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Why You Need Fat


By: Mark Hyman, MD

Fats

This article was originally published in The UltraMind Solution.

Do you gather wild plants to eat or hunt for your meat? If not you are likely to be one of the 99 percent of people in the 21st century who are deficient in the most important ingredient in our bodies for normal cell and brain function—omega-3 fatty acids.

You may have heard omega-3s referred to as "essential fatty acids." Want to know what they are called "essential?" Because your body can't function without them. If you don't get enough, your biology breaks down from the very root and you whither.

Despite our fat phobic culture and the rhetoric you may have heard about "low-fat diets" the reality is that you must have fat in your diet if you are going to survive.

For example, the Greenland Inuit (a native tribe in Greenland) consumed between 15-19 grams of omega-3 fats a day from eating whale, walrus, seal, and arctic char. That may be how much we are designed to operate on. Most of us consume far less than 1 gram a day.

But here's the key thing: You need to get the right kind of fats. Eating the wrong kind of fats will kill you.

What are the right kind of fats?

Omega-3s.

These special fats come from wild things—which means they are hard to find in today's society. Today our only real source of omega-3 fats is fish, and most of the fish we eat is contaminated with toxins and mercury, and our oceans are now being severely overfished making the decisions about what to eat that much more complex. So this is a very real problem …

Aside from controlling your gene function, regulating your immune system, and improving your metabolism, these fats are vital components of the cell membrane covering every one of the 100 trillion cells in your body. Without omega-3 fats, the proper messages can't be communicated from one cell to another.

The two most important omega-3 fats to know about are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA). They are both necessary omega-3 fats. Since your brain is mostly fat, and 60 percent of your brain is specifically made of DHA it is easy to see why they are so important. If you don't have enough, your brain doesn't work.

Unfortunately, in the last 150 years we have seen an unprecedented change in our fat intake. Refined, omega-6, inflammatory oils including corn, soy, and safflower oils replaced omega-3 fats from fish, wild game, and wild plants.

The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats has increased from 1:1 to 10:1 or 20:1 in our diets, and the effects have been disastrous. All of the major diseases of aging as well as the epidemic of "brain disorders" are directly associated with this change in our diet.

Our bodies and brains don't work without omega-3 fats. Period. That is why low levels of omega-3 fats have been linked to everything from depression to dementia, heart disease to hypertension, Alzheimer's to autism, and more.

At a recent nutrition conference I listened to Joseph Hibbeln, MD (who is the scientist in the section dedicated to nutritional neurosciences at the National Institutes of Health) where he presented some startling data about the effect of fish oil or omega-3 fats on our mental health.

He told us that the flood of soy oils and seed oils like corn in our diet, which contain high amounts of linoleic acid (an unhealthy omega-6 fatty acid), promote inflammation and disease.

In our culture this inflammatory fatty acid primarily comes from soy oil. Eighty percent of the fats consumed in the U.S. are linoleic acid, which comes from soy oil and other similar fats. Twenty percent are in the form of EPA, which comes from fish oil. (I would believe we consume even less EPA.)

In Japan 80 percent of the fat eaten is EPA, and only 20 percent is arachidonic acid (another unhealthy omega-6 fatty acid). That may be why the Japanese have less depression, dementia, and heart disease.

Consuming these harmful seed and soy oils instead of omega-3 fats changes our tissue composition in dramatic ways and damages our health.

Dr. Hibbeln explained that there has been a thousand fold increase in the consumption of soy oil over the last century. In fact, twenty percent of all calories consumed in America are from soybean oil and therefore 9 to 10 percent of all our calories are from linoleic acid instead of the omega-3 fats, which we should be eating.

It is interesting that in the first four to five million years of human history occurred in a seafood-rich nutritional environment in which seafood was the main source of fats. There were no seed oils, which we now use to cook French fries, donuts, and packaged foods. We have to ask ourselves what happens to our mind and body when our nutritional environment radically changes this way.

