The Nonessential, "Essential" Fatty Acids
By Tyler Woodward
"You've been hoodwinked, bamboozled, lead astray, run amok and flat out deceived!" ~ Steven A. Smith. You've likely been told your entire life that you need the "essential" omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in order to survive. The "Essential" Fatty Acids aren't helping your health they're killing it!
- What Are The Essential Fatty Acids?
- What Is Cholesterol And Is It Actually Killing Your Health?
- The Fatty Acid Stability Spectrum
- The Essential Fatty Acid Conspiracy
What Does Essential Mean?:
In reference to the human body, essential means that you need _____ nutrient to function optimally. Essential nutrients also means that you cannot produce it by yourself, so you must consume it in your diet. All of the nutrients we need to consume through our diet can be grouped into the category of “micronutrients”. Micronutrients can be broken down into four categories:
- Amino Acids
- Essential Fatty Acids???
It’s worth noting that within these micronutrient categories there are a number of “conditionally essential” nutrients. These are nutrients that our body can normally produce itself unless it's under too much stress or missing other micronutrients.
You could also consider calories as essential being that as humans we cannot produce our own energy. Calories can be broken down into the three essential macronutrients:
- Proteins - 4 Calories Per Gram
- Carbohydrates - 4 Calories Per Gram
- Fat - 4 Calories Per Gram
All of the macronutrients can be further divided into their “monomers” or their basic units which combine together to form the macromolecules/macronutrient.
- Amino Acids (Essential Amino Acids & Nonessential Amino Acids) → Proteins
- Sugars (glucose, fructose, maltose) → Carbohydrates
- Fatty Acids (Saturated Fats, Monounsaturated Fats, Polyunsaturated Fats)
In order to survive, technically we only need protein because our body is capable of converting protein into sugar/carbs and fats. Although in order for our body to thrive we require lots of carbohydrates and some fat in our diet as converting protein into fat or sugar is extremely energetically demanding. Technically, we do not need to consume fat in our diet because our body can synthesize fat from carbohydrates/sugar, but there are certain fat-soluble vitamins that can only be found in fats.
This brings us to the question....
If Our Body Can Produce Fat On It’s Own, Why Are There Essential Fatty Acids?:
There are certain fatty acids that the body cannot produce on its own, but contrary to popular belief you don’t actually require them to survive or to thrive. Calling the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids “essential” is the dietary equivalent of telling someone they’ll never be a good painter if they don’t practice, when they hate painting.
The only fatty acid you need is the Omega-9 fatty acid, oleic acid, which your body is capable of producing on its own.
What Are The “Essential” Fatty Acids?:
The “essential” fatty acids are organized into two categories:
- The Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- EPA (Eicosapentaenoic Acid)
- DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid)
- ALA (Alpha-linolenic Acid)
- The Omega-6 Fatty Acids
- Linoleic Acid
- Arachidonic Acid
The omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids fall within Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids. Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) means they have multiple (poly) double bonds in their structure. In contrast to saturated fats which have no double bonds. Omega-3 fatty acids have a double bond every 3 carbons. The shortest EFA, ALA, has 18 carbon molecules and thereby contains 6 double bonds. The omega-6 fatty acids have a double bond every 6 carbon molecules, so Linoleic Acid which contains 18 carbons has 3 double bonds.
You can imagine the chemical bonds between atoms like playing jump rope. When you play jump rope there’s two people on either side spinning the rope. When there’s only one rope in play it’s pretty easy to jump rope for a long period of time without making an error. If you add a second rope, you’ve got to be much more precise with your jumps and have a much smaller margin of error. If you add a third rope, you have almost no room for error.
This is the same way chemical bonds work. Single bonds are extremely stable and are extremely difficult to break. Double bonds are less stable, but unlikely to break and triple bonds are extremely unstable and easily broken.
