The Fatty Acid Motel

by | Nov 29, 2021 | Nutrition

Whether a fatty acid chain is saturated or unsaturated makes a big difference in the ways in which it can participate in chemical reactions and be used as building blocks in the body.

Fatty acid chains, as you may know from related eSavvyHealth Insights or other sources, are parts of fat molecules which are, well, long chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms. They are not all identical by any means, and there are two main categories.

To understand those categories, it can help to think of a fatty acid chain as a long, narrow roadside motel. Each “room” is a carbon atom and can hold up to two hydrogen atom occupants. If the motel has as many hydrogen atoms as it can hold—that is, two for every carbon atom, there are no vacancies, and it is called “saturated.” If however, some of the carbon atom rooms have no hydrogen atom occupants, then there are vacancies in the motel, and the fatty acid is categorized as “unsaturated.”

Whether a fatty acid chain is saturated or unsaturated makes a big difference in the ways in which it can participate in chemical reactions and be used as building blocks in the body. It’s not necessary to understand the details of that to make healthy food choices, but one particular detail is worth knowing—the membranes that contain your cells are largely made of fatty acid chains, some of which MUST be unsaturated for them to function properly. Since the function of a cell membrane includes, among other things, the vital actions of passing nutrients into your cells and passing waste materials out, having healthy cell membranes is highly desirable, which means your intake of unsaturated fatty acids is worth paying attention to.

But not all unsaturated fatty acid chains are alike, either, and two types are especially important because your body cannot create them, they must be present in the food you eat. You’ve heard their names before—they’re called “omega-3” and “omega-6” fatty acids.

The difference between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids has to do with the locations of the vacant rooms in the fatty acid motel. Again, it’s not important to know the details of the molecular structure, but it is important to know that this difference leads to differences in the way these chains influence and are influenced by chemical reactions in your body. And that leads us to the main point of this Insight:

Over the past century, the ratio of omega-6 fats to omega-3 fats in the typical American diet has increased astronomically, largely due the proliferation of industrially produced vegetable oils such as corn oil as constituents of processed food. 

What are the health consequences of this change? That depends on who you ask, and unfortunately it depends as well on who has funded the studies they are citing. What is certain, though, is this:

  • Both omega-6 and omega-3 fats are essential elements of a healthy diet.
  • Except during the last century in regions which have adopted an Americanized diet, the ratio of consumption of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids on which the human body has evolved has been roughly 1 to 1. In modern Western diets, the ratio is roughly 16 to 1.1
  • A higher level of omega-3 fat intake has a positive effect on heart health and also reduces the risks of heart attack, stroke, and diabetes.
  • If you factor out the reduction of infectious diseases over the past century, and factor in the proliferation of cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s, it would be very hard to argue that radically increasing their consumption of industrially produced omega-6 fats has made Americans healthier. 
  • Higher levels of consumption of processed foods are strongly correlated to worse health outcomes.

All points to consider as you write your next groceries list.

Fundamentals of Health Alliance

Fundamentals of Health Alliance

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The Fundamentals of Health Alliance works to publish useful and reliable information about nutrition and health. Their mission is to empower readers to be informed with honest, non-biased information about food, nutrition and the vital components of health.

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