Bioactive Compounds, What are Fatty Acids?

Bioactive Compounds, What are Fatty Acids?

Plant bioactive compounds, in particular, are revealing hidden treasures in terms of human health. The nourishing and remedial potential of plants has been harnessed by humans since the days of our hunter gatherer ancestors.

In the history of Western medicine the use of Phytopharmaceutical products is a relatively recent and still emerging practice. As we continue to gain knowledge of the recuperative and medicinal properties embodied in plant life-form, the correlation between human health and the goodness provided by plants becomes clearer. The health-giving goodness isn’t present in plant life alone though. Bioactive compounds contained in rich oily fish, for example, provide the body with essential fatty acids needed for optimal health.

Though not essential to the immediate functioning of the human body (like the many essential nutrients and vitamins our bodies need to survive) bioactive compounds have been cited as being pivotal in helping us achieve a metabolically well-balanced and healthy body and could be essential in helping to prevent the risk of fatal disease.

Fatty Acids - broken down

Fatty acids are bioactive compounds which carry out a range of vital actions within the human body, including the important job of storing energy. Fatty acids are essentially the structures upon which fat is built in our bodies and the food we consume and are often referred to as the building blocks of fat.

A fatty acid basically consists of a chain of carbon atoms bonded with hydrogen atoms. Fatty acid compounds usually have the molecular structure of a triglyceride, bound in clusters of three, and depending on their chemical structure can be divided into groups of saturated fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids or polyunsaturated fatty acids.1

Before we take a look at the different types of fatty acids it’s worth taking a quick look at cholesterol and what it’s all about because this is where fatty acids really come into play in terms of human health.


The body contains two types of cholesterol: The ‘Good’ and the ‘Bad’.

LDL ‘Bad’ cholesterol. The ‘Bad’ cholesterol has a bad habit of collecting in our blood vessels, causing them to narrow and block. This can mean an increased chance of the blood clotting which often results in the risk of a stroke or a heart attack.

HDL ‘Good’ cholesterol is like the body’s handy little helper. It takes the ‘bad’ cholesterol from the body and transports it to the liver which avoids an excess of ‘bad’ cholesterol in the bloodstream.

Why do we need fats and fatty acids?

Our bodies need fat:

  • Fats are a vital source of rich energy; 1 gram of fat gives the body 37 kJ (9 kcal).
  • The body will use fatty acids as energy for the cells if there isn’t sufficient glucose to use as fuel instead, so they play an important function as an energy reserve.
  • Fats help regulate body temperature.
  • Fats function to protect body tissues and organs.
  • ‘Good’ fatty acids can lower ‘Bad’ cholesterol.
  • Furthermore, fat has the crucial job of transporting the four fat-soluble Vitamins: A, D, E, and K.2

All fats are made up of both saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. But it’s all about the balance. Some fatty acids are crucial to the human body but others can be harmful if over indulged.

Saturated fatty acids

Chemical structure: Molecularly speaking, a fatty acid is classified as saturated if all the bonds in a carbon chain are single. Since there are no double bonds between the carbon atoms the chain is in effect saturated with hydrogen.

Sources: Saturated fats tend to be found in meat, particularly red meat, and dairy products, such as butter and cheese. Some vegetable oils also contain saturated fats, for example, palm and coconut oil. More often than not processed foods have a high level of saturated fat.

Function: The body basically has all the saturated fatty acids it needs so we really don’t ‘need’ to add any more to the mix via our diet. Saturated fatty acids can’t be broken down in our body so they just hang around and eventually, if not addressed, can cause major damage to health. Saturated fat basically has a habit of increasing the presence of cholesterol in the blood, which can multiply the risk of heart disease and stroke. It’s quite hard in modern day living to entirely eliminate all saturated fats from our diets; but the key is moderation and balance mixed with a good exercise regime and ensuring we cover all the bases in terms of a healthy mixed diet.3

If we consume too much saturated fat it stands to reason that the levels of this ‘bad’ fat will increase in our blood system. And calories that are not used by the body are changed to fat and stored in the body.

