Allen Williams

What are fatty acids, and why are they important?

by Allen Williams, Ph.D.
Meat and milk consumers are becoming increasingly interested in fatty acids and are asking lots of questions about what they are and why they are important. With that in mind, I’ll offer a relatively straightforward explanation that might help your understanding of fatty acids and better enable you to answer such questions.

Fatty acids are simply the building blocks for the fats in our body and in all our foods. When we eat fats, they are broken down into fatty acids that are then used by the body to perform numerous vital functions. Chemically, a fatty acid is comprised of a long hydrocarbon chain that can have hydrogen atoms attached. It is capped by a carboxyl group (COOH) that makes these molecules acids.

There are several types of fatty acids, including saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Saturated fatty acids such as palmitic, myristic and stearic acids are carbon chains that are evenly filled with hydrogen atoms, meaning the carbon chains are “saturated” with hydrogen. Saturated fats are solids at room temperature.

Unsaturated fats are fatty acids with one or more carbons connected by double bonds and several missing hydrogens. If a fatty acid contains just one double bond, it is called a mono-unsaturated fat. Fatty acids that contain multiple double bonds are called polyunsaturated fats. Both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. Examples of unsaturated fats include oleic and linoleic acid.

Fatty acids are critical to a healthy diet and perform a number of very important functions in the body, including energy storage. When glucose is not available for energy, our body cells use the stored fats as an energy source. This is crucial, as glucose stores can easily be depleted.

In addition, fatty acids:
• assist movement of oxygen through the bloodstream to supply oxygen to all cells of the body
• allow cell membrane development
• are needed for organ and tissue strength and function
• promote healthy skin
• prevent early aging
• protect against cholesterol buildup in our arteries
• process cholesterol
• are necessary in proper functioning of the adrenal and thyroid glands
• help regulate body weight
• facilitate proper clotting of blood
• regulate blood pressure
• control inflammation in the body
• strengthen the immune system

All fats help your body perform vital functions, but they must be consumed in proper ratios. Some fats are needed only in small quantities, while others are required in more significant quantities.

For example, you want to limit your intake of the highly saturated fats such as myristic and palmitic. However, another saturated fat, stearic acid, is very good for you and actually helps to reduce LDL, the “bad” form of cholesterol.

One group of fatty acids termed “essential” are just that, as they are essential in maintaining health. Essential fatty acids are not manufactured by our bodies and therefore must be obtained from what we eat. Any lack of essential fatty acids puts us at risk for a host of disease and immune issues, and raises levels of inflammation in the body.

Crucial essential fatty acids include:
• linoleic acid — an omega-6 fatty acid also known as LA
• arachidonic acid — an omega-6 also known as AA
• gamma linoleic acid — an omega-6 also known as GLA
• dihomogama linoleic acid — an omega-6 also known as DGLA
• alpha linoleic acid — an omega-3 fatty acid also known as LNA
• eicosapentaenoic acid — an omega-3 fatty acid also known as EPA
• docosahexaenoic acid — an omega-3 fatty acid also known as DHA

All of these must be derived from the foods we eat. The “3” and the “6” in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids refer to the position of the first carbon double bond on the fatty acid chain. Since these are all polyunsaturated fats, they have multiple double bonds. If the first double bond is three carbons from the end, then it is an omega-3. If the first double bond is six carbons from the end, it is an omega-6 fatty acid.

It is important that our diets include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in the proper ratio. The average American consumes omega-3 at just one-twentieth the rate of omega-6 fatty acids. This imbalanced ratio interferes with the body’s ability to absorb these essential fatty acids properly, thus increasing risk of inflammation.

It’s about the ratio
Both the American Medical Association and the American Heart Association recommend an omega-3omega-6 ratio close to 1:4. Anything we can do in our daily diets to attain that ratio helps in improving health. We need to add foods that include significant amounts of omega-3 and have a proper balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids.

The barrier to doing this is that omega-6 fatty acids are abundant in modern diets, being present in corn oil, sunflower oil, canola oil, soybean oil and almost all of the processed foods we tend to consume. In other words, we never have to worry about consuming enough omega-6 fatty acids in a typical western diet.

Omega-3 fatty acids are far less common in the American diet, and certainly less prevalent in the processed foods that are so common today. Some of the best sources of omega-3 include fish such as salmon, tuna and sea trout from the cold waters of the ocean. Other good sources include flax seeds, pumpkin seeds and walnuts, although flax seeds are extremely hard and thus do not break down well in the gut, so most of what we consume passes straight through the body undigested.

And of course grassfed meats and dairy products are valuable contributors of omega-3 fatty acids. Grassfed fats from beef, dairy and lamb can be affordably incorporated into our daily meals and are a delicious part of a healthy diet.

Polyunsaturated fats to avoid are margarine and vegetable shortening. One of the primary ingredients in these items is PHVO, or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.

Vegetable oil is normally a liquid at room temperature, and to make it a solid for margarine and vegetable shortening it must be hydrogenated or “saturated” with hydrogen atoms. This is accomplished by heating the oil and adding pressurized hydrogen gas and a nickel catalyst. The fatty acid chains are saturated with hydrogen to break the carbon double bonds while attaching hydrogen. In essence, the process takes a polyunsaturated fatty acid and turns it into a saturated fatty acid. So avoid foods that have PHVO as an ingredient.

In summary, fatty acids are necessary for the body to function properly. Without good fats in our diet, we are at extreme risk for numerous diseases and disorders. Low-fat diets heighten the risk of significant increases in body inflammation.

Also, risk of neurological issues such as early-onset dementia rise significantly without a diet rich in good fats. The brain must be bathed in fat at all times, as it contains the highest amount of cholesterol of any organ in the body.

This is by design. Fats in the brain work like oil does in an engine: take away the oil, and the engine seizes up. Take away good fats in the brain, and our brain gradually “seizes up.”

So be sure to include in good fats in your diet, including those from grassfed sources. And be sure to tell your relatives, friends and customers that the right kinds of fats are good for them.

Dr. Allen Williams is president of Livestock Management Consultants, LLC, based in Starkville, Mississippi.