Marc Lemay

April 12, 2012

3 Min Read
Pathways & Healthways

Picture a straight line, like a strip of bacon in the fridge. That’s a saturated fat molecule. “Saturated” means hydrogen bonds all filled up. A saturated fat molecule has no docking stations for any rogue oxygen molecule to come in and shake things up; hence saturated fats have long shelf-life.

A line with a bend in it: monounsaturated fat. Monounsaturated fats, like olive oil, have one --“mono”--docking station open. Those molecules are vulnerable, tender creatures that need sheltering inside air-tight caps and dark glass.

A line now with two bends in it. You’re looking at something bendy and springy. That’s the shape of a polyunsaturated fat molecule.

And that’s all I care to hear about anti-inflammatory food factors, with or without tartar sauce.

The real story is that when our uber great grand-fathers and -mothers started hanging out on the coast, the East African coast that is, the polyunsaturated fat-rich creatures they started scooping out of the warm ocean waters there literally went to their heads. It was evolution’s original head start. The neocortex, the thin bark-like most densely interconnected layer of the brain, which has made civilization possible, is largely made up of the noted anti-inflammatory Omega-3 fatty acid DHA. Our blood vessels are “hard” or “soft”--and better able to give and take under the demand spikes of a driveway snow-shoveling episode, partly as a function of the ratio of the kinds of fat: stiff, in-between, or bendy--in your diet.

Yet reducing the three kinds of fats to the physical characteristics of their molecules is nothing but “nothing butt-ism” - dead-end reductionism. Fat molecules have certain effects in our bodies because of their shapes, but that’s such a small part of the story that emphasizing it makes the whole story false. It’s true too that plant ingredients can be ranked by their relative Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity. ORAC is not meaningless, but it is a simple-minded slight to the polychromatic complexities of plant-based antioxidants to talk about them as antioxidants tout court.

I’m not all up on the latest micro-ingredients, but if they’re anything like the macro ones--Omega 3s from deep-water fish or supplements --their manifold effects are as far beyond “anti-inflammation” as an “antioxidant”-rich heap of herbs, spices, and vegetables is beyond mere “antioxidation.”

I actually like the taste of the fish oil I take. It’s partly a placebo effect, mind you, haloed by images in my mind, vague notions of rude good health, and of proto-humans, literal Troglodytes, chomping down on iridescent salmon bellies straight out of the water, just like Bear Grylls did on TV the other day. I take a few high-tech proprietary molecules with the same notion---that it’s what my ancestors used to get from their insanely varied diet; stuff you just can’t get at your local grocer’s.

Let’s not go down that road again, of boiling it all down to a single function. The ancient healthways of early humans featured more fish and shellfish than ours today. Also tons more plants, insects, carrion, and other molecularly-varied foodstuff that’s difficult or impossible to pick up at your local grocer’s. Anti-inflammatory foods and supplements are a critical part of a healthy diet. But “inflammation” is the province of physicians and physical therapists. If you start talking about cascades and pathways and eicosanoids, all the interleukin uncles and second cousins--you’ve lost the plot. 

Those ancient healthways are appealing as themselves, in the right context. No need for boiling down. Even the fish oil. You need it. It’s good for you. All the rest is details. 

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