The Basic Principles of Fatty Acids

Oils and fats are essential for life and an irreplaceable component of optimal metabolism. Dr. Budwig asserted that, “Not all fats were created equally and the manner in which they are appropriated is not unimportant.” In the early 50s, after the scientist had developed her paper chromatography method, she succeeded differentiating between saturated and polyunsaturated fats. As the chief expert consultant for pharmaceuticals and fats at the Federal Institute for Lipid Research, she documented the damaging effects of trans-fatty acids. She recognized that, “Fat is an untapped source of latent power. Fats are essential; centrally important for all vital functions.”

Saturated fatty acids

Dietary fats are generally made up of one molecule of glycerol attached to three fatty acid chains. Molecules which lack double bonds in their fatty acids chains are known as saturated fatty acids. These fatty acids resemble a straight chain and are in a solid state at room temperature. They are rigid and sluggish in the body. Saturated fatty acids are primarily found in animal foodstuffs (meat, sausage, poultry, offal, fish, eggs, butter, milk), flour and sweet-based dishes, as well as in the fat from coconuts and palm kernels. 

Unsaturated fatty acids

Unsaturated fatty acids have one or more double bonds. Accordingly, they are referred to as either mono or polyunsaturated fatty acids. Their double bonds cause them to take on a steric structure. They are more flexible and thus more reactive than saturated fat. Omega-3, omega-6 or omega-9 fatty acids are representative of the unsaturated fatty acids.

Monounsaturated fatty acids

Our bodies are capable of synthesizing monounsaturated fatty acids themselves. Therefore, they are non-essential or, in other words, they do not need to be consumed daily through food. They can be found in olives and olive oil, in almonds or almond oil, in rapeseed oil, as well as in hazelnuts or avocados. 

Essential fatty acids

Substances which are necessary for vital functions, but which cannot be synthesized by the body itself are referred to as essential. Several amino acids and vitamins as well as omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential. They must be absorbed from food. Due to their spatial structure, essential fatty acids have a positive effect on the flexibility of cell membranes. 

Polyunsaturated fatty acids

Polyunsaturated fatty acids can only be synthesized in small quantities by the body, if at all. They must be regularly ingested through food. Depending on their structure, we distinguish between two important groups of polyunsaturated fatty acids; the omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-6 fatty acids

The most common omega-6 fatty acid is linoleic acid. It is the main constituent of many vegetable oils that come into use in our kitchens. Safflower oil is composed of up to 75% linoleic acid, and sunflower oil of as much as 65%. Other omega-6 fatty acids include gamma-linolenic acid, dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid, and arachidonic acid.

Omega-3 fatty acids

The group omega 3 fatty acids includes different forms of polyunsaturated fatty acids. The most well-known are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is an essential fatty acid, meaning that the body is unable to synthesize this substance itself. It is found exclusively in plants, which is why it is also referred to as vegetable omega-3. Flax seed oil has the highest content of valuable omega-3 fatty acids of all the vegetable oils.

Our bodies have the ability to synthesize highly unsaturated EPA and DHA from ALA. ALA, EPA, and DHA are important components of phospholipids, which in turn are an integral part of the structure of cell membranes and the membranes of cell organelles (mitochondria, lysosomes). The role of omega-3 fatty acids in the phospholipids of cell membranes is twofold. Firstly, they increase the fluidity (elasticity, plasticity) and activity (exchange of substances) of the membranes, which can, for example, improve the functionality of blood cells which thus improves circulation. Other hand, the phospholipids is a store for the free fatty acids. Alternately, free fatty acids are stored in phospholipids.

Phospholipids are especially predominant in nerve cells, which is why the brain has the highest concentration of omega-3. This makes it easy to comprehend why a sufficient intake of ALA is especially of importance in a developing brain (pregnancy and while nursing).

 

Further healthy effects of omega-3 fatty acids include:

  • Prevention of cardiovascular diseases and diabetes

  • A positive effect on inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis

  • A positive effect on mood and depressive symptoms 

  • A positive effect on pregnancy (for both mother and child)

  • A decreased risk of Alzheimer type dementia

  • The role of omega-3 fatty acids in the prevention and development of cancer is currently being discussed.

Trans fats

Trans fats are polyunsaturated fatty acids which have been chemically altered. They are generated through the industrial processing of vegetable oils and are used to make food more preservable or to obtain a spreadable consistency. In their natural form, vegetable oils are liquid. In order to make them last longer or process them to a spreadable form, their chemical structure must be changed. This alteration also has an effect on their properties. Trans fatty acids are exogenous substances which are unrecognizable to our bodies. They are harmful to our health and are seen as contributing factors to coronary heart disease (atherosclerosis, heart attack).

Through the incorporation of these substances into our bodies, our cell membranes have become rigid and inflexible. As a result, exchange of substances across these membranes has also been impaired. Membrane bound receptors, such as our insulin receptors, are hindered in their normal function and react sluggishly. This, in turn, causes a decreased influx of glucose into the cell which can lead to the development of type 2 diabetes. Even the flow characteristics of red blood cells are effected. As their membranes become rigid, it causes them to lose their plasticity and with it their ability to reach into the narrowest blood vessels, ensuring optimal oxygenation of the whole body. Additionally, trans fatty acids block the synthesis of anti-inflammatory and anticoagulant signaling substances.

Dr. Johanna Budwig never tired of pointing out these facts in both her books and numerous lectures: “We need true fats as our foods once again, in order to give our bodies the ‘vitally important’ fats which they require.” Consequentially, she invented a healthy alternative to butter and margarine, developing a recipe with a base of flax seed oil and coconut oil- Oleolux.

In Denmark it is against the law for dietary fats to contain more than two percent trans fats. In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into effect a law banning the sale of trans fats in stores and restaurants. In nature, trans fats are only produced in bacteria (and in small quantities, for example, in dairy products). They mainly occur as byproducts of industrial fat hardening, for instance, in breaded fish, peanut butter, backed goods, or French fries. Trans fats are hidden behind terms such as hardened or partially hardened, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats.