Oils and Essential Fatty Acids

Essential fatty acids are responsible for every metabolic operation in your body. These notes underscore the need to avoid refined and hydrogenated oils to maintain your health.
Conclusion:You don’t need a low fat diet, you need a good fat diet.

Originally published 1998

In 30 years of studying the literature on human nutrition, I studied vitamins, minerals, amino acids, enzymes, antioxidants, phytochemicals, and every other thing under the sunlight — including sunlight and oxygen. The last thing I thought to look at were fats. After all, I thought, it just sits there and gets burned. What’s there to know? Little did I know that fats are the most critical of all the nutrients — because essential fatty acids are responsible for every metabolic operation in your body.

A Quick Guide to Fatty Acids

Oils and Fats, in General

  • After you remove the water from your body, more than 50% of what’s left is fatty acids. (The remainder is about 30% amino acids, then carbs & minerals.) So they’re important. They make up every cell membrane, all the hormones, prostaglandins, and eicosanoids. They combine with protein to form lipoprotein structures like hemoglobin, and they are what makes the brain and nervous system work. I mean, they are IMPORTANT. WAY more important than vitamins, minerals, or even amino acids. They are vital building blocks that make us what we are.
  • Budwig points out that they carry oxygen to the cell and into it. They combine with protein to form a tiny molecular “battery” that literally supplies the energy for brain and nervous system functions. They provide the free-electrons that the immune system uses to destroy invaders, and they’re responsible for the operation of hormones. They are also supposed to be involved in water metabolism, although so far I have found no other information on that subject.
  • We’re told that saturated fats aren’t that good for us, that monounsaturated fats are better, and that polyunsaturated fats are the best. Unfortunately, its not that simple.
  • Erdmann mentions that saturated fats (SaFas) aren’t great, but the body at least knows what to do with them. They’re eventually burned for energy. The long-chain saturated fats are stored first, and then burned when they’re needed. That’s why exercise is important. The shortest of the long-chain SaFas, the butyric acid in butter, burns readily. Longer SaFas like stearic acid in beef are harder to burn, but the body can get around to it, eventually. Long chain SaFas are also used for stability and rigidity in cell walls.
  • Fife and Enig provide a completely different perspective on saturated fats when they point out that medium chain saturated fats like lauric acid in coconut oil are metabolized in a completely different way. Rather than being stored as fat, they’re immediately burned for fuel, like sugar (which tends to reduce your sugar intake over time). And they’re only 6.7 calories per gram, instead of 9 calories per gram like long chain fats. Plus, they actually offload your immune system, by killing germs before they get inside the skin.

Polyunsaturates, in Particular

  • Still the most important oils for health are arguably the polyunsaturates (omega-6 family, like EPA found in fish) and superunsaturates (omega-3 family, like GLA found in seed oils). (The monounsaturated omega-9 fat in olive oil also plays a role.)
  • Because they are unsaturated, those fats are chemically active. They combine with oxygen so it can be transported by hemoglobin, and they make up the critical parts of cell membranes that, in addition to making the membranes flexible, transport oxygen through the cell walls. In other words, the chemical interactions they enable literally allow the cells to “breathe”. They’re make it possible to pass nutrients through cell walls, as well, which allows the cells to eat. Basically, unsaturated fats allow your cells to eat and breathe, so they’re critical for health.
  • But that only applies to natural oils, in their natural state. When you heat a food that contains fat, it’s not so bad. Since the fat is bound to a protein, the heat doesn’t hurt the oil very much. And when you extract an oil without heat, it’s not so bad, either, as long as you are careful to preserve it by protecting from heat, light, and oxygen. (Olive oil, sesame oil, and coconut oil are unique in that respect, in that they’re stable at room temperature.)
  • But when you extract an oil and then heat it, the results are pretty awful. Oils are heated when they’re refined and when they’re hydrogenated. The unsaturated fats are then twisted into something like 500 different varieties of trans fats — transmogrified fats that do not exist in nature.
  • Nothing in a million years of evolution has prepared your body to recognize, evade, or discard those fats. Your body knows what to do with saturated fats, but is incapable of dealing with trans fats. As a result, trans fats act as metabolic poisons, taking the place of fats your body needs and inhibiting the metabolic operations that are normally enabled by unsaturated fats.

