The Fats of Life: Essential Fatty Acids in Health and Disease

The Fats of Life: Essential Fatty Acids in Health and Disease

The Fats of Life: Essential Fatty Acids in Health and Disease

The Fats of Life: Essential Fatty Acids in Health and Disease


Omega-3s, trans-fats, polyunsaturated fatty acids, linoleic acid- research facts about fatty acids and their relationship to heart disease and atherosclerosis, obesity, cancer, and neurological disorders abound. Chemical names appear on every nutrition label. But, just what do these terms mean in health and disease?

The Fats of Life delineates the importance of essential fatty acids, with a focus on distinctions between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid variants. The chemical and biochemical characteristics of these fatty acids and their metabolism to a vast array of potent bioactive messengers are described in the context of their potential effects on general health and impact on various diseases and neurological disorders. Glen D. Lawrence addresses in detail the capacity for polyunsaturated fatty acids to influence asthma, atherosclerosis, heart disease, inflammation, cancer, and immunity. Lawrence makes clear that our understanding of the biochemical and physiological effects of dietary fats has advanced tremendously as a result of careful research, but he also stresses that this knowledge has not easily translated into sound dietary recommendations.


I had the good fortune to collaborate with several scientists on a wide range of research topics in the early 1980s, when I worked in the laboratory of Gerald Cohen at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. My research focus was lipid peroxidation and the oxidative destruction of polyunsaturated fatty acids in cell membranes and its effects on aging, cancer, and inflammation. Free radicals are believed to be responsible for many cancers, and lipid peroxidation is thought to be one of the ways that free radicals are mediating carcinogenesis, as well as promoting various diseases of aging. There was evidence that dietary polyunsaturated oils were promoting some cancers.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids are considered to be essential dietary constituents because we are unable to make them from other nutrients and they have vital functions in numerous physiological systems in the human body. Sune Bergström, Bengt Samuelsson, and John Vane shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1982 for their discoveries related to metabolism of polyunsaturated fatty acids to powerful bioactive substances known collectively as eicosanoids. The scientific community was constantly discovering new lipid messengers and new roles for those that were already known. Eicosanoids were affecting nearly every system in the body, often in ways that were beneficial, but sometimes their actions were detrimental. The distinctions between omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids found in fish oils and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids found in vegetable oils were beginning to unfold, and eicosanoids formed from them accounted for many observed differences in physiological responses to dietary fats from these disparate sources.

As I got involved in research projects related to inflammation, cancer, and epilepsy, I began to see that eicosanoids derived from essential fatty acids had powerful effects, and that manipulation of dietary fats that are metabolized to eicosanoids or not involved in their production could have profound influences on the course of several diseases. The polyunsaturated fatty acids nurtured a fascination and wonder for me, perhaps because of the complex ways in which they were affecting so many aspects of health and disease.

There was also considerable interest in saturated fats and cholesterol at that time. The results from two large-scale studies of the effects of dietary . . .

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