Health Benefits of Essential Fats

It is not a coincidence that most health experts agree that there should be a limit to overall fat intake. This owes to the various health risks too much consumption of fat predisposes the human body to. This is regardless of the fact that fats are different and have different effects.

The fact remains that all fat-containing foods that are high in fat are “calorie-dense” i.e. high in calories. And one of their major impacts is on blood cholesterol levels.

Howbeit, not all fatty acids are that bad and some are actually very vital. Besides being a source of energy, some fats are essential macronutrients. The body needs these essential fatty acids which it can only get from consumed foods.

These essential fatty acids are very vital for the formation of cell membranes. The production of several crucial hormones also requires these essential fatty acids. These hormones include:

  • Female hormones progesterone and estrogen
  • Male sex hormone testosterone
  • Hormone-like prostaglandins

Prostaglandins are fatty acid derivatives. They are in almost all tissues in the human body. They aid in the reduction of hypertension, migraine headaches, and arthritis.

Fats are generally classified according to the chemical structure of their constituent parts. Fatty acids are either saturated or unsaturated. This is based on their chemical composition. This largely depends on the degree of saturation or otherwise.

The degree of saturation is a function of the hydrogen atom and carbon chains in the makeup of the fatty acid. This is the length and relative number of hydrogen atoms attached to a carbon chain.

Saturated Fats

Saturated fatty acids have single bonds between the carbon atoms that make up the tail. They are “full” or “saturated.” This is because they cannot take up any more hydrogen atom.

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Saturated fats are primarily in fat-containing foods of animal origin. These include sources such as fatty meats (e.g., beef, lamb, pork, and ham), dairy products, poultry, and egg yolks. They are also in plant sources such as in coconut, palm, and palm kernel oil (often called “tropical oils”).

Trans fatty acids, are another type of saturated fat. However, they are the product of the hydrogenation of unsaturated fats. This is simply the addition of hydrogen to unsaturated fats. This makes them solid and more stable at room temperature. High intake of saturated fats increases an individual’s risk of coronary artery disease.

Unsaturated Fats

These types of fatty acids have one or more double bonds between carbon atoms. There are two types of unsaturated fatty acids namely:

  • Monounsaturated
  • Polyunsaturated

In a monounsaturated fat molecule, one pair of hydrogen atoms is missing. However, more than one pair of hydrogen atom is missing in a polyunsaturated fat molecule.

Monounsaturated fatty acids have molecules containing only one double-bonded carbon. It is in such a way that each carbon atom of the double bond lacks one pair of hydrogen. Thus they are not full or saturated. Also, they have the ability to bond with one pair of hydrogen atom.

Monounsaturated fatty acid sources include olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, and almonds. Monounsaturated fats are the healthiest of fat. They help to reduce the bad (LDL) cholesterol and increase the good (HDL) cholesterol.

Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs)

Polyunsaturated fatty acids are Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs). Essential fatty acids are polyunsaturated dietary fats. They are required for specific biological processes but the body cannot make them. Our diets are their main source.

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Polyunsaturated fatty acids contain two or more double bonds in each molecule. It is such that four or more carbon atoms can bond with hydrogen atoms. Thus they lack two or more pairs of hydrogen atoms on their carbon chain. These double bonds change their structure. It also makes them slightly bent and thus soft at room temperature.

EFAs contain one essential fatty acid from which the body can make all other fatty acids. Thus the body converts essential fatty acids – short chain fatty acids – into longer chain fatty acids. This conversion helps in the formation of important substances in the body. These include:

  • Hormones
  • Blood clotting agents
  • Compounds involved in immune and inflammatory responses

Essentially, every living cell in the body requires essential fatty acids. This enables them to be able to rebuild and produce new cells.

Essential fatty acids have a lot of positive impact in maintaining a healthy body. Among these are their nourishment of the skin and hair. They also assist in the reduction of:

  • Blood pressure
  • Cholesterol
  • Triglyceride levels
  • Risk of blood clotting

Essential fatty acids also play significant roles in:

  • Development of the brain
  • Transmission of nerve impulses in the nervous system
  • Retina in fetal development and early life

Types of EFAs

Essential fatty acids have two groups: linolenic acid (Omega-6s) and alpha-linolenic acid (Omega-3s). The first double bond of linolenic acids is located on their sixth carbon. Thus the name omega-6 fatty acids. But omega-3 fatty acids are so-called due to having their first double bond on the third carbon.

Omega-3

The omega-3 fatty acids play vital roles in both brain and eye functions. They also have a positive impact on heart health by lowering the risk of heart attack. They improve heart health by helping to reduce the levels of triglycerides (fats) in the blood.

Omega-3 fatty acids also lower blood pressure. Also, they lower the level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or ‘‘bad’’ cholesterol.

Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and herring have high fat contents. They provide more omega-3 than other fish. Omega-3 fatty acids are also available in vegetable oils such canola, walnut, and flax seed oil.

Omega-6

They are beneficial in reducing the incidence of coronary artery disease. This is due to the fact that they reduce the buildup of cholesterol on the arteries of the heart. Some of the concentrated sources of omega-6 fatty acids in diets are:

  • Raw nuts
  • Seeds
  • Legumes
  • Unsaturated vegetable oils

Good sources of unsaturated vegetable oils include:

  • Sunflower
  • Corn
  • Safflower
  • Primrose
  • Cottonseed
  • Canola
  • Soybean

Researchers believe that consuming too much omega-6 fatty acids affect omega-3 fatty acids.

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They negatively affect the beneficial effects gained from Omega-3 fatty acids. Thus, there are health risks in consuming too much omega-6 in the form of refined vegetable oils. This is because they are prone to oxidation inside the body.

Omega-6 fatty acids may also contribute to tissue damage that can lead to cancer. Also, omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties. However, omega-6 fatty acids tend to promote inflammation.

The typical western diet has more of the omega-6s than the more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. Nutritionists suggest eating one to four times more omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acids. Thus the key to a healthy diet is and always will remain moderation and balance.