certain prostaglandins (hormones) ● Nourishment of skin and hair ● Promote inflammation ● Provide structural support for the membranes (outer walls) of the body’s cells ● Reduce premenstrual syndrome (PMS) ● Used to manufacture red blood cells
Symptoms of Omega-6 Deficiency
● Behavioral changes ● Cardiovascular abnormalities ● Dehydration ● Dry eyes ● Dry skin ● Hair loss ● Kidney problems ● Poor vision ● Reproductive problems in both men and women ● Stunted growth
As you have read, omega-6 fatty acids have to be ingested in food or supplements because they cannot be produced in the body. Yet it is important that your intake of omega-6 fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids maintain a proper ratio–between 3:1 and 6:1–or it can lead to chronic inflammation as well as many other health problems.
Unfortunately, the standard American diet is very high in omega-6 and low in omega-3, so that most Americans maintain a ratio of between 10:1 and 25:1. It is, therefore, to your advantage to decrease your intake of omega-6 while increasing your intake of omega-3.
The average Mediterranean diet, on the other hand, contains many less omega-6 fatty acids and many more omega-3 fatty acids.
Food Sources of Omega-6 Fatty Acids
- Arachidonic acid (AA) occurs in meats and other animal products.
- Dihomogamma-linolenic acid (DGLA) occurs in mother’s milk.
- Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) occurs in black current seed, borage oil, and evening primrose oil.
- Linoleic acid occurs in flax oil, hemp, pumpkin, safflower, sesame, soybean, sunflower, and walnut.
TRANS FATTY ACIDS
Unsaturated fats have a tendency to become rancid (chemically altered) rather quickly. To combat this problem, manufacturers began to hydrogenate–stabilize by adding a hydrogen molecule to these fats. This developed a new type of fatty acid, the trans fatty acid, that allows foods and cooking oils to be stored for much longer periods of time.
These fats can also stay solid at room temperatures, which is unusual for unsaturated fats. Unfortunately, these fats are “bad” fats. They increase cholesterol levels as well as your risk of heart disease. Trans fatty acids are so unhealthy that some countries have banned them completely, but they are still found in many manufactured foods in the United States.
You can learn to avoid unhealthy amounts of trans fatty acids by becoming aware of which foods contain them. However, there are some trans fatty acids that occur naturally, although usually in very small quantities. These trans fats are not “bad” fats, and some even have healthful functions. Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), one such example, is described below. The rest of this section will look at the more common trans fats: the ones that are manufactured by companies in order to preserve foods for longer shelf-life.
Food Sources of Trans Fatty Acids
Foods that contain trans fatty acids will read “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” on their labels.
- Baked goods
- Corn chips
- French fries
- Fried foods
- Frozen dinners
- Margarine (particularly in stick form)
- Potato chips
- Processed meats
- Processed oils
Conjugated Linoleic Acid
Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is a naturally occurring trans fatty acid. Unlike manufactured fatty acids, CLA can have positive effects on your overall health. It is currently being marketed as a dietary supplement because it has been shown to aid in weight loss.
When used for this purpose, CLA should be consumed in quantities of 3,000 to 4,000 milligrams a day. CLA is beneficial in many other ways, as well. It is an antioxidant, lowers cholesterol, fortifies the immune system, and improves insulin sensitivity. It is also believed to fight breast and colon cancer.
For these preventative measures, 100 to 500 milligrams of CLA should be consumed daily. CLA is found in low quantities in beef, kangaroo meat, and lamb. However, in order to ingest the suggested dosages, it is best to take CLA supplements.
Diseases/Disorders that Can Be Caused by High Intake of Trans Fatty Acids
- Clogged arteries
- Decreased HDL (good) cholesterol
- Heart disease
- Increased LDL (bad) cholesterol
- Increased triglycerides
- Interference with your body’s ability to make its own DHA (an omega-3 essential fatty acid)
- Leaking cell membranes, which can disrupt cellular metabolism and allow toxins to enter your cells
- “Stickier” blood which can increase blood clots
- Type II diabetes
Recommended Intake of Trans Fatty Acids
If you live in the United States, you are surrounded by foods that contain trans fatty acids. Try to eliminate as many as possible from your diet. If you are healthy, do not have a personal history of heart disease, and do not have very high cholesterol, you can consume more fatty acids than you would be able to otherwise.
However, regardless of your current health status, it is important for your future well-being that you limit your intake of trans fatty acids. Their potential effects on your health are all negative.
About The Author
Pamela W. Smith, M.D., MPH, MS is an internationally known speaker, best-selling author, and educator on subjects of wellness, anti-aging, and functional medicine. Currently, she is the owner and director of the Center for Healthy Living, with locations in Michigan and Florida.
Dr. Smith is the best-selling author of What You Must Know About Vitamins, Minerals, Herbs & More; What You Must Know About Women’s Hormones; What You Must Know About Memory Loss;What You Must Know About Thyroid Disorders; and Why You Can’t Lose Weight.