Building Blocks of the Body: Fats and Oils

FATS, often referred to as lipids, are an integral part of our diet.  In fact, we often consume too much of it, or the wrong kinds of fats.

The body utilizes fats in various ways.  For example:

  •  As phospholipids, cholesterols, and glycolipids, they form cell membranes.
  •  As sterol lipids, they are used to synthesize hormones, such as estrogen, testosterone, androsterone, progesterone, cortisol, or aldosterone, as well as a tool for cell signaling.
  •  As triglycerides, they are used for energy storage in fat (adipose) tissue cells.
  •  As sphingolipids, such as sphyngomyelin, they are major  components of myelin sheaths that wrap around long neurons for speedy nerve conduction.

The major source of fats is our diet in the form of triglycerides.  We get our fats primarily from dairy, meats, nuts, seeds, coconut butter or milk, and so forth.

Ideally, these fats are mostly mono- or polyunsaturated.  In that form, they provide numerous health benefits.  As importantly, they don’t harden the walls of our blood vessels, and keep the cell membranes flexible and resilient.  A diet containing mostly saturated fats will lead to stiff cell membranes, and hardened artery walls, as well as impaired cell signaling and  hormone production.

While cholesterol is an important component of cell membranes and base unit for steroids, it can be easily manufactured by the liver.  Thus, it is not an important part of our dietary fat.

Fats vary in the amount of saturated versus unsaturated fat content.  Animal fats are higher in saturated fats, while vegetable and other plant oils are lower in saturated fats.

The body depends on the diet for omega-3 (linolenic acid) and omega-6 fatty acids (linoleic acid), referred to as essential fatty acids.

Fish, such as salmon, mackerel, halibut, sardines, tuna, and cod, are high in omega-3 fatty acids.  Other sources are walnuts, flax seeds. and canola oil.  These fats are highly valued for their ability to decrease general and local inflammation in the body.

Vegetable oils from sunflower seeds, poppy seeds, safflower seeds, and corn yield high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids.  Other valuable sources of omega-6 fatty acids are nuts, as well as black current and evening primrose oil.

Red meats and dairy are quite high in arachadonic acid, a precursor to the inflammatory pathways of the body.  While inflammation is part of the body’s healing process after injury and infection, too much arachadonic acid results in an overvigilant and overreactive immune system. Thus, red meats should be eaten in very small amounts.

The health benefits of oils is easily destroyed by high heat sources such as frying.  Vegetables are best steamed lightly to preserve their vitamin content.  Oils should be added after cooking.

Refined oils should be avoided, as they are extracted with chemicals, while cold-pressed oils are chemical free.

Olive  and canola oils are relatively heat stable and can be used for sauteing.  Olive oil is a highly nutritive oil with great flavor.  The extra virgin variety contains most of the nutrients.

A well balanced diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fish, small amounts of red or white meats will assure an adequate supply of healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, and other health supporting biochemicals.