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"Killer" fats are what we hear so much about recently, with large numbers of people wrongly turning to low fat diets. Little do they know, they are also decreasing their intake of the healing fats that are required for life. Improper low fat diets, useful for atherosclerosis, can kill you over the long term. Children are especially vulnerable to damage from low fat diets. To balance the one sided view on fats, we must talk about essential fatty acids (EFAs): an adequate supply of healing fats is even more important to health than the avoidance of supposed killer fats.
Like vitamins, EFAs are essential to health. Older literature refers to them collectively as vitamin F. Vitamins and EFAs are essential for the following reasons:
While EFAs are like vitamins in their essentiality, they differ in other respects. Vitamins are required in very small amounts (a few mg per day) whereas EFAs are macronutrients, necessary in grams per day. EFAs are perishable, deteriorating rapidly when exposed to light, air, heat and metals. Unlike vitamins, EFAs cannot be dried, powdered and stored for several years. EFA sensitivity makes careful processing and freshness extremely important.
Omega6 And Omega3 EFAs
Many standard texts on nutrition suggest three EFAs: linoleic, linolenic, and arachidonic acids. This outdated information is wrong. Two fatty acids are essential to human health. (Fish require only one fatty acid and plants require neither as they make their own.) The first is the omega6 EFA, which is called linoleic acid (LA). LA is abundant in polyunsaturated safflower, sunflower and corn oils. The second, known as the omega3 EFA, is called alpha linolenic acid (LNA) and is sometimes referred to as super unsaturated; it is found abundantly in flax and hemp seeds.
LA and its derivatives belong to the omega6 family of polyunsaturates. In addition to linoleic acid (LA), this family includes the down line metabolites gamma linoleic acid (GLA), dihomogamma linolenic acid (DGLA), and arachidonic acid (AA).
If LA is provided by foods, our cells make GLA, DGLA, and AA. Omega6 conversion can be inhibited by bad fats (margarines, shortenings, trans fatty acids, hard fats, sugar and cholesterol), lack of minerals (magnesium, selenium, zinc), vitamin deficiencies (B3, B6, C, E), viruses, obesity, diabetes, aging, and rare genetic mutations. In such situations, oil containing omega6 derivatives can help. GLA is present in evening primrose, borage, and black currant seed. DGLA is found in mother�s milk and AA in meats, eggs and dairy products.
LNA and its derivatives belong to an omega3 family of superunsaturates. Besides LNA, this family includes the down line metabolites eicosapentanoic acid (EPA), and docosahexanoic acid (DHA). If LNA is provided by foods, our cells make DHA and EPA. When the conversion of EFAs to their derivatives is inhibited by the factors listed above, DHA from black currant seed oil, or EPA and DHA from fish oils and northern ocean algae can be given.
A study on elderly Japanese patients demonstrated that blood levels of the omega3 fatty acids EPA and DHA increase after prolonged consumption of ALA from a plant based oil. The change is slow and requires about 10 months of supplementation. However, the result of the study suggests that supplementation with ALA from flax oil may to some degree have the same beneficial role as supplementation with fish oil. This news may be particularly interesting to people following a vegetarian diet or for those who do not eat fish products. [Journal of Nutrition Science Viturminol, December 1999]
Properties Of EFAs
The value of LA and LNA to health results from their chemical properties. EFAs react with oxygen: EFA rich oils such as flax, hemp and safflower were traditionally used in paints because they oxidize, dry and harden quickly when exposed to air. When fresh, these oils are valuable human foods. EFAs absorb sunlight, increasing their ability to react with oxygen by about 1000 fold and making them very active chemically.
EFA molecules carry slight negative charges that cause them to repel one another. They spread out in all directions. This property enables EFAs to carry oil soluble toxins from deep within the body to the skin surface for eliminations. EFAs form associations with the sulfhydryl group (cysteine) in proteins, important in reactions that make possible the one way movement of electrons and energy on which life depends. EFAs store electric charges that produce bioelectric currents important for muscle, cell membrane and nerve functions, including the transmission of messages.
