by Sue Becker
I have become greatly concerned with the abundance of bad and nonsensical nutritional advice being hurled at us from television and popular magazine advertising, particularly on the subject of fat and cholesterol. Since many people seem to be concerned about the content of fat and cholesterol in their foods and advertisers continue to use the claims of “no fat, no cholesterol” as their selling points, many obviously are taking this nutritional advice to heart. While it is true that a high fat diet puts greater nutritional demands on the body, one must realize that fats and cholesterol are necessary nutrients for the vital biological processes for life. It is my intent to present to you, as simply as possible, the facts about fats and to put to rest the very faulty information coming to us from the food and advertising industry.
Fats are comprised of fatty substances, known as fatty acids, which are made up of molecules combining atoms of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen in definite proportions. The unsaturated fatty acids contain what chemists call double bonds, that is points in their molecules that easily attach themselves to additional atoms. They are especially susceptible to the attachment of extra atoms of either oxygen or hydrogen. If you attach enough atoms of hydrogen to this fatty molecule, so that it cannot hold any more, it is then said to be saturated. A saturated fat will be solid at normal room temperature, while the unsaturated will be liquid. This is the easiest and most obvious way to tell them apart. In the food processing industry this characteristic of unsaturated fatty acids to bond easily with hydrogen or oxygen has determined much of what is being done to foods containing oil.
FATS IN FOOD PROCESSING
For example, hydrogenation is the process of bubbling hydrogen gas through oil until all the double bonds have seized hydrogen atoms and become saturated. At this point, the oils have hardened to the consistency of butter and have become the vegetable shortenings and margarines that are sold to the American public by the billions of pounds a year. If you have ever been tempted to believe that these solid vegetable fats are actually good for you or better for you than animal fats, now is the time to change your mind. The simple fact is, chemically, these oils have been transformed into totally saturated fatty acids that are now unavailable to bind with other substances within the body to perform their varied, and vital roles. We will look at their function in the body later in this article. For now though, it is important to understand, that these saturated fatty acids are not only useless to the body, but also quite harmful.
Oxidation, on the other hand, causes serious problems for the food processor. When the linkage at these double bonds occurs with oxygen, oxidation takes place and the oil becomes rancid. In order to preserve the shelf life of an oil, the first thing a food processor must do is “refine” it by removing as much of the unsaturated fatty acids as possible, in particular the linoleic acid. Linoleic acid is the most unsaturated of the fatty acids making it the most valuable to our bodies and the most susceptible to oxidation. With the removal of linoleic acid alone, an oil may still be “legally” labeled unsaturated yet has now been deprived of its greatest nutritive value to us. A chemical anti-oxidant (a substance used to keep a fat molecule from binding with O2) is now added to further insure rancidity does not occur, thereby extending the shelf life of the oil. This is the final blow! For while the essential fatty acids must be protected against oxidation until they have been absorbed into our systems, when they reach the cell or blood stream they must then be able to oxidize or they can not do their work. The chemical anti-oxidant, however, once incorporated onto the fatty acid cannot be removed, therefore preventing the fatty acids from performing their all important and life giving jobs.
We’ve looked thus far at the role these fatty acids play in the food industry, let’s take a close look now at their role as essential nutrients within the body.
THE AMAZING ROLE OF “VITAMIN F” WITHIN THE BODY
When we talk of essential fatty acids, we mean only some of the acids contained in fats. There are a number of such acids found in foods containing oil, but linoleic acid is the most important. Others, such as oleic or arachadonic acids, are able to perform isolated functions in the body but linoleic acid can be converted to these other fatty acids. Therefore, linoleic acid alone is able to do the job of every other fatty acid if enough linoleic acid is available.
The term “essential” is used when referring to a substance that is absolutely necessary within the human body for the processes of life to continue; but, which cannot be manufactured by the body and therefore must be obtained from the foods we eat. Since these fatty acids meet both criteria, the term “essential” is certainly appropriate. “Vitamin” is also a term given to a substance necessary for life, therefore the name vitamin F is given to refer to the essential fatty acids collectively and will be used interchangeably throughout this writing. The fact that unsaturated fatty acids easily bond with other substances is critical to the very function of the fatty acids in our bodies. The truth of the matter is, we could not exist without vitamin F, the essential fatty acids.
When we consume foods containing these fatty acids, through a series of complicated chemical reactions within the body this vitamin combines with proteins and cholesterol (yes cholesterol) to form structures so basic there is no life without them. Combining with proteins, these fatty acids make up the membrane that encloses every cell. This combining can not take place if the fatty acids are unavailable thus the membrane will be weakened. If such a membrane is absent, weak or faulty in structure, the contents of the cell leak out and the cell dies. If enough of the cells die at a faster rate than they can be reproduced, then the organ or structure these cells compose becomes weakened or even ceases to function, perhaps even leading to the death of the entire body. For example, if the weakened cells make up the walls of your arteries, then the walls of the arteries themselves become weakened which may result in an aneurysm or internal hemorrhages. Perhaps it is the membrane of the red blood cells that is faulty causing the red blood cells to deteriorate at a faster rate than can be reproduced causing a very serious form of anemia that no amount of iron supplementation can correct.
Through a different chemical transformation the fatty acids combine once again with a protein to form a substance called myelin. Myelin sheathes the nerves in the body, including the spinal cord. Any damage to the myelin sheath can impair mental ability and give rise to neurological disorders and even the dreaded multiple sclerosis. Is it possible that multiple sclerosis or other neurological problems are a deficiency of the essential fatty acids or even the inability for them to function properly? For healthy nerves we must have these nutrients!
Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of vitamin F is that it does much of its work by combining, within our bodies, with free cholesterol, which our liver manufactures. As long as we have enough available linoleic acid in our diets, the cholesterol in our system is put to work and does nothing but good. Through this combining process, cholesterol becomes the primary building block for many of the important steroids, including the bile acids, necessary for the metabolism of fat, and the sex hormones. In their function as sex hormones, steroids regulate the transport of other fatty acids across the cell membrane to perform functions within the cell, such as anti-inflammatory agents and as regulators of certain metabolisms. Cholesterol combined with vitamin F is a structural component of the cell membrane contributing to the strength and rigidity of the membrane. In certain other tissues, cholesterol is the precursor (building block) of vitamin D. If the fatty acids are unavailable to combine with he cholesterol our bodies are unable to synthesize this very important vitamin. Vitamin D is essential in making calcium available to the tissues.
As one can see cholesterol plays a vital role in controlling the function, health, and life of our bodies. It is only when our bodies fail to utilize the cholesterol that it forms plaque and builds up on our blood vessels, causing the major killing disease, arteriosclerosis. A primary role of one form of an essential fatty acid, lecithin, is to break down both fats and cholesterol to make them more readily available for their use by the body. Fatty acids and particularly lecithin are critical nutrients for the prevention and even reversal of arteriosclerosis.
To try to eliminate fat and cholesterol from our diet is foolishness for in so doing we would eliminate the very foods, containing the essential fatty acids, to utilize the cholesterol. The truth of the matter is we couldn’t eliminate cholesterol from our systems even if we never ate another drop, for the liver would continue to manufacture this absolutely vital nutrient.
In still another biochemical process, the fatty acids combine to form the very influential prostaglandins. Prostaglandins function within the body in a manner similar to hormones, except they are utilized by the very cell in which they are made. These compounds are found in all tissue and become the building blocks of substances that regulate such cellular activity as nerve transmissions, blood supply and pressure, water retention, development of the inflammatory response and much more. One most significant function of prostaglandin is to regulate the coagulation of blood so that it is neither too fast nor too slow. By preventing fast clotting, these compounds guard against diseases such as coronary thrombosis, strokes and any other complication relating to abnormal clot formation.
The essential fatty acids have also been shown to be effective against ulcers, asthma, dental cavities (vitamin F is one of the building blocks of teeth), acne and other skin disorders. These diseases and many other infirmities could be alleviated if the diet adequately supplied the nutrients for the cells to function properly. I am convinced that volumes could be written and a lifetime of study could be devoted to the critical role and importance of these very essential fatty acids. Yet even if we consumed a good supply of these essential fatty acids every single day, as we should, we will not benefit from their remarkable functions unless they arrive to our blood stream and cells in a usable form.
However, this simple fact remains– these fatty acids readily link up with oxygen in our digestive system and blood. This oxidation process produces highly toxic compounds, known as peroxides, that our tissues cannot use. The peroxides cause toxic reactions, which interfere with cellular function, destroy enzyme activity systems, and breaks down red blood cells. There is evidence that peroxides may lead to the formation of tumor cells. The fatty acids, once oxidized, actually become dangerous oxidizing agents themselves, breaking down and affecting every bodily function if left unchecked.
But God in His wisdom did not leave us helpless. He created a protective agent for our cellular structure, the incredible vitamin E. Despite a wide variety of symptoms produced by vitamin E deficiencies, this vitamin appears to perform only one function within the body. Vitamin E serves to protect these fatty acids as they travel through the stomach and intestines to keep them from binding with oxygen. Therefore, vitamin E not only delivers fatty acids to the cells in an un-oxidized state, but also delivers oxygen in a pure available form. An added benefit here is that vitamin E reduces the amount of oxygen necessary for life. Once the fatty acids reach the cells or blood stream, the vitamin E breaks away (a chemical anti-oxidant cannot do this) and the fatty acids are then free to bind with proteins, cholesterol, or whatever necessary substance to perform its biological role. Vitamin E is used up in this process and therefore must be abundantly supplied daily.
FOOD SOURCES FOR VITAMIN F
God has given us, through His perfect provision, foods that contain not only these essential fatty acids in very useable forms, but also their “protector”, vitamin E, a natural and most potent anti-oxidant. These fatty acids, as well as vitamin E, so essential to health and life, occur in whole-unrefined foods containing oil, such as whole grains. The oils found in the germ of such grains as barley, oats, rye, and wheat are all particularly high in the essential fatty acids (barley germ is one of the richest sources of linoleic acid and is the featured grain this issue). Many nuts and beans supply these nutrients as well. Eggs, sunflower seeds and soybeans are also good sources. Other foods may provide the fatty acids but there is no significant source of vitamin E without whole grains. In fact, according to Dr. Wilfred Shute M.D., a world-renowned cardiologist, coronary thrombosis and other related heart problems did not appear on the scene in America until after 1910 when the refining of whole-wheat flour became common place and the only significant source of vitamin E was lost. “Give us this day our daily bread” – one can see that bread (i.e. grain) truly is the staff of life!
The Complete Book of Vitamins, by J.I. Rodale and staff; Rodale Books, Inc.
Modern Concepts in Biochemistry, Fourth Edition, by Robert C. Bohinski; Allyn and Bacon, Inc.
DISCLAIMER: Nothing in this article should be construed as medical advice. Consult you health care provider for your individual nutritional and medical needs. The opinions are strictly those of the author and are not necessarily those of any professional group or other individual.