How to Discuss Essential Fats
Posted by Andrea Nakayama
When it comes to nutrition, we know that one size does not fit all. Your keto diet may wreak havoc on your partner’s body, and their vegan diet may lead to depletions for their sister. It’s just the truth about nutrition… different bodies have different needs for myriad reasons.
But what about food itself?
Are there good foods and bad foods?
This can be confusing. And that’s because foods we tend to think of as “good” (coconut oil, kale, bone broth), may still be difficult on a person’s system. It becomes our job as Functional Nutrition Counselors to ask why.
Why is this food, that is whole and wholesome, not able to perform its goodness for this particular person?
That said, when it comes to fats, there are definitely some substances that I would put on the “naughty” list (hydrogenated and trans fats). Similarly, there are others I would (generally) place on the “nice” list. They’re nice because they are nice to us. Plus we need them for our bodies to function properly. And this is why they’re called essential.
What Your Clients Need to Know
While an understanding of essential fats may be obvious to you and me, don’t overlook that your clients or patients may not understand or appreciate the fatty acid distinctions.
Fats are defined as essential for several important reasons:
- the body cannot make them
- they must be provided from outside the body, through food or supplementation
- they are required for normal cell, tissue, gland and organ function
- they come only from fats (so fat-free diets cannot supply them)
- their absence from the diet can create an upstream imbalance that can lead to downstream signs, symptoms and even contribute to certain diagnoses
- inclusion of essential fatty acids to a diet that lacks them can help to reverse the symptoms of deficiency and support the return to health
The Science Behind “Good” Fats
My own understanding of the chemical structure of fats—back when I was studying organic chemistry—is what turned me from being fearful of science to becoming a science nerd. All of a sudden science had a reason. And that reason was understanding food and the core of nutrition!
A tiny distinction in a chemical structure can make a significant difference in how the substance made up of that structure performs both inside the body and out! What makes coconut oil solid at room temperature and olive oil liquid? It all comes down to chemistry.
The essential fats are, of course, a subcategory of the polyunsaturated fats because their chemical structure contains more than one (poly) double bond on their carbon chain. In the kitchen, they include our oils like flax oil and hemp oil, for example.
Let’s explore one of our essential fats just a bit further:
the omega-3 fatty acids, also called Linolenic Acid, have a first double bond at C3 (that’s carbon 3)
It should be noted that this polyunsaturated fat is highly reactive and can oxidize very rapidly. That means concentrated omega-3s cannot withstand heat. When they are cooked and consumed, they can easily promote the production of free radicals in the body. (This is where the “nice” can easily become “naughty” if not used properly, contributing to inflammation instead of quelling it.) Be sure to remind clients to keep omega-3 oils, and even the seeds from which they come, refrigerated for the maximum benefit.
Omega-3 (linolenic acid) can be found in:
- pumpkin seeds
- macadamia nuts
- marine phytoplanktons/algaes
- fish (particularly fatty fish like salmon and sardines), which is fine to cook!
- and more… be sure to get the 10 Tips for Increasing Essential Fats Handout now!
Deficiencies in omega-3 fatty acids can contribute to:
- motor incoordination
- vision impairment
- learning difficulties and behavioral challenges
- immune dysfunction & inflammation
- high blood pressure
- high triglycerides
- thicker blood (higher tendency for clotting)
- dry skin
- and more
And while the omega-3 fatty acids are ultimately nice for the heart, brain and all the cells in the body, they are always working in relationship with the other fats we eat. This is particularly true of the pairing of omega-3 fatty acid intake and omega-6 fatty acid intake. While omega-6’s are a topic for another day, and another blog post, consider that they can be found in nuts and seeds (which contain both omega-3’s and omega-6’s, creating a mini balancing act of their own), as well as many of the common oils eaten today—like safflower, canola and sunflower oil.
The odd but most important thing to know with these essential fats is that keeping a relative ratio between the two—a Fat to Fat Ratio of the omega-6 to the omega-3—is what reaps the best benefit. And the standard American diet has it all wrong!
Taking Cues from Traditional Cultures
In traditional cultures, keeping this balance between the omega-6’s and the omega-3’s was quite natural. It wasn’t anything that people had to strive for or think about. But omega-3 consumption has decreased immensely in our food supply over the last century or so. Meanwhile, our omega-6 consumption has increased considerably, particularly with the increase in those processed oils.
The ideal ratio of 6:3 for health and longevity is about 1:1 or even 1:2.5. The way the numbers are typically listed is first omega-6 and then omega-3. That means we should be eating equal amounts of the two types of essential fats or omegas for optimal health and balance!
Here are some ratios as they appear in different cultures:
- Inuit: 1:2.5
- Japanese: 3:1 (though this has likely shifted as they veer from their traditional diet)
- European Traditional Diets: 6:1
- Contemporary Standard American Diet: anywhere from 20:1 to 40: 1!
While followers of the standard American diet have to put in some extra work to make sure they’re getting enough good fats and the essential nutrients they contain, we as Functional Nutrition Counselors can help pave the way with this knowledge—crowding out the naughty and bringing in more of the nice. Don’t forget to download your 10 Tips for Increasing Essential Fats handout to share in your practice!
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