Read More: Fats: The Macronutrient Guide
The Double Bond Dilemma
The issue with double bonds is that they are significantly less stable compared to single bonds. Meaning that if exposed to enough heat or light they are likely to break apart. When a double bond breaks apart it releases a negatively charged electron, often referred to as a “free radical”. Free radicals are associated with causing stress, inflammation, aging and are believed to be a likely factor in many common diseases today. Due to our high internal body temperature polyunsaturated fats tend to be “oxidized” or broken apart in our body. And it’s not just in humans, but all warm blooded animals. In fact, the higher the ratio of saturated fat to unsaturated fat in animals is directly correlated with increased lifespans. The more saturated fat the animal has, the longer they live on average and vice versa.
On the other hand, for the same reason that PUFAs are harmful to humans among other warm blooded mammals they benefit other animals. Cold weather animals like many fish (think fish oil) on the other hand require PUFAs to survive. The double bonds in PUFAs allow them to remain liquid at much lower temperatures than monounsaturated fats or fully saturated fats. The PUFAs ability to stay liquid in cold temperatures is believed to be part of the reason that fish are able to live in these conditions, while humans would freeze.
Here’s What Puzzles Me...
If you recall a few years ago, the health dangers of trans fats became all the rage across social media and news outlets. In fact in 2018, trans fat became banned all across the United States. Which might leave you wondering…
What Are Trans Fats?:
Trans fats are actually a type of polyunsaturated fats or monounsaturated fat. The difference is basically the direction that the double bond is formed in makes it a “tighter squeeze” so to speak, which makes them that much more unstable. So trans fats can be polyunsaturated or monounsaturated depending on the number of double bonds the fat has, it's just a different type of double bond. Trans fats don't form very frequently in nature due to this instability, but occur in high quantities when companies attempt to hydrogenate (saturate) vegetable to make the oil solid at room temperature.
Trans fats are like that one friend that always chooses to squeeze in between two people on the “three person” couch instead of sitting in the empty chair right next to it. That person is the real-life trans fat because now everyone is uncomfortable and wants to get up and leave. In the jump rope analogy, trans fats would be the equivalent to spinning the second rope in the opposite direction of the first rope to make it much more difficult.
The instability in trans fats makes them much more likely to be oxidized/ broken down, causing the release of free radicals.Trans fats are said to be unhealthy because they raise your LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels without increasing your HDL/ “good” cholesterol. In the game of heart disease cholesterol has become the villain when in fact cholesterol, good or bad, is not to blame.
Cholesterol - Friend or Foe?:
High levels of LDL cholesterol are directly associated with heart disease. Let me reiterate the word, ASSOCIATED. LDL-cholesterol does not cause heart disease, but high levels of LDL-cholesterol are often found in those with heart disease. When attempting to discover the cause or likelihood of developing heart disease this is a clue, not an answer.
In fact, contrary to popular belief, high total cholesterol levels are actually associated with decreased all-cause mortality, meaning that if you have “high cholesterol” you are actually likely to live longer. Low total cholesterol levels on the other hand, are associated with an increased mortality rate, particularly after the age of 50. The key is having a balanced ratio of LDL to HDL cholesterol, but with relatively high total cholesterol.
It’s also worth noting that cholesterol is just one biomarker of the body, it’s not the be-all-end-all that it has been painted out to be. There are many other health metrics (numbers) that can and should be used to assess your health including micronutrient levels, the levels of various hormones, insulin response, weight/body fat %, ect,.
So What’s The Connection?
Interestingly, it has been found that the size of the LDL cholesterol molecules is directly related to developing atherosclerosis. The smaller your LDL cholesterol molecules, the more likely you are to develop atherosclerosis. This is likely due to cholesterols structure which contains a single double bond. The smaller the cholesterol molecule, the smaller its surface area and the more likely it’s double bond is to come into contact with an “oxidant” resulting in the breakdown/oxidation of its double bond. When this happens, a free radical is released turning our “healthy” cholesterol friend into an “unhealthy” foe.
