After years of diligently filling the grocery cart with fat-free products, you may be surprised to learn that some fats are beneficial. In fact, studies show that the wholesale elimination of fats from the diet can jeopardize your health.
During the past century, when food processing was developed and became highly streamlined, many naturally occurring “good” fats were eliminated from foods and replaced with unhealthful hydrogenated oils, saturated fats, and trans fatty acids, which increase “bad’’ cholesterol levels. Researchers now believe that more diseases stem from consumption of too many of these fats and not enough essential fatty acids, also referred to as EFAs. They’re called essential because our bodies can’t manufacture them and we must obtain them from dietary sources.
There are two essential fatty acids: linoleic (ome-ga-6) and alpha-linolenic (omega-3). Both promote normal brain development, joint lubrication, and properly functioning immune and digestive systems, and both help the body use nutrients, create energy and cell membranes, produce blood, transport oxygen, and regulate cell division.
Udo Erasmus, a research nutritionist from Los Angeles who has created tools for pressing and packaging healthful oils, recommends that a well-balanced diet contain 15 to 20 percent essential fatty acids. In Fats That Heal, Fats That Kill (Alive Books, 1993), Erasmus states that the seeds and oil of flax are the richest sources of omega-3 fatty acids, and safflower and sunflower seeds and oil are the richest sources of omega-6 fatty acids.
Heating oils during cooking, however, destroys EFAs, so they should be used in salad dressings or other nonheated dishes. Omega-3s are also found in trout, salmon, mackerel, sardines, tuna, and eel; eating fish three times a week could provide an adequate amount of omega-3. If you’d prefer to get this through supplements, Erasmus recommends taking 1 to 3 tablespoons a day of an oil that blends omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Humans require a 4-to-1 ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s, a balance that allows the body to create prostaglandins, hormonelike substances that reduce inflammation and pain, and help regulate blood pressure, blood clotting, allergic response, and heart, kidney, and gastrointestinal function.
If you’re interested in using EFA supplements, here are a few tips:
• First, make sure that the oil you buy actually contains essential fatty acids. Many commercial food-grade oils have lost them during extraction and processing. Jade Buetler, co-author with Michael T. Murray, N.D., of Understanding Fats and Oils (Progressive Health Publishing, 1996), recommends avoiding cold-pressed oils and oils extracted with hexane or other chemicals.
• Second, avoid supercritical fluid-extracted oils, also referred to as SCFEs. These oils are produced by a relatively new and intensive extraction method that damages the oils. Instead, Buetler suggests purchasing oils that have been expeller-pressed and processed at temperatures under 98°F, and that have undergone modified atmospheric packing—a new method that goes by a variety of proprietary names, including Spectra-Vac, Omegaflo, and Bio-Electron Process.
• Third, look for oils that are packaged in containers of dark glass or plastic, and whose labels specify expeller extraction.
• Fourth, be wary of products whose labels don’t specify the extraction method or the pressing and expiration dates. Manufacturers of quality oils are willing to supply a third-party analysis of their products or provide educational literature at the store.
“Nutrition Supplement: Vitamins, minerals, and more” is offered as a bimonthly supplement to Herbs for Health and is written by Monica Emerich and Elizabeth Bertani of Natural Information, 2888 Bluff Street, Suite 301, Boulder, Colorado, 80301. Design by Bren Frisch. “Nutrition Supplement” is offered as an educational service, not a source of medical advice or guide for self-medication. Please consult a qualified health-care professional for treatment of any serious health problems.