Studies have indicated that any more than 30% of our calorie intake via fat is unhealthy. Within this 30% of total fat intake, only 10% of this fat should be saturated fat. Naturally, saturated fats contain a higher proportion of saturated fatty acids.

Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs)

Chemical structure: Unsaturated fats can be identified when there is at least one double bond between carbon molecules.

Sources: MUFAs are present in both animals and plants. Beef and pig fat are abundant in monounsaturated fats and food sources such as avocado, olives, nuts, particularly macadamia nuts, peanut oil and olive oil are amazing sources of monounsaturated fats.

Function: Lowers the "bad" cholesterol; LDL cholesterol, helping to keep our hearts and circulatory system healthy.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs).

Chemical structure: Unsaturated fats can be identified when there is at least one double bond between carbon molecules.

Sources: Plants are an abundant source of polyunsaturated fats, and these fats can be found in olive oil, sunflower oil, nuts, seeds, corn and soybean, for instance. Polyunsaturated fats can also be found in fat-rich fish such as trout, salmon, herring and mackerel.

Function: Polyunsaturated fats can help lower “bad” cholesterol levels in the blood, which can help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. Polyunsaturated fats are also a great source of essential nutrients needed by the body to help with the healthy growth of cells. In addition, polyunsaturated fats tend to be a brilliant source of Vitamin E.

There are certain fats needed by the body which the body is unable to produce. Omega-6, omega-3 and omega-9 fatty acids are essential fats that we can only gain from our diet. Polyunsaturated fats, such as olive oil and fat-rich fish like salmon are also a vital source of these essential fatty acids which are important for the body in a number of ways.

Polyunsaturated fats provide us with these essential fatty acids and can be good for heart health when consumed in moderation. It’s a great idea to replace saturated fats and trans fats that we may usually consume with a polyunsaturated option.

Vegetable oils such as olive, sunflower, soya, rapeseed, and sesame and spreads made from these oils are healthier alternatives to oils or fats rich in saturated fats (e.g. lard, butter, palm and coconut oil) as they contain a higher proportion of unsaturated fatty acids which are good for the heart.

Too much of any type of fat is not a good thing, so a varied range of the ‘Good’ Monounsaturated fatty acids and ‘Good’ Polyunsaturated fatty acids will ensure a healthy balance of all the right fats.

Trans fatty acids

Trans fatty acids are an unsaturated fatty acid. Traces of trans fatty acids occur naturally in both meat and dairy products but are mainly consumed in the human diet in the form of manufactured partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. It’s the process of hydrogenation that produces the trans fatty acids in products such as margarine. These manufactured types of trans fats are thought to be worse on blood cholesterol levels than the already “bad” saturated fats. These trans fats have been isolated as being a major contributor to cardiovascular disease. The good news is they are easy to avoid; just stick to healthy, wholesome unprocessed foods. “Good” fats contained in foods such as avocado, nuts and seeds also taste really good (honestly!) and provide a real boost as well as a sustained release of energy.

Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s)-Omega 3, 6 and 9 fatty acids

Omega 3, 6 and 9 fatty acids come under the banner of of polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fatty acids. They are a bioactive compound that can be found in both animals and plants.

Sources: The most abundant source of the essential fatty acid omega 3 is oily, fat-rich fish, such as sardines, kippers, crab and swordfish. Other plant based foods such as avocado, sunflower oil, flax, linseed oil and walnuts also contain omega 3 fatty acids. Most omega 6 fatty acids come from vegetable oils and another great source is Evening Primrose Oil. Interestingly Omega 9 fatty acids can be found in all plant and animal fats; a rich source is flaxseed. Green leafy vegetables are a great source of these EFA’s.

