In body composition, the average human is equal parts proteins and lipids. Fats, if you excuse my language, are the most common type of lipid. Fatty acids are built from chains of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. These fatty acids bond to the molecule glycerol to form fats and oils. The body metabolizes sugars for use as energy, but excess sugars will be stored as fat. Breaking down the molecular bonds in fat releases significantly more energy than simple glucose metabolism. This potential for generating energy makes fats an essential nutrient in the human body, while their potential for generating discomfort in body image makes them one of the world’s most despised substances.
Modern dietary guidelines focus primarily on fat-restricted diets for weight management, but healthy fats are as essential in human nutrition as proteins, and fat deficiency can have catastrophic effects on vital body functions. Vitamins A, D and E are fat soluble, the body requires the presence of fats to transport and absorb these nutrients. Body fats protect vital organs from damage and provide insulation in cell membranes. The human brain is roughly 60 percent fat, and the protective lining in neural pathways is roughly 70 percent fat, with the majority of those fats belonging to the omega-3 category these nutrients are particularly essential for maintaining neurological and mental health functions.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Polyunsaturated fats that regulate brain and cardiovascular functions. The simplest omega-3 is ALA, found primarily in plant-based foods, which can be stored for energy or converted into unsaturated fats DHA and EPA for active use in bodily functions. DHA is vital in developing and regulating brain functions, it serves as a structural component in skin and eyes, improves ocular function in infants, and promotes mental health functions in developing brains. EPA builds signaling molecules that reduce inflammation. ALA to DHA or EPA conversion requires sufficient levels of B-complex Vitamins and the minerals Calcium, Copper, Magnesium, Iron and Zinc. DHA and EPA, among other omega-3 fatty acids, can be found in high concentrations in fish, oils, nuts and seeds.
Omega-6 Fatty Acids
Polyunsaturated fats that regulate metabolism, maintain reproductive function, and stimulate bone, skin and hair growth.
Omega-9 Fatty Acids
Can be synthesized in the body when sufficient levels of both omega-3 and omega-6 are available. Omega-9 fatty acids regulate neurological and immune functions, and promote cardiovascular health by balancing cholesterol levels.
Healthy fats are an essential nutrient, but saturated fats and trans-unsaturated fats should typically be avoided. As a general rule, fats should be obtained primarily from natural unprocessed sources. Fats from processed foods have been stabilized to preserve freshness, but this process also prevents digestion and utilization of the nutrient components.
Optimal Food Sources for Omega Fatty Acids
- Nuts and Seeds (flax, chia, hemp, walnut, pistachio, macadamia)
- Fish (roe, shellfish, tuna, sardines, salmon, shrimp, cod)
- Greens (brussels sprouts, collards, spinach, kale, lettuce, turnip greens, bok choy, leeks, watercress)
- Cauliflower and broccoli
- Soybeans, tofu and miso
- Squash (winter, summer, butternut)
- Raspberries and strawberries
- Beans and legumes (black lentil, white/navy, kidney, pinto)
- Tropical fruit (coconut, papaya, mango, kiwi, cantaloupe, honeydew)
- Herbs (mint, thyme, basil, terragon, marjoram, oregano, saffron)
Fats and Oils to avoid
- Oils (safflower, grape seed, sunflower, corn)
- Mayonnaise and other dressings
- Processed snacks and fast food