Dietary fats are a difficult subject, and there is still a lot left to learn. They are literally life and death to us; fats are involved in almost all degenerative disease. It might be justified to sum up what we know at the current level of knowledge.
I. For What Do We Need Fats?
Dietary fat is a source of energy. It contains more energy per weight unit than carbohydrates or protein. Using it as a source of energy, however, might be an abuse. That it can be used thus doesn't mean that it regularly should. It can as well be seen as a reserve system, a last resort when we have no carbohydrates available.
In the body, all surplus energy can be transformed to fat, also, for instance, a high intake of sugar. This fat serves as a store of unused energy. That's what we mean when we say that someone is fat, or obese. Then, however, we have an excessive amount. [A small energy storage consists of carbohydrates, namely the blood sugar and the glycogen, but it is very little and soon consumed in a fast or during starvation.]
In times when food was sometimes scarce, it was good to be able to eat too much when it was available, and to live on that during times of famine. That means, people grew a little fat when it was possible, and then the fat was used as energy. A system to keep the balance of loaded and used energy in a longer perspective.
Today food is always available to most of us, and many, many individuals continue to over-eat while never facing periods of starvation. That means they are just growing fatter and fatter, something that is a strain for the body and ultimately leads to disease and death. Now this has become a system of causing and increasing imbalance. Obesity is, in my opinion, the most important cause of degenerative disease, and the most heavy-weight (no pun intended) factor for causing premature death.
Its danger is not only that the sheer weight is a hindrance to normal body functions, but that fat is biochemically very active. The most serious aspect is that fatty tissue acts as an organ, producing substances, of which the most destructive one is the female sex hormone estrogen. Also fat undergoing digestion in the gastro-intestinal channel contributes to extra estrogens by feeding estrogen-producing bacteria living there. These extra estrogens might be the gravest danger the individual ever faces! They are intimately linked to the development of degenerative disease and accelerated ageing.
It should be noted that petroleum-based plastics contain hormone imitating substances too, so-called xeno-estrogens; the softer plastics, the more xeno-estrogens. Worst of all are phthalates, the substance used to make plastics soft. Fat dissolves and releases these xeno-hormones from the plastics; if you eat fat that has been in touch with it, you ingest these hormone-imitating compounds. So a good rule is: don't eat or drink anything fat that has been in touch with plastics. At least not unless you know it's "safe" plastics.
Do we need fat anyway? Yes we do. If we assume that we shouldn't use it as energy, unless as a last resort, we still need small amounts of fats just for the reason that they are biochemically active. We also need some body fat to serve as a protection against beating, and to keep organs in place, and simply to "oil" the system so we don't dry and crack. We also have a thin layer of fat on the outside of the skin, to prevent excessive evaporation of water, to protect the skin from various injuries, and for the formation of vitamin D.
In digestion, fat serves as a solvent, since many essential nutrients are fat soluble. Carotenoids, and vitamins A, D, E, and K are some examples. Without accompanying fat we would never be able to absorb these nutrients from the intestines, but they would just pass right through us and out with the faeces. For this we need only small amounts of fat though.
Where we need fatty acids for their biochemical properties, it is essential which fatty acids and in what proportion we get them. If this is wrong, we might cause ourselves serious damage, even death.
II. Essential Fatty Acids
Certain forms of fatty acids are essential for us. That means that we have a nutritional need of getting them regularly, just like vitamins and minerals. Not for their energy value, but for other biochemical properties. They are commonly referred to as EFAs [Essential Fatty Acids] or Vitamin F, and they come in two groups: Omega-3 and Omega-6.
Omega-6, linoleic acid, is converted in the body to the biologically active gamma linolenic acid (GLA), dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid (DGLA), arachidonic acid (AA).
Omega-3, alpha-linolenic acid (sometimes called only linolenic acid), which is converted to the biologically active eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
For the conversion to take place, we need zinc, magnesium, vitamins B3, B6, and C - all in sufficient amounts. Metabolic disturbance, disease, a diet rich in sugar, saturated or hydrogenated fats, and abuse of alcohol or tobacco can block conversion.
To prevent deficiency, minimise the use of saturated fats (mainly in mammal meat and milk), hydrogenated (trans-) fats (in margarine and most fast food), and heated or refined oils.
Omega-9, monosaturated oleic acid, is a third group, not normally considered as essential, but nevertheless important, not at least to prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer. (Best source: extra virgin olive oil.)
Some good sources of EFAs are: nuts and seeds; cold-pressed and unrefined oils from olives, seeds, wheat germ, etc.; fish (especially herring and mackerel), and linseeds or flax seeds.
EFAs are important for the hormonal system, for glandular function, for immunity, and for the nervous system. They are essential for prostaglandins, which are involved in all processes of the body, physical and mental; and for cardiovascular health.
Supplementation can be useful in certain cases. For instance Omega-3 fish oil and Evening Primrose Oil (for GLA) are available in soft gel capsules. They have helped a large number of people to overcome or control various ailments and disorders, such as high blood cholesterol and cardiovascular disease; rheumatoid arthritis; inflammatory ailments; psoriasis, eczema and other skin problems; menstrual disturbance, etc.
Recommending a dose is impossible, since it is related to your health and overall diet.
Remember that EFAs are unsaturated, which means that they are easily getting rancid. They must be accompanied by a sufficient amount of antioxidants, especially vitamin E. Most natural sources of EFAs contain vitamin E too.
(In order to prevent fats from getting rancid, they must at all times be protected from their three major enemies: oxygen, daylight, and high temperature. Surprisingly often, foodstuffs - especially fat ones – are inadequately stored even in the food store. Sometimes one can see bottles with oil kept in ordinary room-temperature, or - worse - standing in a sunny window! Even chocolate (being fat) should be kept in a cool place (although not necessarily refrigerated), but it is rare to see that.)
This article continues in part 2.
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