What are Fatty Acids?

Fatty acids are hydrocarbons (chains of carbon and hydrogen) that are the building blocks of what we call fats. There are many kinds of fatty acids that are categorized into the following groups: saturated, mono-unsaturated, and polyunsaturated.   I could get a lot more technical, but I doubt most of you want that.

Most of the carbons in a fatty acid chain are each linked to two hydrogen atoms. The absence of one of those hydrogen atoms is what makes a fatty acid unsaturated. When only one hydrogen is “missing” the fatty acid is mono-unsaturated; more than one “missing” hydrogen makes it polyunsaturated; no “missing” hydrogen makes the fatty acid saturated.

Fats (also known as triglycerides) are simply three fatty acids joined together for storage. When we consume fats they are broken down into the individual fatty acids for transport through the body where they are burned for energy, used in the manufacture of hormones and cell structures, or recomposed into fats for storage.

Fatty acids come in all different lengths, shapes and degrees of saturation (or unsaturation) and it is these characteristics which determine their properties and function.  The human body has been designed to synthesize the majority of fatty acids we need from other materials present in our cells ; those we cannot synthesize but require for health are called “essential fatty acids.” Two groups of essential fatty acids are omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. Both kinds of fatty acids are needed by the body, but they were meant to be in balance.

Back before processed food and easy access to sugar (we’re talking way back) it has been estimated that the intake of fatty acids had an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of about 1/1 to 2/1. That means that, at most, people consumed about twice as many omega-6 fatty acids as omega-3 fatty acids. Now, in the days of aisles and aisles of processed foods in our grocery stores, the majority of Americans consume at least ten times as many omega-6 fatty acids as omega-3 fatty acids. Many Americans consume a ratio of twenty to one! We have increased our intake of omega-6’s while decreasing our intake of omega-3’s. The same time period has seen a rise in cancer, heart disease and many other diseases of prosperity.

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One comment

  1. Lisa

    Excellent description – thank you!

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