Raise your hand if you’re a junkie for fat-free. I used to be one myself. Like many people, I bought fat-free products because when I ate them, I felt virtuous — or at least a bit less guilty. Because we all know fat is bad, right?
Wrong. Some fats are good for us, and others downright essential. Since I’ve learned about lipids, I’ve kicked the fat-free habit. Now I say yes to fats from herbs, veggies, nuts and fish, and feel much better for it.
Fat Is a Cellular Issue
The truth is, our bodies need fat to function. Hark back to Biology 101 and think cellularly for a minute. Remember that every cell in the body has its own little membrane, which keeps all the bits together so they can work properly? And that cells are always on the move, shucking and jiving, thriving or dying, taking in nutrients and excreting wastes through their membranes? Sure you do. And do you recall what these membranes are made of? Bingo: fatty acids.
Every cell in the body requires a certain amount of fat to maintain top condition. Fats also keep hair and skin healthy, as well as make us feel satiated after a meal. Not only that, but a few vitamins (A, D, E and K) are fat-soluble and can only be carried throughout the body in the presence of fats.
Not All Fats Are Created Equal
So what’s all the fuss? It looks as though fats are a girl’s best friend! Well, it’s all a question of choice — and moderation. Eating too much fat is not wise, as it can lead to weight gain and high cholesterol. Knowing what kinds of fats are in foods is the key to smart eating. Some fats are good for us, and some decidedly are not. Which fats should we avoid, and which contribute to a healthy diet?
The Good, The Bad, The Ugly
In general, we can call most saturated fats bad and unsaturated fats good. Saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature and come mainly from animal products like meat, butter, milk and eggs. Three vegetable oils — coconut, palm and palm kernel — also are highly saturated. However, research suggests that these tropical oils actually may confer some benefits. Some studies show they don’t raise cholesterol. Coconut oil, for example, is high in lauric acid and contains trace amounts of caprylic acid. It has been shown to contain antiviral and antifungal properties and support proper immune function.
Unsaturated fats, known as the good guys, are found in fish, plants and nuts. And then there are the trans fats, which are found in baked goods, low-fat margarines, salad dressings, fast foods and prepared foods. If there are good and bad fats, trans fats definitely are the ugly ones.
Trans fat products should come with a health warning, says Artemis Simopoulos, M.D., author of The Omega Plan (Harper Collins, 1998) and president of the Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health in Washington, D.C. Frank M. Sacks, M.D., professor of cardiovascular disease prevention at Harvard’s School of Public Health, agrees. “Trans fatty acids have the worst effects on blood lipids among all dietary fatty acids, even saturates,” Sacks says. Translation? They’re the worst kind of fat we can eat. But more on that later. First, the good news.
The two categories of unsaturated fats, monounsat-urated and polyunsaturated, are the good guys in the fat department, associated with heart health and protection. Monounsaturated fats are found in olive, peanut and canola oils, avocados and most nuts. Polyunsaturated fats are found in fish, purslane and walnuts, as well as in flaxseed, safflower, corn, sunflower, soy and cottonseed oils.
Polyunsaturated oils are broken into two families of fatty acids: omega-6 and omega-3, according to their chemical composition. These two fatty acids are known as “essential” because the body can’t synthesize them from carbohydrates as it does other fatty acids — we must get them directly from foods we eat.
The crucial function of the essential fatty acids (EFAs) is to break down to form eicosanoids, hormone-like substances that regulate the really important stuff: nervous system and immune response, blood pressure, heart rate, blood vessel constriction and clotting. Omega-6 (linoleic acid, or LA) is found in sunflower, safflower, corn and soy oils. The omega-3 (alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA) fatty acids are found in flaxseed and flaxseed oil, purslane and walnuts. The even more highly polyunsaturated fatty acids — eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) — are found in fatty fish and also belong to the omega-3 family.
The Best of the Best: Omega-3 Fatty Acids
For decades, researchers have known that heart-healthy and low-cancer populations eat a diet low in saturated fats and high in monounsaturated fats like olive oil, along with wild greens, fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains. This is the basis of the Mediterranean diet. A breakthrough study in 1976 found that polyunsaturated fats (in the form of seal fat) were the mainstay of Greenland Eskimos, who also had a very low incidence of heart disease. Marine fat, or oil from cold-water fish, is high in polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids. Subsequent studies have confirmed that increasing omega-3 EFAs and reducing saturated fats in the diet significantly lessens the risk of death from coronary disease — even in patients who have already had heart attacks.
