Fatty. Acid. Fatty Acid. Is that supposed to make sense? Fatty Acid sounds like an oxymoron. You think “fatty” and you see a glazed donut; you think “acid” and you picture a corrosive mystery juice bubbling through a bar of steel. These go together? The language of chemistry can be misleading. A Fatty Acid is an organic compound of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen which, when hooked up to a glycerol molecule produces fat. Three fatty acids hooked onto to a glycerol molecule form a triglyceride; the body’s general-purpose fat molecule.
Like most things, the body’s fat is what you make of it, and what you make of it is largely controllable. Hence the Omegas. It’s about balance. Where have you heard that before?
The name is Bond. Double Bond.
As fatty acids go, Omega-3 and Omega-6 are the newsy ones, constantly in the dietary headlines. They are essential fats, meaning the body can’t make them, and neither can it live without them—they have to come in through the diet. Omegas 3 and 6 are also polyunsaturated fat molecules, meaning they have many (“poly”) double bonds; carbon molecules that are connected by a shared electron. If you must know, Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids have differing numbers because the final double bonds on the molecule chain are 3 and 6 carbon atoms, respectively, from the tail end of the chain.
You still there?
When carbon molecules are not double-bonded in this way, the atomic hand-holding is assisted instead by a bunch of hydrogen atoms. In fact, the connection is saturated with hydrogen atoms where no carbon double bonds exist, making that fat molecule a saturated fat molecule—saturated with hydrogen.
These hydrogen-saturated fat molecules are a drag, raising the level of sticky LDL cholesterol in your bloodstream. LDL clings to the inner arterial walls like unsmoothed plaster, and is the grinning best friend of your pending stroke or heart attack. Food manufacturers sometimes leverage this “sticky” quality of hydrogen-soaked molecules by hydrogenating foodstuffs—half-breaking the carbon bonds to make creamy trans-fats. Yes; that hydrogenated, creamy cupcake frosting will not lose its character in the arteries. Think about that.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a sweet deal and a lifesaver, raising your “good” HDL cholesterol, clearing plaque from arteries, fighting inflammation, dementia, asthma, increasing bone density, and even having a mitigating effect on some neurological disorders. We get Omega-3 from cold water fish that are also high in fat –Alaskan salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, anchovies, and trout. It’s also found in things that don’t swim – namely flaxseed oil (the highest concentration of Omega-3 across all food groups!) flaxseed meal, hempseed oil, hempseeds, walnuts, Brazil nuts, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds.
Omega-6 fatty acids are also good for you, and are very important to immune system function. Omega-6’s main move is a calibrated and helpful inflammatory function in the body, super important in immune response, brain function, skin and hair growth, and cell-building. Omega-6 comes from hempseed oil, grapeseed oil, sunflower seeds, nuts, acai, safflower, and corn – to name a few good sources.
But Omega-6 shows up in some sketchy places, too, appearing in refined vegetable oils, the kind used in many snack items. Too much Omega-6 by ratio with Omega-3 can be a bad thing. What used to be a 1:1 ratio has, in the modern Age of Snacking, become a 20:1 ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3. These two dietary fatty acids produce hormones that helpfully counter each other’s effects when in equilibrium, but when Omega-6 intake overwhelms Omega-3, the imbalance can lead to inflammation-based ailments.
Any Seal with a Beach Ball Will Tell You: Balance is Key
Bottom line: balance your Omegas 3 and 6. Dial down Omega-6 intake a bit by avoiding processed and junk foods and polyunsaturated vegetable oils like corn oil, sunflower oil, cottonseed and safflower oil. Eat fatty fish (as described above), walnuts, and flax seeds. Look for Omega-3 fortified eggs, if you are of the egg-eating inclination
Omega-3 and Omega-6 are a tag-team. Be conscious of your Omega-3 and 6 intake, as you are of everything you send down to your hardworking and crazily complex clockworks. Your body’s ingenuity is that it can find something worthwhile in nearly everything you swallow—but maybe you’d rather your chemical energies were spent on more worthwhile pursuits than maximizing a box of donuts. You’re the gatekeeper, after all, and your mouth is the gate. ‘Nuf said?
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