This level of the soy oils in our diet is unsafe. Recent research has found that homicide mortality in the United Kingdom increased dramatically with the increase in consumption of linoleic acid from soy oil. The same thing happened in the United States as well as in Australia, the UK, Canada, and Argentina. Conversely the homicide mortality rates are inversely related to seafood consumption, meaning that the more seafood people eat in a society such as Japan the less homicide they have.

Even more dramatic was a study that was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2002 that looked at the reduction in felony-level violent offenses among prisoners with supplementation of omega-3 fats. A placebo-controlled trial gave one group the recommended daily amounts of vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fats and the other group retained their regular prison diet and lifestyle. By just providing vitamin and fish oil supplements there was a 35 percent reduction in felony-related violent crime in the prison.

It has also been shown that a lack of fish consumption is universally related to depression. A one year study of EPA was helpful in treating resistant depression.

Omega-3 fats are also helpful in treating postpartum depression. DHA from fish oils is a critical part of a mother's breast milk that helps neurological development in the fetus. Women who have higher levels of omega-3 fats in their tissues have lower rates of postpartum depression.

Similarly, kids who have dyslexia, dyspraxia (difficulty writing), other learning disabilities, and attention deficit disorder are mostly omega-3 deficient. Dopamine activity, which is critical for brain function in these children, is improved with essential fatty acid consumption. There have been controlled studies showing that giving fish oil to children with these kinds of problems improves reading and spelling in treatment groups and improves conduct in school because the nervous system is very dependent on these fats to function.

Omega-3 fats are well known for their benefits in heart health, obesity, and diabetes. They help prevent heart attacks, arrhythmias, and strokes; reduce inflammation; and prevent blood clots. But their effects on the brain are just as critical.

Omega-3 fats may sound like a miracle cure, and they can be in some cases. I have seen patients completely recover from autism with cod liver oil (which contains omega-3 fats, and vitamins A and D).

One of my patients, a 20-year woman who hated seafood and avoided it her whole life, suffered from depression, learning disabilities, obesity, muscle pain, and chronic fatigue. Her blood tests showed severe omega-3 fat deficiency and an overload of inflammatory omega-6 fats. Giving her an oil change with high doses of fish oil (EPA and DHA), she recovered from her depression, cognitive struggles, her pain disappeared, and she lost 60 pounds.

Why do results like this take place when you get enough omega-3s? Let's take a moment to look at why they are so critical for health

What Omega-3 Fats (and other fats) Do and Why Deficiencies Wreak Havoc on Your Biology

Here are 4 key roles omega-3 fats play in your body and why they are linked to so many different chronic diseases. These fats are literally the stuff we are made of. They:

  1. Build all cell membranes (along with a few other key fats called phospholipids – PC and PS)
  2. Reduce inflammation which has been linked to all chronic illnesses, weight gain, and many brain problems
  3. Balance blood sugar.
  4. Increase the activity of a key molecule in your brain called BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor), which acts like "Miracle Gro" for your brain stimulating new cell growth and increased cell connections.

As I said before, if you don't get enough of these healthy fats your body and brain breakdown from the root.

So how can you get enough omega-3s? It's simple:

  • Eat lots of small, wild or sustainably raised river fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines. Canned wild salmon, sardines, or herring (kippers) are great emergency foods full of safe omega-3 fats.
  • Eat nuts like walnuts, macadamias, and cashews and seeds like sunflower, pumpkin, and flax seeds.
  • Try omega-3 eggs. These come from chickens a diet rich in flax seeds and other forms of omega-3s. You can safely enjoy up to eight eggs per week.
  • Take a high-quality, toxin-free fish oil supplement. You should try to take 1000mg of a 300/200 ratio of EPA/DHA twice a day, once with breakfast and once with dinner

For some taking these steps can produce dramatic changes almost overnight. For others, increasing your intake of omega-3s and staying away from unhealthy fats will protect health for the long term.

Whichever group you fall into, getting the right fats in the right amounts is essential for long term health.