As structural components of membranes, EFAs help form a barrier that keeps foreign molecules, viruses, yeasts, fungi and bacteria outside of cells, and keeps the cells' proteins, enzymes, genetic material and organelles (small organs) inside. They also help regulate the traffic of substances in and out of our cells via protein channels, pumps and other mechanisms.
They perform similar functions in membranes that surround organelles within our cells. EFAs fulfill many functions:
Of approximately fifty known essential nutrients, LA has the highest daily requirement. The amount needed varies with season, latitude, levels of activity and stress, nutritional state, and individual differences. Just 1 to 2% of calories (1 tsp per day) prevent signs of deficiency in most healthy adults. LA optimums are around 3 to 6 percent of calories (1 tbsp per day), requiring about 30 IU of vitamin E to help prevent rancidity. Obese people and those eating hard fats, sugar, and trans fatty acids require more. Nutrients essential for LA functions include magnesium, selenium, zinc, and vitamins A, carotene, B3, B6, C and E.
An adult carries about 10 kilograms of body fat, of which approximately 1 kilogram is LA. Vegetarians� bodies carry up to 25% of their body fat as LA. People with degenerative disease average only about 8% of their body fat as LA.
Alpha linolenic acid (LNA) optimums range between 1 to 2 tsp per day, averaging 2% of daily calories. Body content in healthy people is around 2% of fat, or half a pound of LNA. LNA requires the same antioxidants, minerals and vitamins necessary for LA functions.
Omega6 To Omega3 Ratio
Omega6 to omega3 ratios in healthy populations range from 1:2.5 (Inuit diets) to 6:1 (other traditional diets). Since 1850, omega3 consumption has decreased to one sixth its traditional level, resulting in an omega6 to omega3 ratio of 20:1 (contemporary polyunsaturated oil diets), which is associated with degenerative conditions. Flax, our richest source of omega3, quickly replenishes a long standing omega3 deficiency. 1 to 2 tbsp per day of good quality flax oil for a few months should suffice. Cold water fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring) are a good source of the metabolites EPA and DHA.
Hemp seed oil has a remarkable fatty acid profile, being high in the desirable omega3s and also delivering some GLA, which is absent from the fats we normally eat. Hemp oil contains 57% linoleic and 19% linolenic acids, in the 3:1 ratio that matches our nutritional needs. Once difficult to find, many health food stores now routinely make hemp seed oil available as the demand for it has increased.
Long term exclusion of omega6 oils and excessive use of flax oil can result in a reverse imbalance of the one commonly seen, i.e. too much omega3. They should remain in balance. If a person has cancer, inflammatory conditions, or needs to lose weight, omega3 should be favored. The desried ratio in heart disease may be 1:1. Otherwise, an omega6 to omega3 ratio of between 2:1 and 3:1 is suitable for a healthy individual.
Mary Enig, PhD is a respected researcher in the field of fats and oils, especially the hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated and trans fats. The latest findings appear to implicate all seed oils in the promotion of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, allergies, adrenal failure and stroke. The list of implicated oils includes canola, soy, corn, safflower, sunflower and all hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated fats and oils. If this turns out to be true, then limiting the intake of the omega6 EFAs becomes increasingly important.
Dark meat fish like mackerel, salmon, sardines, bluefish, and swordfish contain the most concentrated sources of Omega3s, with an average of 1510mg of omega3s per serving. Most other fish, including canned tuna, provide about 450mg per serving, while shrimp, lobster and scallops contain about 320mg per serving. Krill are also becoming available as an excellent source of Omega3 fatty acids.
In nature�s package, EFA rich oils keep for years without spoiling. Once out of that package, light, air and heat attack EFAs. Like perishable produce, EFA rich oils should be made with care and obtained fresh. Frying and deep frying destroy EFAs by the combined effects of light, oxygen and heat, producing toxic substances that can lead to atherosclerosis and cancer.