The reason? Back to Biology 101 and those eicosanoids. Omega-3 fatty acids produce eicosanoids, which de-stimulate coagulation and reduce immune response. This means less clotting and inflammation, which is good for the heart as well as autoimmune diseases like arthritis.
Just the Flax, Ma’am
For those who want to increase omega-3 oils but are wary of eating too much fish (see Page 44), flaxseed is an excellent alternative. The best source of omega-3 in plants comes from flaxseed. One tablespoon of flaxseed oil contains 6.6 grams of ALA (which converts to DHA and EPA, the crucial fatty acids in fish oil, in the body). Not only has flaxseed oil been shown to effectively lower blood triglyceride levels and blood pressure, it has, along with fish oil, proven potent anti-inflammatory and anti-arrhythmic effects.
Another fatty acid that shines as an anti-inflammatory is gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). Found in borage, evening primrose and black currant seed oils, GLA has been shown to reduce pain, stiffness, joint tenderness and swelling. Borage seed oil has the highest concentration of GLA at 20 to 23 percent; black currant seed oil, 15 to 17 percent; and evening primrose, 8 to 10 percent.
Lawrence Leventhal, M.D., chief of rheumatology at Graduate Hospital in Philadelphia, suggests borage seed oil to many arthritis patients who have concerns about drug safety and side effects of prescription drugs. He has had many patients who were able to lessen steroid use and a few who use borage seed oil as their only medication.
It’s All in the Balance
In 1999, a workshop on EFAs was held at the National Institutes of Health. Under discussion was the apparent imbalance between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in the American diet. Omega-6 oils have been the prevalent cooking oils as well as the basis for low-fat margarines for decades. The fact is, they are better than the saturated oils they were meant to replace. But this has created a lopsided intake of the two EFAs.
Simopoulos explains. “Humans evolved consuming a diet roughly equal in terms of omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids,” she says. “The traditional diets all resemble each other, in that they are all balanced in EFAs and high in antioxidants. At present, the Western diet ratio is [10:1 to 20:1] in favor of omega-6 oils — a diet so different from the natural diet on which our species evolved, that it is at odds with our genetic makeup, increasing our risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity and immune disorders.”
Tissue is the Issue
All that just from consuming too much safflower oil? “Studies indicate that high omega-6 intake increases blood viscosity, whereas omega-3 has anti-inflammatory, anti-thrombotic, anti-arrhythmic, vasodilator properties,” Simopoulos continues. “When the proper amount of omega-3 fatty acids is consumed, people have lower rates of cancer and heart disease.”
Richard S. Liebowitz, M.D., medical director of Duke University’s Center for Integrative Medicine, agrees. “Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory, which is important in a wide variety of disease states, and are proven to decrease the risk of sudden death and death in patients with known heart disease,” he says.
The National Institutes of Health workshop recommendation was to decrease omega-6 intake to between 4 and 6.67 grams and to increase omega-3 intake to 2.22 grams per day. Simopoulos advises evening up the balance by eating more omega-3 oils from fish, flaxseed and flaxseed oils. Purslane, a wild green that contains 400 mg of omega-3 fatty acids in 1/2 cup of leaves, also comes highly recommended.
Simopoulos is critical of the typical Western diet, which is “much too high in saturated and trans fats and omega-6 fatty acids. It contains too much sodium from prepared and fast foods.” But she is confident that informed consumers can begin to make better dietary decisions. Her best advice? “Eat more vegetables, fruits and legumes and fewer grains and omega-6 oils, such as corn, safflower, peanut, soybean, sunflower and cottonseed oils. Avoid trans fatty acids. And enrich the diet with omega-3 fatty acids, by eating purslane, cold-water fish and flaxseed oil.”
You heard it here first: “healthy fats” is not an oxymoron. Want your body to run like a well-loved machine? Then don’t even think about buying fat-free. Instead, book yourself in for an oil change, and make omega-3 your new mantra.
Nancy Allison writes about herbs, health, food and travel. Links to some of her articles can be found on the web at www.MediaBistro.com/NancyAllison.