PUFAs, or polyunsaturated fatty acids, are found in many of the things that we eat. Far more nowadays, in fact, due to diet trends and items marketed as plant-based. So just what are they exactly?
The general chemical breakdown of PUFAs reveals that they are fat molecules that have more than one unsaturated carbon bond, also known as a double-bond. How do we detect this with the naked eye out in the real world, sans microscope? These fats are usually liquid at room temperature or in a warm climate, but tend to solidify or congeal when refrigerated. Coconut oil is a great example, but so are the oils in fish, like salmon. You’ll notice when you refrigerate a leftover salmon filet that there are some congealed oils in your container — those are PUFAs.
PUFAs aren’t bad in moderation — in fact, they’re great! And here at Amé, our rallying cry is moderation for all things, even healthy foods and substances. Because when we overdo it in any category, we will find ourselves in a state of imbalance.
PUFAs can help us in many ways, but in particular, they can help to reduce bad cholesterol levels in our blood. Bad cholesterol is often hereditary, but can also be the result of a poor diet, putting us at higher risk for heart disease and stroke.
Oils rich in PUFAs also provide vital fats that our bodies need but can’t make on their own. Think of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids — essential fats we can only get via our diet. Omega-3’s are needed for cell function: They help kick off the hormone production that plays a part in regulation of blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and inflammation.
Omega-6’s also play a role in inflammation — which isn’t all bad, by the way. It’s part of a normal process in our body’s defense, as well as healing. But Omega-6’s also are required for brain function, growth, and development. They help stimulate hair and skin growth, maintain the health of our bones, and regulate metabolism and our reproductive system.
It’s hard to imagine we’ve left anything out, and we know that you’re thinking, “PUFAs sound amazing!” But, like anything, in excess, we encounter issues.
The problem with PUFAs is that they aren’t super stable. If we’re getting our PUFAs from fresh fish or raw walnuts, it’s safe to say those are healthy, protected, and not in excess (we dare you to try and eat an enormous bag of walnuts in one sitting). However, PUFAs in processed foods, like many plant-based alternatives, are easily oxidized.
When PUFAs oxidize, they produce powerful free-radicals, which can cause disease and accelerate aging. This is totally counterproductive to the amazing qualities of omega-3s, which protect against heart disease — and is due to oxidative damage to LDL particles (aka cholesterol) which can put us at higher risk for heart disease. The reason we want to limit our PUFA intake (especially to sources that are whole, natural foods) is because these oxidized free-radicals can accumulate.
The more PUFAs we consume — especially from processed products — the more we build up in our body fat tissue. This is why we have double the linoleic acid in our body fat as previous generations.
Meanwhile, vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that protects against the oxidation of PUFAs, and most Americans are deficient in it! We can take this as a supplement to help build up our reserves, but luckily it is also present in natural, whole food sources of PUFAs like fish or whole, raw or sprouted nuts. It not only protects the PUFAs themselves from oxidizing, but also our own cells and membranes from any further damage.
Oftentimes, we think of antioxidants as a blanket nutrient, but there are many different kinds that protect against different kinds of damage. This is just yet another reason to diversify our diets with whole, nutrient-dense foods to protect different types of cells and tissues — so that we can keep on living our lives as carefree as possible.