Function: Omega 3 fatty acids are considered crucial for maintaining a healthy heart, mainly because they contribute to normal blood cholesterol levels; have the ability to stop blood clotting; and contribute towards a healthy and regular heart rhythm. These clever fatty acids are also thought to be vital in healthy child development so essential when pregnant and breastfeeding. 4

Dietary Supplements

Oxford Vitality provide an Omega 3, 6, 9 softgels potent with the RDA of the essential fatty acids which are really easy to take and a great way to maintain levels required by the body to function properly.5

If you’re wishing to address your diet and concerned that you may currently be erring on the side of a ‘bad’ fat diet and lacking in the ‘good’ fats your body needs; there are health and nutrition experts who can advise you on simple ways that can help you to make small changes in eating habits. Replacing processed foods, often high in saturated fat, with fruit, nuts or cereals is a great start. Replacing shop bought frozen chips with simple, earthy, new potatoes and opting for nuts instead of your favourite bag of crisps will shift your ‘bad’ fat diet to the ‘good’ side in no time. And green leafy vegetables all the way! There are also some dietary supplements that could benefit a change in eating habits, which can help to regulate the body’s metabolism, for example.

Chromium Picolinate Tablets

The body uses Chromium in minute quantities, and so is considered as a “trace” mineral. Egg yolk, red meat, cheese, wholegrain cereals, brewer’s yeast and thyme are all natural food sources of Chromium. The Chromium levels in these foods are very low, however, ranging between 1 and 13µg (micrograms).

Chromium Picolinate, the form of Chromium used in these supplements lays claim to two major therapeutic benefits. These are to help with the maintenance of blood glucose levels and to aid the metabolism of macronutrients (Protein, Carbohydrate, and Fat). Evidence has shown that it increases protein synthesis, lowers blood fat concentration and helps to maintain blood glucose concentrations. Greater concentrations of glucose inside the cells creates perfect conditions for energy production, specifically in the muscles.

The product is available from Oxford Vitality in two strengths of 500mcg and 1000mcg, and 6 size quantities, to tailor to your requirements. The tablet size is a small 6mm, with a tablet weight of 150mg, for easy consumption.6

Manganese tablets

Manganese is a mineral that’s present naturally in the body in very small amounts. Natural sources of Manganese include garlic, raspberries, watercress, spinach, turmeric, brown rice, green vegetables, oats and beetroot. Manganese has a whole host of health benefits including its role as a co-enzyme which helps the body’s metabolism, specifically assisting with the metabolism of fats and carbohydrates. On top of this it’s great for maintaining healthy bones and the formation of connective tissue as well as regulating blood sugar levels, absorbing unwanted calcium and helping the thyroid gland to function properly. Manganese can also contribute to the reduction of oxidative stress, which protects the cell's integrity and reduces disease.

The tablets provided by Oxford Vitality contain 14mg of bio-available ingredients, this is in coherence with the UK Department of Health’s (DoH) guidelines. The Manganese tablet is a small 8mm diameter tablet, and very easy to swallow. There are 6 quantities to chose from for your tailored nutritional requirements.7

Lysine tablets

Lysine is an amino acid present in the protein of foods like cheese, fish, beans, lean beef, yogurt, milk, wheat germ, pulses and various animal proteins. It’s considered an essential amino acid and cannot be produced by the body. Amino acids such as lysine are the foundations upon which protein is built; essentially the building blocks of protein. Lysine has been studied for its effects on increasing muscle mass and lowering glucose. Lysine has been cited as vital for proper growth, and crucial in the production of carnitine, a nutrient which changes fatty acids into energy and helps to reduce cholesterol.8

Healthy Choices

It’s clear the right fatty acids are good for us when consumed as part of a varied, healthy diet. It’s also clear we need to keep a handle on these fat ratios and get the right balance of the right fatty acids, right in our diets! This mindful approach, along with an active lifestyle and a regular exercise regime, will help us to avoid the risk of seriously damaging our heart health by what we put inside us to essentially ‘keep us going’.

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