EFA rich oils should be made and packaged in the absence of light, oxygen and heat. Frozen solid, oils remain unspoiled for a long time because freezing does not damage them. Manufacturers should ship them directly to retailers or consumers without stops along the way. You are probably better off using flax seeds and grinding them in a small coffee grinder just before use. They can be sprinkled on many different foods, will tend to be less rancid and also contain lignins. However, the most effective way of getting EPA and DHA into your body is through the use of a fish oil like cod liver oil.
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Allergy: Hypersensitivity caused by exposure to a particular antigen (allergen), resulting in an increased reactivity to that antigen on subsequent exposure, sometimes with harmful immunologic consequences.
Antioxidant: A chemical compound that slows or prevents oxygen from reacting with other compounds. Some antioxidants have been shown to have cancer-protecting potential because they neutralize free radicals. Examples include vitamins C and E, alpha lipoic acid, beta carotene, the minerals selenium, zinc, and germanium, superoxide dismutase (SOD), coenzyme Q10, catalase, and some amino acids, like cystiene. Other nutrient sources include grape seed extract, curcumin, gingko, green tea, olive leaf, policosanol and pycnogenol.
Arachidonic Acid: A polyunsaturated 20-carbon essential fatty acid occurring in animal fats and also formed by biosynthesis from dietary linoleic acid (Omega 6). It is a precursor in the biosynthesis of leukotrienes, prostaglandins, and thromboxanes. Excess tends to produce inflammation.
Atherosclerosis: Common form of arteriosclerosis associated with the formation of atheromas which are deposits of yellow plaques containing cholesterol, lipids, and lipophages within the intima and inner media of arteries. This results in a narrowing of the arteries, which reduces the blood and oxygen flow to the heart and brain as well as to other parts of the body and can lead to a heart attack, stroke, or loss of function or gangrene of other tissues.
Bacteria: Microscopic germs. Some bacteria are "harmful" and can cause disease, while other "friendly" bacteria protect the body from harmful invading organisms.
Cancer: Refers to the various types of malignant neoplasms that contain cells growing out of control and invading adjacent tissues, which may metastasize to distant tissues.
Cardiovascular: Pertaining to the heart and blood vessels.
Carotene: Converted into vitamin A in the body from a yellow pigment that has several forms (i.e., alpha-, beta-, and gamma-carotene).
Cholesterol: A waxy, fat-like substance manufactured in the liver and found in all tissues, it facilitates the transport and absorption of fatty acids. In foods, only animal products contain cholesterol. An excess of cholesterol in the bloodstream can contribute to the development of atherosclerosis.
Cysteine: A nonessential amino acid but may be essential for individuals with certain diseases or nutritional concerns. Cysteine is a sulfur-bearing amino acid with antioxidant properties. It is important for keratin synthesis, a protein found in skin, hair and nails and is a component of coenzyme A and glutathione.
DHA: Docosahexanoic Acid. A metabolite of the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid.
Diabetes Mellitus: A disease with increased blood glucose levels due to lack or ineffectiveness of insulin. Diabetes is found in two forms; insulin-dependent diabetes (juvenile-onset) and non-insulin-dependent (adult-onset). Symptoms include increased thirst; increased urination; weight loss in spite of increased appetite; fatigue; nausea; vomiting; frequent infections including bladder, vaginal, and skin; blurred vision; impotence in men; bad breath; cessation of menses; diminished skin fullness. Other symptoms include bleeding gums; ear noise/buzzing; diarrhea; depression; confusion.
Enzymes: Specific protein catalysts produced by the cells that are crucial in chemical reactions and in building up or synthesizing most compounds in the body. Each enzyme performs a specific function without itself being consumed. For example, the digestive enzyme amylase acts on carbohydrates in foods to break them down.
EPA: Environmental Protection Agency. Also: Eicosapentanoic Acid. A metabolite of the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid.
Essential Fatty Acid: (EFA): A substance that the human body cannot manufacture and therefore must be supplied in the diet.
