Fats That Heal Fats That Kill (Alive Books) by Dr Udo Erasmus (figure 1) is a nutrition book that was written as a primer to dietary fats for the layman. The main aim of the book is to inform the reader about the two fatty acids essential for human health, linoleic acid (LA) and α-linolenic acid (ALA). While LA is an omega 6 fatty acid that is plentiful in the Western diet, ALA is an omega 3 fatty acid that is deficient. The result is an imbalance of the dietary omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acid ratio, and this can results in inflammation and disease. The Author claims that this imbalance can be corrected by consumption of oils rich in ALA, particularly flaxseed oil. In fact, the author was the first to manufacture and market a flaxseed oil for this purpose, spurred on by the lack of beneficial sources of ALA on the market. Since this time, the original Udo’s Choice flaxseed oil has been copied and marketed by many manufactures.
Originally printed in 1986, Fats That Heal Fats That Kill was at the time considered one of the best books written on the topic of dietary fats, and still ranks amongst them. Not just a great book about fats, this is undoubtedly one of the best books in my collection and I enjoyed reading it a great deal. In fact I liked the book and the information so much I went to see Udo Erasmus speak and asked him to sign my book (figure 2). In terms of a general primer on dietary fats, Fats that Heal Fats That Kill is worth considering because of the wealth of information and its clear and concise presentation (figure 3). However, there is a caveat that must be considered when reading the book. Recent evidence suggests that supplementing with ALA from flaxseed oil may not be an effective way to correct the dietary imbalance in omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids. In order to understand why, it is necessary to understand something of the science of fatty acids.
Figure 2. Signature of Dr Udo Erasmus in the front cover of one of my copies of Fats That Heal Fats That Kill.
When consumed, ALA is converted by a number of elongation and desaturase enzymes to eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA). These accumulate in cell membranes and form anti-inflammatory compounds called eicosanoids and docosanoids, respectively. The same enzymes that convert ALA to EPA and DHA, also convert LA to arachidonic acid (AA). When intakes of the omega 6 fatty acids are too high and the omega 3 fatty acids too low, AA is able to build up in plasma membranes, where it is converted to pro-inflammatory eicosanoids. Increasing the plasma membrane concentrations of EPA and DHA not only increases the production of anti-inflammatory compounds, it also displaces AA from cell membranes decreasing production of pro-inflammatory compounds. The suggestion in Fats That Heal Fats That Kill, is that by increasing intakes of ALA from flax oil, more EPA and DHA can be produced, which would subsequently decrease cellular inflammation and prevent the diseases associated with this process.
Figure 3. Sample of content from Fats That Heal, Fats That Kill. Clear, concise and well written text, with neat and easy to follow diagrams.
However, scientific evidence indicates that increasing intakes of ALA from sources such as flaxseeds, hemp and walnuts is not an efficient way to raise plasma membrane levels of EPA and DHA. The reason for this is the humans possess a genetic defect of the required enzyme (Δ6-desaturase) and as a result the conversion rate is very slow. While increasing dietary ALA may increase plasma membrane levels of EPA, it may also decrease levels of DHA. Therefore dietary ALA from flax is a poor way to increase plasma levels of EPA and DHA. More interestingly, when ALA from flax has been compared fish oil capsules, the latter has been shown to be much more efficient at raising membrane levels of EPA and DHA. Fish oil is also more efficient at reducing inflammation and decreasing arachidonic acid levels. The fact that Udo Erasmus now recommends algae as a source of DHA, suggests that he to understands that ALA is not effective and the main premise of his book is wrong.
However, I would still recommend the book. As long as it is read with the understanding that ALA from flaxseed oil is not an effective way to correct an imbalance in omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids, but fish oil is, then the rest of the book can be enjoyed for the great information it contains. While it might seem a little strange to recommend a book written on a false premise, it must be understood that this book set new standards and broke new ground for its topic area when it was written all those years ago. Udo Erasmus may have got the details wrong, but it cannot be overlooked that he single headedly brought essential fatty acid deficiencies to the attention of the non-academic World. And while flax seed oil may not be as effective as fish oil at combating inflammation, it is better than nothing. Therefore his book and his oil will have still helped many people improve their health, including me. So if you ever read this, thank you Udo Erasmus.