The Problem with Trans Fats

  • Erdmann has two fantastic pages that describes the process of refining oils so they won’t spoil. The idea is basically to prevent them from “oxidizing”. That is, to prevent them from combining with oxygen. But that is exactly what they need to do be useful in our body!!!
  • Olives are heated for two hours at 120 degrees, then pressed in huge hydraulic presses, that generate intense heat, then pumped full of chemicals and then heated to drive out lecithin (which is a very active unsaturate). Then mixed with caustic soda and heated again. Then bleached and boiled at 110 degrees centigrade for half an hour. And then, because it smells so bad by this time, it is steam-distilled at close to 270 degrees centigrade. And this qualifies as “cold pressed” oil!!!!
  • The problem here is not simply that the food is heated and that enzymes are killed. The real problem is that results of the process produce fatty acid “look alikes” that your cells have never seen in its millions of years of evolution.
  • Erdmann describes the trans fats-fats that started out life as normal unsaturated fats, in a CIS configuration (that means they have a bend in them. The mnemonic I use is “CIS-turn” (pun). But when heated, they rotate, and they tend to rotate, straightening out into the trans (I think of “rapid trans-it-a railroad track) configuration. They are made up of the same components, but they are not chemically active!! But your body can’t distinguish them from the real thing, so they get used-in your cell walls, in your brain and nervous system, in your hemoglobin. They are literally and truly a metabolic poison, the same as carbon monoxide, though less immediately virulent.
  • Erasmus points to other results of modern processing methods, including cross-linked fatty acids, oxidized fatty acids, double-bond shifted fatty acids, fat-derived polymers, fat oxidation products, and other alter fatty acids, none of which occur in nature. (p. 328) In fact, early on the book he shows how you can diagram a natural fatty acid merely by knowing how many double bonds it has and where the first one starts-because they always occur in precise, undeviating intervals — in nature, that is, before they are refined into oblivion.
  • But that is not the only way we mess ourselves up. Frying in general, and commercial deep frying in particular, does a great job of messing up the unsaturates as well. (All oils are a mixture of unsaturates and saturates, so no matter what oil they are using, some level of poison results.

Hydrogenation is the Worst of the Worst

  • But the “hydrogenation” process is the worst. That process pumps hydrogen gas through an oil at temperatures of up to 210 degrees centigrade. That saturates it all, right. And pretty well kills it, too. “Partly unsaturated” is even worse. That stops the process before the fats are fully saturated, leaving even more trans fats and other deviant fats behind.
    In the scientific literature, “trans fats” are only one variety of malformed fats. Erasmus lists the others. But in the general literature, “trans fats” means all of the adulterated, health-destroying pseudo-fats.
  • Erdmann states things beautifully on page 78, when he discusses what happens when trans fats take the place of CIS fats in the cell membrane: “the consequences of this substitution are severe: the integrity of the cell membrane will be reduced, admitting substances such as allergens, undigested proteins, viruses and even potential carcinogens.”
  • To summarize the problems:
    • Cell integrity is violated in the lungs, so you are more susceptible to carcinogenic pollution and you intake oxygen less effectively.
    • Cell integrity is violated in the digestive tract, so you are more allergic to things you eat, you ingest carcinogens, let a virus into your body, and ingest foods less effectively.
    • Cell integrity is violated in every cell of your body, so they are more susceptible to the allergens and carcinogens that are getting in, and at the same time are less able to process insulin, absorb oxygen, or acquire nutrients they need.
    • In addition, cellular operation is impaired in the brain, nervous system, hormonal messaging, and immune system as their functions are disrupted.
  • Jay Robb, who wrote The Fat Burning Diet, says that his eyesight improved after a year on a 40-30-30 diet (40% calories from carbohydrate, 30% from protein, 30% from fat. I believe that is because, as a part of his diet, he improved his health choices so that he avoided the dangerous fats mentioned above, and began ingesting unrefined oils. Erdmann points out that the CIS fats give the cell membranes flexibility – I suspect that my current need for glasses is simply the result of accumulated stiffness in the cornea stemming from many years of french fries, hydrogenated margarines, and foods like cookies made with partially hydrogenated fats. I have every reason to expect that my eyesight will improve, given a year or two with a good-fat diet.
  • Jay Robb also wrote that recovery from exercise improves significantly with a higher fat intake, because the fatty acids break down lactic acid. I am forever indebted to him for that comment, because that was what sparked my interest in this subject, and led to the discoveries I have described.


You don’t need a low fat diet, you need a good fat diet.

Avoiding Refined Oils and Finding Unrefined Varieties

The first and most important change you can make for your health is to avoid hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils. They’re in nearly everything, so you have to read food labels carefully — and even the FDA’s new requirement to list the amount of trans fats on food labels doesn’t completely solve the problem. (See Food Labels.)

Partially hydrogenated oils are also in most of the fast foods you eat: French fries, fried chicken, and other such foods are deep fried in partially hydrogenated oil at very high temperatures. That gives you a double whammy. Any fatty acids that were left intact after the oil was hydrogenated are destroyed in the deep frier. The breads are made with partially hydrogenated oils. Even the sauces and salad dressings are likely to contain it. (It’s difficult to be sure because there is no law that requires them to list their ingredients and display it in full public view.)

Once you’ve eliminated hydrogenated oils from your diet, the next important step is to eliminate refined oils. (They’re less important, but only because people don’t normally consume as much of them.) You then want to replace those oils with healthy, unrefined varieties.

I get unrefined vinegars and oils from the local whole foods store. In the south bay area (around San Jose and the San Francisco peninsula) there are four or five I can go to. Sometimes I have to go to all of them, but I can usually find whatever I want. They carry organic produce and aisles full of healthier-than normal food, so I guess I’m pretty lucky.

The oils I use are way more important than the vinegar. They are the unrefined seed oils, as recommended by Johanna Budwig – sesame and sunflower, primarily — and one called “Udo’s Best” that is created by Udo Erasmus, another noted authority in the field of fatty acid chemistry. I’ve also seen unrefined olive oil. If it doesn’t say “unrefined”, the next best thing is extra virgin. Anything else doesn’t even qualify as good.


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