Fatty Acids: Chemical chains of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms that are part of a fat (lipid) and are the major component of triglycerides. Depending on the number and arrangement of these atoms, fatty acids are classified as either saturated, polyunsaturated, or monounsaturated. They are nutritional substances found in nature which include cholesterol, prostaglandins, and stearic, palmitic, linoleic, linolenic, eicosapentanoic (EPA), and decohexanoic acids. Important nutritional lipids include lecithin, choline, gamma-linoleic acid, and inositol.
Flax: Flax Seed or Flax Oil. Flax oil is nutty-flavored oil that is pressed out of flax seeds and is one of the richest sources of Essential Fatty Acids (especially Omega-3 oil), a vital element for good health. The oil making process removes many of the seed's phytoestrogens which offer several health-related benefits including reducing the risk of cancer and alleviating menopausal symptoms. Many choose to use the whole seed because of its fiber and lignan content. Flaxseed oil is light- and temperature-sensitive and must be stored in the refrigerator.
GLA: Gamma-linolenic Acid is a downline metabolite of linoleic acid, an Omega 6 oil.
Gram: (gm): A metric unit of weight, there being approximately 28 grams in one ounce.
Hemoglobin: The oxygen-carrying protein of the blood found in red blood cells.
Hemp Seed Oil: A rich source of essential fatty acids necessary for everyday health and longevity, maintaining cell structure and producing energy. The oil from the hemp seed has a pleasant, nutty flavor and is considered nature's best nutritionally-balanced oil. It is ideal for maintaining a healthy essential fatty acid balance once any omega-3 deficiency has been corrected. Unfortunately the US government made all hemp food products illegal in 2002.
Hormones: Chemical substances secreted by a variety of body organs that are carried by the bloodstream and usually influence cells some distance from the source of production. Hormones signal certain enzymes to perform their functions and, in this way, regulate such body functions as blood sugar levels, insulin levels, the menstrual cycle, and growth. These can be prescription, over-the-counter, synthetic or natural agents. Examples include adrenal hormones such as corticosteroids and aldosterone; glucagon, growth hormone, insulin, testosterone, estrogens, progestins, progesterone, DHEA, melatonin, and thyroid hormones such as thyroxine and calcitonin.
Hydrogenated Fat: Usually containing trans-fatty acids (or simply "trans" fats), hydrogenated fats show up mostly in margarine, shortening and many prepared and processed foods such as cookies, crackers, cakes, potato chips and other deep-fried foods. The best way to spot hydrogenated fats is to read the ingredient lists on foods and identify those listing hydrogenated or "partially" hydrogenated fats.
Immune System: A complex that protects the body from disease organisms and other foreign bodies. The system includes the humoral immune response and the cell-mediated response. The immune system also protects the body from invasion by making local barriers and inflammation.
IU: International Units. One IU is 1/40th (0.025) of a microgram (mcg).
Kilogram: 1000 grams, 2.2lbs.
Magnesium: An essential mineral. The chief function of magnesium is to activate certain enzymes, especially those related to carbohydrate metabolism. Another role is to maintain the electrical potential across nerve and muscle membranes. It is essential for proper heartbeat and nerve transmission. Magnesium controls many cellular functions. It is involved in protein formation, DNA production and function and in the storage and release of energy in ATP. Magnesium is closely related to calcium and phosphorus in body function. The average adult body contains approximately one ounce of magnesium. It is the fifth mineral in abundance within the body--behind calcium, phosphorus, potassium and sodium. Although about 70 percent of the body's magnesium is contained in the teeth and bones, its most important functions are carried out by the remainder which is present in the cells of the soft tissues and in the fluid surrounding those cells.
Metabolism: The chemical processes of living cells in which energy is produced in order to replace and repair tissues and maintain a healthy body. Responsible for the production of energy, biosynthesis of important substances, and degradation of various compounds.
Metabolite: Any product (foodstuff, intermediate, waste product) of metabolism.
Milligram: (mg): 1/1,000 of a gram by weight.
Mineral: Plays a vital role in regulating many body functions. They act as catalysts in nerve response, muscle contraction and the metabolism of nutrients in foods. They regulate electrolyte balance and hormonal production, and they strengthen skeletal structures.
