Oils, Lipids and Essential Fatty acids….Time to Chew the Fat!

By Dr. William Risley

Repeat after me. Fats are GOOD! Fats are ESSENTIAL for life! Without fat, we would DIE! Fats have gotten a bad rap these past few years, but without fats, you would cease to exist. There are three different types of fats or lipids in our diet:

The Good…

There are two fats that are ESSENTIAL for human life, which means that they are vital to our health and must be consumed because our bodies cannot make them. They are Omega-6 (Linoleic acid) and Omega-3 (Alpha-Linolenic acid). They are called Essential Fatty Acids, or EFA’s.

EFA’s are necessary for the formation of healthy cell membranes (all 100 trillion cells in your body), the proper development and functioning of the brain and nervous system, and for the production of hormone-like substances called eicosanoids (I-ko-sa-noids). Humans have the ability to convert Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids into longer chain fatty acids, which serve as precursors for eicosanoids. However, in the case of Omega-3, it is a very poor conversion process, as I will explain later. Along with having insulating properties, stored fats are also important for making sure your brain and body has a steady supply of energy for survival when other sources of energy are not available.

The Bad…

The bad news is that the average American receives 20-30 times more Omega-6 than Omega-3 in our diet. The normal ratio should be between 2:1 and 1:1. This was not always the case. Eicosanoids formed from Omega-6 fatty acids have the potential to increase blood pressure, inflammation, blood clotting, blood vessel constriction, and allergic reactions. Those eicosanoids formed from Omega-3 fatty acids have opposing effects. Current medical research suggests that the levels of essential fatty acids and the balance between them play a critical role not only in growth and development of the brain, but also in the prevention and treatment of chronic diseases including heart and vascular disease, hypertension, type II diabetes, cancer, arthritis and other immune/inflammatory disorders. Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids are not interchangeable; we must consume equal amounts in our diet. As far as essential fats are concerned, the average American consumes too many Omega-6 and not enough Omega-3 fats.

The Ugly…

The shift in our fatty acid content in foods has occurred most markedly in the last century. Food manufacturers (oxymoron) started to produce more vegetable oils and put them in junk food (another oxymoron) and most vegetable oils are heavy in Omega-6 fatty acids. The problem faced by food manufacturers was the need for oil that did not become rancid after exposure to heat during the manufacturing process, and did not go rancid quickly, and had a long shelf life. So manufacturers started using a process called hydrogenation to increase product shelf life by reducing oil rancidity in food products. If you look at the previous fatty acid pictures, hydrogenation is the process of adding hydrogen atoms to the fat molecule, thereby breaking the carbon double bonds and forming a more stable or saturated fat.

If you start looking at the nutritional labels on everything that you buy, you will start to see hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil as an ingredient. These hydrogenated oils are transformed into what are called Trans Fatty acids, and are found in numerous products such as: cookies, crackers, potato chips, breakfast cereals, granola bars, breads, microwave popcorn, cakes, fried foods, fast food, donuts, muffins, etc…

A good example of a trans fatty acid is margarine from corn oil. Normally corn oil is a liquid at room temperature, but when you hydrogenate it, it makes it a solid at room temperature and extends its shelf life by reducing rancidity. The process of hydrogenation involves using vegetable oil under pressure with hydrogen gas at 250–400 degrees F for several hours in the presence of a catalyst such as nickel or platinum. Trans fatty acids along with saturated fats (animal fat) have been implicated in elevated cholesterol, and heart and vascular disease. Start to read nutritional labels; if it says, “partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated” it’s a trans fat and avoid it.


Omega-3 (Alpha-Linolenic acid) is further converted, albeit very inefficiently in the body, into two very important larger carbon chains, one being Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and the other Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). EPA is strongly anti-inflammatory in the body and limits the production of Eicosanoids formed from the Omega-6 fatty acid conversions. DHA is very important for brain function and comprises the majority of fat concentration in the brain; the brain is composed of approximately 60% fat. Which is why breastfeeding is so important to the developing child as it is their sole source of Omega-3 fatty acids. Most formulas do not provide adequate levels of Omega-3 fatty acids although some products have recently begun to add DHA. There have been many studies showing improved cognitive functions and I.Q. scores with children that were breastfed and receiving DHA from the mother compared to formula fed infants. Also, improvements in vision in children, DHA is involved in the retina of the eye. DHA has also been found to be very low in patients with Alzheimer’s disease (AD), and low DHA is also a significant risk factor for the development of Alzheimer’s. Dementia and cognitive impairment have also shown to have lower levels of DHA. Omega-3 fatty acids have also been reported to have a beneficial effect on attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and schizophrenia, and may also be effective in managing depression in adults.

