Writer and broadcaster

Fatty acids: food for thought. Published in The Independent.

Really, what chance do fatty acids have? Nothing about the name makes you want to befriend them. The question of whether you’re getting enough in your diet would illicit not concern, but rather a response of “Urgh, hope not.” They sound most unappealing. This is a shame, because fatty acids can be wonderful.

If you have eczema, psoriasis, cracked heels, dry skin or depression; if you suffer from menstrual pain or premenstrual problems; if you have a child who is hyperactive or who has attention-deficiency syndrome or dyslexia, then maybe you should think about inviting fatty acids round to dinner.

Last week interim results were published of a study in which 120 children with various learning difficulties were given a supplement called Eye-Q, which contained fatty acids (primarily the essential fatty acid, Omega-3) in the form of marine oil and evening primrose extract. After 12 weeks (the study is to last 24), “many children have had their reading age boosted by between one and two years, and in one child it rose four years”, said the educational psychologist at Durham County Council who is conducting the trial.

This is the latest in many promising test results. Omega-3 fatty acids (most prolifically found in fish oils and linseeds) have also been shown to be powerful antidepressants, alleviate arthritic pain, and help prevent heart disease, cancer and Crohn’s disease. Omega-3, like its sibling Omega-6, is a fatty acid. More than that, they are essential fatty acids (EFA), called essential simply because they are; we can’t manufacture them in our bodies, so we need to get them via our food, or supplements. EFAs are part of a larger group of unsaturated fatty acids and they also help with cognitive skills: they help us concentrate and comprehend, which is why a lack of them can result in depression in adults and “learning difficulties” in children.

Fat makes up two-thirds of our brains. Cells communicate via neurone transmitters, which need fat to function. Fat is the glue holding everything together, enabling information to pass from one cell to another. This is why babies aged up to two years need a high-fat diet as their brains form, and why one of the first symptoms of cutting too much fat out of your diet is depression (which is why so few people can stick to low-fat diets). And cell membranes made from Omega-3s have also been found to be more elastic (one reasons why they are beneficial to the heart), and therefore more helpful in passing messages along between cells.

But we’ve all become so scared offat – even good fat – that many of us lack EFAs. “Fifty per cent of people that I see are lacking in, or have an imbalance of, EFAs,” says Vicki Edgson, a nutrition consultant and co-founder of The Food Doctor (www. thefooddoctor.com), a consultancy that, as the name suggests, aims to encourageoptimum health through nutrition. And the figure of 50 per cent only accounts for those who are concerned enough about nutrition to make it through her door.

Fatty acids come from fat. Everything we eat that is fat has fatty acids in it. Whether it’s a doughnut or a mackerel determines the type of fat ( ergo fatty acid) we take in. Break it down further, and this fatty acid can be an EFA, which is what Omega-3 or Omega-6s are. There are two others: Omega-9 and -12, found in palm and coconut oil, and much more prevalent in African and Caribbean diets – with good reason: they have a particular effect on the production of melanin.

Omega-3s and -6s do different things. The former has anti-inflammatory properties, and is an anti-coagulant. This is why it’s so helpful for period pain, arthritis, and preventing heart disease. Omega-6s have the opposite effect. “The reason we need a balance of the two,” explains Edgson, “is that without Omega-6s our blood would be too thin to carry nutrients around the body, we’d bleed to death if we cut ourselves, and we need some inflammation so that our body can tell when it’s in distress.”

So why are Omega-3s so often seen as the good guys, and Omega-6s as the bad? All but the healthiest of Western diets have an imbalance of Omega-6s. This is because we eat a lot of vegetable oils that are rich in Omega-6s, such as corn or sunflower oil, margarines made from such, or food cooked in these oils. All oils have a mixture of the two Omegas, but usually they have much more Omega-6s than -3s. The exception to this is linseed (also known as flax seed) oil, or rapeseed (known as canola in the US) oil, which has more Omega-3s than -6s.

Omega-3s are found in large quantities in oily fish, and in linseeds and walnuts. “Ideally, the balance in our diet should be 3:1 in favour of Omega-6s,” says Edgson, “but it’s more like 6:1.” Probably the healthiest diets for EFAs are the Mediterranean and Japanese diets, which include lots of fish, nuts, seeds and olive oil. Both nations have much lower rates of heart disease and of some cancers than we do, although as they become seduced by the world of fast food, they’re catching up with us fast.

For nearly five months I’ve been following a more nutritionally dense diet, one aspect of which includes eating higher-fat food than ever before in my adult life: 30 per cent of my daily calorific intake comes from good fats. I eat oily fish and avocados twice a week, other fish at least once; I put a cocktail of linseeds, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, walnuts or almonds into my bi-weekly salad; my breakfast is toast with a nut butter. All my vegetables are glossily coated in olive oil; I use rapeseed oil to sauté. My periods – once prolonged, heavy, painful and preceded by every premenstrual symptom known, are dramatically improved.

Edgson recommends “eating a portion of oily fish [such as mackerel, salmon, sardines] two to three times a week. Get a tablespoon of sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and linseeds, roughly grind them and then sprinkle that into soups, and on to your morning muesli or cereal. Don’t go for low-fat dressing options on your salad, as you’ll be missing out on valuable oils.”

Supplements are best taken with the advice of a professional, because they can be expensive and what you need may vary from time to time. But such advice is free at your local health-food shop. Personally I take linseed-oil capsules (because I hate the taste of linseed oil) to top up my diet when I think it needs it, or GLA supplements (gamma linolenic acid).

But if none of this convinces you, maybe vanity will. I told Vicki Edgson that, despite the fact that I am doing no more exercise than I was before, I have become much leaner on this regime. “Ah, that’s because you need essential fats to get rid of saturated fats,” she said. “When saturated fat is left in the body for a long time, it becomes like lard [ie cellulite]. If those fatty cell membranes don’t have fat available to them, they harden, trapping fat inside.” See?