The fact that not all fats are bad isn’t anything new, but it’s certainly marking the mainstream conversation more and more lately. I still remember when my mom used to give me a spoon full of cod oil emulsion every day as she insisted that her mom did the same when she was little. So while the concept isn’t novel, it has changed a lot since then.
So, how did fat become the villain? The fat-free and trans fat explosion of the 80’s (and beyond) were probably behind the damage done to the reputation of essential fatty acids. Eventually, researchers turned to the properties of unsaturated oils and by the early 90’s, the concept of healthy omega-3 and omega-6 (oil nomenclature) infiltrated the discussions. In early 2000’s, the FDA established that trans fats needed to be labeled by 2006. This was a great move health-wise, as it forced food companies to reduce their trans fat use. Now the FDA has set a 2018 deadline for food companies to eliminate trans fat from their products entirely.
Major strides like this bring fat into the headlines, along with the growing acceptance of good fats in our diets. And for good reason – our body needs essential fats or essential fatty acids (to be more precise) to function, grow, and recover. But our body can’t produce them. In other words, if they are not part of your diet, it will gradually lead to detrimental health effects.
Let’s break it down. The essential components of fat are Linoleic acid (LA) a.k.a omega-6 and Alpha linolenic acid (LNA) a.k.a. omega-3. Bad news? These can’t be synthesized in your body so you need to get them from food. They were initially associated with a number of health benefits like: (1) anti-inflammatory properties; (2) lower triglycerides and cholesterol; and (3) decrease thrombosis and platelet aggregation. So, initial research showed benefits mainly in reducing cardiovascular disease, hypertension, asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. However, later research indicated that not all omega-3 fatty acids are created equal and that the longer chain versions are much more important than their precursor ALA. These longer chain versions are mainly two crucial ones: Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and, even more importantly, Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
DHA and EPA have been used to solve numerous conditions like treating heart disease, asthma, cancer, painful menstrual periods, hayfever, lung diseases, systemic lupus erythematosus, and certain kidney diseases, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, psoriasis, Raynaud’s syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, bipolar disorder, certain inflammations of the digestive system (ulcerative colitis) and preventing migraine headaches in teenagers. To name a few…
However, the most impressive observation is that they are critical building blocks of our nervous system, and that includes our brains, eyes and nerve tissues. So, they play a central role in brain health to the extent that there’s a positive association with DHA levels and brain sizes, reduction of small strokes, and better cognitive assessments. DHA is also connected to brain cells’ growth, protection for existing cells, cell connectivity, and anti-inflammatory action. The latter is very relevant as inflammation is associated with neurodegenerative conditions, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Now we know that these essential oils are critical for our long-term wellbeing. So, where do we find them? Look to flaxseeds, walnuts, and in smaller quantities, beans, vegetables and whole grains. You’ll often hear about fish being a good source of EPA and DHA, which is true, but research is coming out that getting omega-3s from plant sources reaps a range of benefits.
No matter how you choose to get your fatty acids, the standard recommendation is to consume 500mg of EPA and DHA per day. That said, some studies recommend as high as 800 to 1000mg (0.8 to 1g) of DHA a day. One quick note about ALA supplements – some studies show an increased risk of bleeding if you’re already taking blood-thinning medication so talk to your doctors before you start any kind of supplementation routine.
The bottom line is that we have to find a way to systematically and consistently add these oils into our diet for our long-term benefit. Ever since I learned about DHA over a decade ago, I have made sure to add DHA supplements into my diet and my family’s. I’ve also felt compelled to suggest it to every pregnant woman that I have ever met since that they need to supplement their diets with DHA. I even gave my expecting sister-in-law a 9-month supply. The best gift the baby could get, in my opinion, because essential fatty acids are critical for the baby’s fetal growth and brain development. The baby needs it and the mom needs to have it readily available. And it does not stop there – mom and baby (and dad, for that matter) will have to find sustainable sources of DHA for the remainder of their lives.
Author: Stefan Bucher, Senior Director of Food Science