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Why Healthy Fats are Good for your Cells

The Standard American Diet is either low in fat or high in rancid or hydrogenated fats. At the cellular level, why is this fact important to our health?

Fat has gotten a bad rap over the past 20 years, supposedly linked to cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancer and a variety of different illnesses. However, high quality fat is an essential part of energy production and structure within the body at the cellular level.

Balance is really the key; you must have good quality fats in your diet in a healthy ratio.

Note the diagram below; the main component of our cell membranes is the lipid bilayer. A lipid is essentially a compound that is insoluble in water, essentially a fat or oil. Every cell membrane is made up of back-to-back layers of three types of lipid molecules, phospholipids, glycolipids and cholesterol (yep even cholesterol is needed for that cell membrane). Heads of these lipids are on the outside and fatty acid tails are on the inside. As a side note, carbohydrates and proteins are also essential components of the cell membrane.

The main thing to remember – fatty acids are used to make up the cells in your body. Cells are the building blocks to tissues and organs. If your cells aren’t healthy this will translate to dysfunction in tissues and then organs.

cell membrane

Let’s explore fatty acids a little more since you hear about these the most.

There are two types of fatty acids – saturated (full of hydrogen atoms) or unsaturated (have some hydrogen atoms missing). Think of a saturated fatty acid like a sponge holding water, the sponge is

saturated if it is holding all the water it possibly can. If the fatty acid is saturated it is holding all of the hydrogen it possibly can. Saturated fatty acids have the most stable structure, providing stability to the cell membranes. Because they are stable, they are usually hard at room temperature such as lard and butter. A great example of a saturated fatty acid is butyric acid, found in butter, which has been associated with reduction of cancer.

Unsaturated fatty acids, because they have some hydrogen molecules missing, can and do interact the most with other molecules in the body. These unsaturated fatty acids provide flexibility in the cell membrane, allowing communication to occur between the cell and the surroundings. Foods that contain unsaturated fatty acids can be damaged quite easily because of this fatty acid flexibility (you’ll hear terms like oxidized or rancid for damaged oils in this category). Most of the vegetable oils used for cooking fall into this category – sunflower, safflower, canola, and olive oil.

Unsaturated fatty acids have been further broken down into mono (MUFA) or polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA). If only one hydrogen atom has been removed, the fatty acid is a MUFA. If more than one hydrogen atom has been removed it is a PUFA. In general, the more hydrogen atoms removed the more flexible the unsaturated fatty acid is (and more unstable and easily damaged). When a PUFA is damaged it will no longer function at the cellular level, therefore important communication is lost between cells. Light, heat and oxygen damage PUFAs.

PUFAs are cheap to make, however, because they go rancid quickly the food industry hydrogenates these oils to extend the shelf life. Hydrogenation converts the unsaturated fatty acids into a new form called trans-fatty acids. These are typically marketed as “partially hydrogenated“. These are simply toxic, no longer even resembling the healthy fat that your body needs.

Long-chain PUFAs are the guys so widely discussed in the press right now. The long-chain is describing the number of carbon molecules making up the tail of the fatty acid.  These long chain PUFAs have hot spots on them that store energy. If the hot spot occurs 3 links down on the chain, then it is called an omega-3 fatty acid. If it occurs 6 links down it is called an omega-6 fatty acid.

Most of the PUFAs making up our cell membranes are either omega-3 or omega-6 fatty acids.

It is the ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids that seems to be one of the key aspects to overall health. Research is showing that the ratio should be 1:1 to 4:1, omega-6 to omega-3. Nearly all-cellular communication in the body depends, in part, on this ratio supplying the appropriate amount of flexibility in the cell membrane.

The current American diet contains a ratio that is 10 to 20 times higher in omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids (10:1 to 20:1). Processed foods, especially vegetable oils, have extremely high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids. It is this out of balance ratio that is tied to non-insulin dependent diabetes, obesity and likelihood of weight loss, coronary heart disease, and chronic inflammation.

The bottom line – your cells need both saturated and unsaturated fats to function properly. Paying special attention to not damaging any PUFA’s, so keeping those oils that contain high amounts of these fatty acids away from heat, air and light. You’ll also want to pay attention to the balance of PUFA’s, making sure that your omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio is close to 1:1.  This might mean adding more fats in your diet that contain omega-3’s to balance the fats that contain omega-6, which are easily accessible to us. Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids are flaxseeds, walnuts, sardines, salmon and beef.

Some great recent research has shown that grass fed animals already contain the proper balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids (since they are healthy!). Grain feeding cows produces more omega-6 fatty acids in their tissues…

Diane Sanfilippo has some great guides to fats and oils on her website, which came from her book Practical Paleo. Check them out below.

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