This is not a huge deal for people with a high-functioning metabolism because cholesterol has a very fast turnover rate. Meaning that it is normally used more or less as fast as it is produced. But if you have a compromised metabolism, which is estimated to be about 88% of the US, then the “bad” or oxidized cholesterol can begin to accumulate in your bloodstream and tissues. This is why it’s so important to have a balanced ratio of LDL to HDL cholesterol to ensure you don’t have a buildup of the oxidized “bad” cholesterol.
I hate to play the conspiracy game, but the idea that polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) lower “bad” cholesterol levels is basically a marketing scheme by “Big Agro” to distract you from seeing the bigger picture. The more double bonds a molecule has, the less stable it is and the more likely it is to produce free radicals. As stated before, free radicals have been identified as the root cause of many diseases due to the oxidative stress they create.
“Oxidative stress plays a major part in the development of chronic and degenerative ailments such as cancer, arthritis, aging, autoimmune disorders, cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases” (Huy et.a l).
The Fatty Acid Stability Spectrum:
The name of the game is stability, the fewer the double bonds the more stable the fat is. Saturated fats are the most stable because they do not have any double bonds, followed by monounsaturated with one double bond, and polyunsaturated with multiple double bonds. Trans fat are the least stable because they have a different type of double bond that is much less stable than that found in normal polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats.
So How Did The “Essential” Fatty Acids Become Deemed Essential?
In 1929, George and Mildred Burr released their essential fatty acid hypothesis. After conducting a study on rats, in which they were fed a fat-free diet, the rats experienced slowed or impaired growth and experienced “disease” including dandruff, dermatitis, sterility, and kidney failure. If the rats were given a small amount of the omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid, linoleic acid, the rats experienced normal growth and development.
So The Fatty Acids Are Essential?
No, you see at the time that Burr published this study many of the vitamins now known today had yet to be discovered. In fact, Burr’s disease was later discovered to be caused by deficiency in vitamin B6. What most likely occurred was that the introduction of the PUFAs into the rats diet actually slowed their metabolic rate, which would inherently decrease the likelihood of developing a micronutrient deficiency. If you’re burning fewer calories than you use fewer raw materials (vitamins, minerals, amino acids). This was actually pretty apparent in the study, as the rats fed the PUFAs consumed less food and water which is directly associated with a decreased metabolic rate.
George Burr himself concluded through this study that, “Whether this apparent beneficial effect of a small amount of fat is due to its content of vitamin A or other vitamins, or to its action as a vehicle for the fat soluble vitamins, or whether fat per se is essential, is not conclusively demonstrated” (George Burr, 1929).
The most surprising part of this whole conspiracy is that William Brown, a member of Burr’s own laboratory, in 1938 decided to test the essential fatty acid hypothesis on himself. Brown went on a 6-month diet void of the “essential” unsaturated fatty acids. He consumed 2500 calories per day with lots of carbs and adequate protein while supplementing with a number of vitamins and minerals to ensure a “complete” diet. During these 6 months Brown cured his migraines that had affected him since childhood, lowered his blood pressure, increased his metabolic rate, and he lost 14 pounds without any extra activity. All while increasing reporting improved energy levels.
Despite these findings Burr’s work was not popular at the time because it was the opposite of mainstream scientific opinion at the time which believed that saturated fats were the “healthier” choice. In fact, there were a number of studies that occurred around the same time that showed PUFAs were required in the formation of cancer. In 1927, two years before Burr’s study, a study found that removing PUFAs from the diets of rats was shown to almost completely eliminate the risk of developing cancer. Burr’s work did not become popular until the 1950s when the Seed Oil industry began to market the benefits of PUFAs for lowering cholesterol.
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My goal in writing this article, as always, is to provide you with logically-based principles that you can use to form your own conclusions regarding any information you may come across within this subject. I really hope you found this article interesting and if you have anything to add to this article, or any comments or criticism, feel free to reach out to me on our facebook groups (The Thermo Diet Community Group, The UMZU Community Group) or on Instagram @tylerwoodward_fit. Please feel free to share this article with anyone that might be interested!
Thanks for reading!
Until next time… be good
B.S. Physiology and Neurobiology
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