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Fatty. Acid. Fatty Acid. Yeah, like that makes sense. Fatty Acid sounds like an oxymoron. You think “fatty” and you see a glazed donut (yum); you think “acid” and you imagine a corrosive mystery juice bubbling through a bar of steel. These go together?
The language of chemistry can be misleading. Fatty Acids are the building blocks of the fat in our bodies and the fats we eat. As is the case with the essential amino acids, the most important (yes, essential) fats are those which our bodies can't produce. These have to be eaten. It seems nature did not want our bodies to be too smugly self-reliant.
These essential fatty acids we are obliged to eat comprise the omega-6 group (linoleic acid) and the omega-3 group (alpha-linolenic acid). Omega-3 and 6 fatty acids are absorbed by the small intestine and make their rounds via the bloodstream, giving structure to the body's membranes, as well as cognitive function, heart health, skin health, obesity...the list goes on.
Like most things, the body’s fat is what you make of it, and what you make of it is largely controllable. Hence the essential Omegas. It’s about balance. Where have you heard that before?
Omega, Man! Your Must-Have Fatty Acids
As fatty acids go, Omega-3 and Omega-6 do grab all the dietary headlines. Why is this? Their being essential to survival makes them a bit more interesting, it's true. And then there is the bit about us having absolute control over how much or how little of these essential fatty acids we take in. It is important we take in a goodly amount.
Omegas 3 and 6 are polyunsaturated fat molecules, meaning they have many (“poly”) double bonds; carbon atoms that are connected by a shared electron. Why do omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids have these differing numbers? Because the carbon on the molecule chain are 3 and 6 carbon atoms, respectively, from the tail end of the chain.
You still there?
Saturated Fat = Blood Sludge = Hydrogen Heart Attacks
The saturated fat structure, you ask? When carbon molecules are not double-bonded in this way, they're stuck together instead by a bunch of hydrogen atoms. In fact, where no carbon double bonds exist, the molecular connection is saturated with hydrogen atoms, making that fat molecule a saturated fat molecule—saturated with hydrogen.
So, a definition for saturated fat would be any fat containing lots of fatty acid molecules without double bonds. We know that "saturated fats are bad", mostly due to this being drilled into us by the health and diet culture -- though they have never said what makes saturated fats so bad, and we never really asked.
Saturated Fats: a Room Temperature Revelation
Well, these saturated fat molecules are very stable, ironically. Being so compactly fastened together with all those hydrogen bonds makes them very storable in the body as fuel.
Saturated fats demonstrate their stability by solidifying at room temperature, turning from a liquid into a semi-solid grease. At elevated levels in your body, saturated fats dump that sludge into your unsuspecting bloodstream.
If you've ever left a bit of bacon grease in a dish on the kitchen counter and had a look at it later—you simply don't want that stuff swirling through your bloodstream, let alone congealing on the kitchen counter when your judgmental guests arrive.
Your Cupcake's Icing at the Molecular Level: a Saturated Fat Hat
What foods contain saturated fats? Animal fats are saturated fats; beef, pork, poultry, non-skim dairy products, eggs. Certain tropical oils like coconut and palm oil also have saturated fats, strangely enough, but plants and fish are generally bearers of unsaturated fats.
These hydrogen-saturated fat molecules are a real drag, raising the level of sticky LDL cholesterol in your bloodstream. LDL (low-density lipoprotein) clings to the inner arterial walls like unsmoothed plaster, grabbing other fats that drift by and glom on to the growing wall of slime that eventually threatens to close off the artery completely. It's at this point you desperately summon the waiter for the bill with one hand while clutching your chest with the other.
To put it more plainly, a diet that includes unchecked helpings of saturated fat is the best friend of your pending stroke or heart attack.
Interestingly (and alarmingly), the molecular stability of saturated fats makes them attractive to the food industry, which throws them into our foodstuffs with abandon as preservatives. Ever wonder why a peach spoils in about 5 days, but that weird, bright blue icing on your cupcake stays supple and fresh ... forever? Your cupcake's icing has been deliberately hydrogenated at the molecular level.
Yep. Food manufacturers (how weird is that term?) leverage this “sticky/stable” quality of hydrogen-soaked molecules by hydrogenating foodstuffs—half-breaking the carbon bonds and replacing them with hydrogen atoms to make creamy trans-fats. That hydrogenated, creamy cupcake frosting will retain most of its sticky, clinging character in the arteries. Think about that.
Omega-3 and Omega-6 — Where to Find Them?
Omega-3 fatty acids are a sweet deal and a lifesaver, raising your “good” HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, which clears the arterial plaque left there by its evil cousin, LDL cholesterol. Omega-3 has also been shown to fight inflammation, dementia, asthma, increasing bone density, and even having a mitigating effect on some neurological disorders. Where? What? In which?
Omega-3 in abundance:
Grains and Nuts
Cod liver oil
Omega-6 fatty acids are also good for you, and are very important to immune system function. Omega-6 crucially assists brain function, stimulates skin and hair growth, maintains the health and density of your bones, and has a hand in regulating your metabolism. Omega-6 also offers proper healing inflammation with which Omega-3's anti-inflammatory function strikes a balance.
Aggregated results of six randomized trials found that replacing saturated fat with omega-6 fats reduced the risk of heart attacks and other coronary events by 24%. 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.
Healthy Omega-6 sources
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.
Saturated Fat Gatekeeping
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.
Omega-3? 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 eat—but maybe you’d rather your chemical energies were spent on more worthwhile pursuits than optimizing a box of donuts. You’re the gatekeeper, after all, and your mouth is the gate.