Fats and Fish Oils: What You Need to Know

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Fish oils, and their chemical cousins found in plants, are among the greatest nutritional stories of our time. The oils in specific plants and fish are so important that they are called essential fatty acids. Certain fatty acids modify inflammation and help treat conditions such as diabetes, asthma, hypertension, and arthritis. They are even crucial for the development of nerve and brain function in infants. Fish oils are actually absorbed directly into the outer fatty layer of every cell, where they act as a kind of cellular cushion or barrier, protecting each cell from the outside environment—like a moat around a castle. Recently, fat has become a dirty word, but in truth, fats are life’s lubricants and energy powerhouses. We need fats for optimal health, and women in particular need fats to build their hormones. However, there are a variety of fats, some good, some bad. Here’s a brief guide:

Saturated fats either are derived from animal sources or have been artificially saturated by the food industry. They can promote free radical damage and clog the arteries. In saturated fats, such as those found in meat and cheese, every carbon atom is completely saturated with all the hydrogen it can carry. It is a solid, thick fat, like the yellowy fat you find in chicken and beef. This fat is known to be a major risk factor in raising cholesterol levels.

Trans-saturated fats do not exist in nature but are artificially produced. In America, margarine contains trans-saturated fats. (In Europe, this is not the case; the trans-saturated fats have been eliminated.) Oil is manufactured to harden at room temperature and have a long shelf life, but in the body it is harmful. It actually blocks your cells’ use of essential fatty acids. This fat should be avoided whenever possible.

Unsaturated fats are found in most oils. They are called unsaturated or polyunsaturated because many of the carbon atoms are “empty” and don’t carry hydrogen. Corn oil is a common unsaturated fat, along with safflower, soybean and other vegetable oils. When used in cooking, they easily become oxidized and create free radicals. High amounts of unsaturated fats were once thought to be healthy, but they are now believed to contribute to a variety of illnesses, including heart disease and cancer.

Monounsaturated fats such as olve oil are good for your health. They contain the fatty acid known as oleic acid. It has eighteen carbon atoms and only sisxteen hydrogen atoms, which makes the fat less solid. It flows easily at room temperature.

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are unsaturated; they are so important to health that I put them in their own category. Two important forms of omega-3 fatty acids come in fatty fish like salmon and mackerel. Less fatty fish, such as flounder, although a healthy form of protein, is not high in omega-3s. Symptoms of deficiency often include allergies, inflammation, and dry skin. Prolonged deficiencies can lead to serious autoimmune diseases. Omega-6s have a wide variety of effects.

Fish Oils and Cancer
I consider fish oils an absolutely essential supplement for my patients with a history of cancer. Cancer cells can grow and spread by creating inflammation. Research suggests that essential fatty acids slow down cancer growth, impairing the malignant cells’ ability to function efficiently. In one study, increasing the proportion of red blood cell omega-6 fatty acids significantly reduced the risk of prostate cancer. Another study showed that fish oil may protect against colon cancer, and a study reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute suggests that a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids can suppress breast cancer cell growth.

By Dr. Richard Firshein for Tonic


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