Healthy Days and Nourishing Ways

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The Essentials: The Two Must Have Fatty Acids
The two must have fatty acids—alpha-linolenic acid (LNA) and linoleic acid (LA)—are considered essential because they cannot be manufactured by the body and are necessary for good health. Both of these essential fatty acids (EFAs), therefore, must be obtained by eating the right foods. The daily caloric intake of EFAs should be about 4% of the diet. A ratio of 2:1 LA to LNA should provide a good, healthy balance of these EFAs. (Some people believe the ratio should be 1:1, 3:1, or 4:1.) Historically, this good, healthy balance was achieved by many, if not most, people. Currently, many, if not most, people are not achieving this balance.

Today’s diets tend to be very high in LA and very low in LNA, with some people getting no LNA at all. This imbalance is most likely due to the recent huge increase in the diet of vegetable oils, which are loaded with LA, and sugar and trans fats, both of which interfere with the assimilation of EFAs.

So why are these EFAs so essential to good health? A diet lacking in LNA may result in weakness, tingling in arms and legs, high triglycerides, high blood pressure, inflammation, and immune dysfunction. A diet lacking in LA may result in hair loss, eczema, liver or kidney problems, and immune dysfunction. Although diets today tend to be much higher in LA than is necessary, the majority of this EFA is coming from unhealthy, rancid sources, such as vegetable oils.

EFAs are also important as precursors to prostaglandins, hormone-like substances that are involved in daily functions of cells. Prostaglandins are involved in regulating body functions for the cardiovascular, immune, nervous, and reproductive systems. EFAs are also needed in the transfer of oxygen from our lungs to our cells and in the production of hemoglobin. They are part of all cell membranes and help fight infection.

Now let’s take a look at some healthy food choices that will provide our bodies with these EFAs. The following foods contain a balance of both EFAs if from animals that have eaten what their bodies need to be healthy: eggs, butter, organ meats, and beef and lamb fat. Two of the richest sources of LA are unhydrogenated and unrefined safflower and sunflower oils. Other sources include unhydrogenated and unrefined corn, soybean, walnut, flax, pumpkin, and sesame oils. Two of the richest sources of LNA are flax and chia. Walnuts, and to a lesser extent dark green leafy vegetables and whole grains, also contain LNA. All polyunsaturated fats go rancid easily, so care must be taken to protect their health properties. These oils are sensitive to heat, oxygen, and light. The oils providing LNA are particularly sensitive to heat and should therefore never be used for cooking.

Another important function of LNA is that it can be converted into two additional omega-3 fatty acids—eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Both EPA and DHA are important for a healthy body. They have been associated with lowering triglycerides, blood pressure, and fibrinogen levels as well as preventing platelets from getting too sticky, thus helping to maintain a healthy cardiovascular system. EPA and DHA also offer some protection from cancer.

Although LNA can be converted to EPA and DHA, this is in a healthy body that is functioning properly, is getting the right nutrients, is not unduly stressed, and is not overloaded with a diet of sugar, trans fats, and/or omega-6 fats. Even still, in all the right circumstances, this conversion may still not take place. There are, however, foods that already contain these fats in a usable form. Rich sources of these omega-3 fats are cold-water fish like wild salmon, sardines (best eaten with the skin and bones), trout, and mackerel. Other sources are eggs and organ meats, if the animals have eaten a proper diet.

Choosing the right foods that contain those essential fats will keep us on a path of more healthy days and nourishing ways!