A Gift for a Policy Wonk
Published in the Ottawa Citizen, December 16, 2006
“…despite the large place occupied by fats in Western diet, our largest nutritional deficiency, paradoxically, revolves around the essential fatty acids: the omega-3 fatty acids.”
Foods That Fight Cancer, Richard Beliveau, Ph.D. & Denis Gingras, Ph.D.
Among the plethora of noteworthy scientists who have mined the cornucopia of nutrients that create and sustain human health, one man has single handedly put the good fats on the map. Extolling the virtues of the homely flax seed that is a widely grown prairie crop staple, his book is my pick for this year’s policy-wonk stocking-stuffer must-have.
The 17th printing of Fats that Heal and Fats that Kill by Udo Erasmus is the latest updated version of a book originally published in 1986 as a Ph.D. thesis in Nutrition called Fats and Oils. Having faced and overcome illness from working with pesticides, the Polish born child of Latvian and Estonian parents decided to focus on health and healing. The result was a lifetime of study about fats and oils and the role they play in human health. Along the way, the Vancouver scientist also developed technologies for processing oils without exposing them to light, oxygen or heat.
Fats play many roles in human health and, as I (as a non-scientist) understand it, are classified according to their reactivity. These are the now familiar stable-but-sticky unsaturated (animal, tropical) fats; the stable-at-room-temperature monounsaturated (omega-9s, olive, canola, avocado, almond) fats; and the highly unstable polyunsaturated (omega-6 vegetable and omega-3 fish, seed and nut) fats.
It was the two highly reactive fatty acids called essential fatty acids (essential because unlike other fats the body cannot make them) on which Erasmus focused. While the widely available linoleic acid (omega-6) is needed to make arachidonic acid (it synthesizes hormone like compounds involved in blood functions and immune response), the much less widely available linolenic acid (omega-3) was known to be important for growth, brain and eye development. But even in the 1980s, the role played by omega-3s in the famous Inuit diet of fish and game – whose diets in turn consisted of highly adapted green foods from the ocean and tundra - in preventing cancer, arthritis and heart disease had been noticed.
Back then, Erasmus was telling us why this was possible. His writings showed how biochemical reactions in the human body between heat, light, oxygen and essential fatty acids resulted in highly unsaturated molecules that serve functions in all cells. Highly unsaturated fatty acids attract oxygen, he explained, help generate electrical currents that transform light energy into electrical energy, and then into nerve impulses – in effect, literally ‘recharging’ the body’s health building functions.
Erasmus also made the connection between our need for essential fatty acids and our geographic relationship to the sun, the relationship between oil and protein which protect and facilitate each other’s functions, and how by exposing oils to heat, light and oxygen during refining processes means their beneficial reactive properties aren’t available to the human body when they are consumed. Worse, these processes - including hydrogenation used for solidifying oils that produce transfats - cause cumulative harm.
Such connections, even then, had clear implications for a range of mental and physical functions - from obesity and addictions to depression and degenerative diseases.
A superior source of omega-3 fatty acids is cold water fish. Its highly dispersant (declogging) acids can also be manufactured by healthy cells from linolenic acid, abundant in flax and hemp seeds. These have the added advantage for landlubbers of being fresh, more stable and less likely to contain PCBs or mercury.
Highest in omega-3 fatty acids, flax oil is best for overcoming a dietary deficiency but once addressed, hemp oil and a range of other impressive products provide the proper balance of omega-3s and omega-6s. Hardly inexpensive, neither do they cost any more than the wine you likely consume for its less conspicuous health benefits.
Erasmus is the first to admit where health is concerned, there is no magic bullet. Health is a confluence of many factors and life, in the end, is terminal. Yet despite medical interventions that grow ever more costly, our healthcare system remains a disease management system not a health creation system. This, Erasmus says, has to change. At the individual level, thanks to him and other scientists like him, this change is already underway.
MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.