There have been a number of clinical trials assessing the benefits of dietary supplementation with EPA and DHA in several inflammatory and autoimmune diseases in humans, including rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, psoriasis, lupus erythematosus, multiple sclerosis and migraine headaches. Many of the placebo-controlled trials of fish oil in chronic inflammatory diseases reveal significant benefit, including decreased disease activity and a lowered use of anti-inflammatory drugs.

As stated earlier, the conversion process of Omega-3 (Alpha-Linolenic acid) into EPA and DHA in the body is very poor. Studies generally agree that it is below 5% in humans and depends on the concentration of Omega-6 fats in the diet. One study states that with a diet high in Omega-6 fats (the majority of Americans), conversion of Omega-3 is further reduced by 40% to 50%. This is because both types of fatty acids (Omega-6 and Omega-3) require the same enzyme in the body to convert them into their respective pathways of metabolism. And if you have 20-30 times more Omega-6, more of that oil will compete for the enzyme and less Omega-3 products will be metabolized.

Dietary Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

The best plant sources of Omega-3 are Canola oil, Flax seed oil, Walnuts, Chia seed (Chia Pet) and Hemp seed. Also, some dark green leafy vegetables. But as stated previously, the conversion into EPA and DHA in the body is very poor, less than 5%.

The best sources of EPA and DHA are Marine algae, seaweed and fatty cold-water fish (albacore tuna, mackerel, trout, salmon, sardines). Unfortunately most fish, if not all, are contaminated with heavy metals (mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic) and poisons (PCB’s, dioxins) and some authorities do not recommend increasing your current consumption of fish to get higher amounts of Omega-3. Recent government guidelines have come out recommending that pregnant and nursing mothers and children avoid certain types of fish altogether and severely restrict other types of fish consumption. Other countries recommend avoiding fish completely while nursing and/or pregnant due to contamination. I am of the opinion that there is no safe level of mercury exposure for the developing child’s brain and it should be avoided at all costs. It is essential that kids and pregnant mothers get DHA and EPA in the diet, but eating fish is unfortunately not the answer. Your best recourse is buying fish oil supplements. But buyers beware, not all products are created equal.

Fish Oil Standards

Fish oil supplements can also contain heavy metal contaminants and it is important to make sure your source is held to the best standards for quality. Important things to consider when you are taking a lot of fish oil and you want to keep your toxic metal exposure to a minimum. There are many different standards for fish oil processing available, each having their own acceptable levels of toxic metals (mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic) and poisons (PCB’s and Dioxin). Not to mention confusing standards like “ultra grade” and “pharmaceutical grade”. Here are a few examples of some standards widely in use:

So if your buying fish oil, the best standards for quality are the European Pharmacopeia or the CRN Monograph. These standards offer the lowest levels of contaminants available. If you visit www.crnusa.org/ , you can find a list of companies that are complying with the CRN monograph in the production of high quality fish oil. One company is Spectrum Organics. They have a product line called Spectrum Essentials that can be purchased in many stores locally in Arizona (Whole Foods, Fry’s)

In Summary

It has been estimated that 95% of the population are deficient in Omega-3 fatty acids. One way to tell if you are deficient is if you have dry skin, or the need for moisturizers, creams, and lotions. They are all indicators of less than optimum Omega-3 intake.

It is well documented that diets high in Omega-6 fats increase inflammation, cancer, vascular disease (increased blood pressure, increased blood clotting which can lead to strokes, embolism, heart attack), arthritis, pain, and immune system dysfunction in the body. And it is also well documented that Omega-3 fats have the opposite effect.

How much fish oil should you be taking? It depends on your current health status. Dr. Barry Sears recommends the following: If you are not currently suffering any ailments and wish to reduce your future chances of developing disease, a good maintenance dose is around 2.5 grams (2500 mg) per day total of EPA/DHA. The best ratio of EPA:DHA is 2:1. So if you took 2500mg daily, roughly 1700 mg should be in EPA, and 800 mg in DHA. If you are looking to improve your cardiovascular health, 2.5 – 5 grams per day are recommended. To enhance brain function, reduce chronic inflammation and achievement of optimal health, 5 – 10 grams per day. In the treatment of neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis, as much as 10-25 grams per day have been utilized. The FDA has concluded that taking up to 3 grams a day is “generally recognized as safe.” Safety depends on the quality of fish oil that you take. And if you are worried about calories, consuming 2.5 grams of fish oil adds an additional 40 calories to your diet. Foods with high levels of antioxidants are also very important to take when consuming high doses of fish oil; such as olive oil, fruits, vegetable and vitamin E.

Your parents and grandparents were right all along, that cod liver oil was good for your health after all.

Here is a flow chart that describes the relationship of Omega 6 and Omega 3 fats in our diet: Essential Fatty Acids Update.pdf