Niacin: (Vitamin B-3): A coenzyme B-complex vitamin that assists in the breakdown of carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Essential for the health of the skin, nerves, tongue and digestive system. It is found in every cell of the body and is necessary for energy production. Niacin is also needed for DNA formation.
Peroxides: Free radicals that are by-products formed in our bodies when molecules of fat react with oxygen.
Polyunsaturated: Polyunsaturated fats or oils. Originate from vegetables and are liquid at room temperature. These oils are a good source of the unsaturated fatty acids. They include flaxseed with added vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), sunflower oil, safflower oil, and primrose oil.
Pound: 454 grams, or about half a kilogram.
Prostaglandin: Any of a class of physiologically active substances present in many tissues, with effects such as vasodilation, vasoconstriction, stimulation of the smooth muscles of the bronchus or intestine, uterine stimulation; also involved in pain, inflammation, fever, allergic diarrhea, and dysmenorrhea. A potent hormone -- similar in structure to an unsaturated fatty acid -- that acts in extremely low concentrations on local target organs; first isolated from the prostate.
Protein: Compounds composed of hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen present in the body and in foods that form complex combinations of amino acids. Protein is essential for life and is used for growth and repair. Foods that supply the body with protein include animal products, grains, legumes, and vegetables. Proteins from animal sources contain the essential amino acids. Proteins are changed to amino acids in the body.
Retina: A 10-layered, frail nervous tissue membrane of the eye, parallel with the optic nerve. It receives images of outer objects and carries sight signals through the optic nerve to the brain.
Selenium: An essential element involved primarily in enzymes that are antioxidants. Three selenium- containing enzymes are antioxidant peroxidases and a fourth selenium-containing enzyme is involved in thyroid hormone production. The prostate contains a selenium-containing protein and semen contains relatively large amounts of selenium. Clinical studies show that selenium is important in lowering the risk of several types of cancers. In combination with Vitamin E, selenium aids the production of antibodies and helps maintain a healthy heart. It also aids in the function of the pancreas, provides elasticity to tissues and helps cells defend themselves against damage from oxidation.
Stroke: A sudden loss of brain function caused by a blockage or rupture of a blood vessel that supplies the brain, characterized by loss of muscular control, complete or partial loss of sensation or consciousness, dizziness, slurred speech, or other symptoms that vary with the extent and severity of the damage to the brain. The most common manifestation is some degree of paralysis, but small strokes may occur without symptoms. Usually caused by arteriosclerosis, it often results in brain damage.
Tablespoon: (Tbsp) Equivalent to 15cc (15ml).
Teaspoon: (tsp) Equivalent to 5cc (5ml).
Virus: Any of a vast group of minute structures composed of a protein coat and a core of DNA and/or RNA that reproduces in the cells of the infected host. Capable of infecting all animals and plants, causing devastating disease in immunocompromised individuals. Viruses are not affected by antibiotics, and are completely dependent upon the cells of the infected host for the ability to reproduce.
Vitamin B6: Influences many body functions including regulating blood glucose levels, manufacturing hemoglobin and aiding the utilization of protein, carbohydrates and fats. It also aids in the function of the nervous system.
Vitamin E: An essential fat-soluble vitamin. As an antioxidant, helps protect cell membranes, lipoproteins, fats and vitamin A from destructive oxidation. It helps protect red blood cells and is important for the proper function of nerves and muscles. For Vitamin E only, 1mg translates to 1 IU.
Zinc: An essential trace mineral. The functions of zinc are enzymatic. There are over 70 metalloenzymes known to require zinc for their functions. The main biochemicals in which zinc has been found to be necessary include: enzymes and enzymatic function, protein synthesis and carbohydrate metabolism. Zinc is a constituent of insulin and male reproductive fluid. Zinc is necessary for the proper metabolism of alcohol, to get rid of the lactic acid that builds up in working muscles and to transfer it to the lungs. Zinc is involved in the health of the immune system, assists vitamin A utilization and is involved in the formation of bone and teeth.