Fats: The Good, The Debatable, The Ugly

Are you confused about the amounts and kinds of fat you should include in your diet? Just about everyone is. For decades, we have been advised to limit fats. But our bodies need certain types of fat throughout our lives. The brain needs fat for its development during infancy and childhood and for normal function in adulthood. Fat is also needed for the absorption of some essential vitamins, the manufacturing of hormones and a wide range of normal metabolic activities.

The Good

The body needs only certain types of fats—omega-6s and omega-3s. These polyunsaturated fats are called essential fatty acids (EFAs) because the body can’t function without them and can’t produce them on its own. Omega-6s, found in animal foods, are necessary for proper body function, but only in limited quantities because they promote inflammation. And inflammation is increasingly being linked to the development of chronic diseases. In contrast, Omega-3s decrease inflammation. These anti-inflammatory compounds keep cell walls flexible, enabling efficient metabolic activities. They promote the production of protein and red blood cells, and are also involved in weight regulation, oxygen transfer and recovery from muscle fatigue. A healthful ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s is 4:1, but the typical American diet ratio is 20:1.

Omega-3 Foods

To improve your omega-fats ratio, eat deep-water fatty fish, such as salmon, which are rich in omega-3s. Chose wild-caught rather than farm-raised, most of which are confined and eat chemicalized food. Sardines are higher in omega-3s than either salmon or tuna and are naturally high in vitamin D. Albacore tuna, pole- or troll-caught in the U.S. or Canada are the lowest in mercury. Despite being farm-raised, oysters are excellent sources of both omega-3s and iron.

Plant sources of omega-3s include avocados, olives, nuts and seeds. Because these foods undergo a conversion process from alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) to omega-3 fatty acids, their anti-inflammatory impact is not as potent as fish omega-3s.

In terms of oils made from these plant foods, choose virgin, cold-pressed. Other types of oil, although less expensive, are processed using heat and harsh chemicals, which create dangerous free-radical molecules. Canola oil has been promoted for decades as a “healthy oil.” But because it is mostly produced from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and by a chemical extraction process, it should be avoided.

The Debatable

Saturated fat found in animal products has to date been shown to increase LDL (bad) cholesterol, which has been linked to increased risk for heart disease and stroke. However, a new analysis of 12 studies with a total of 300,000 participants, published in the prestigious British Medical Journal (BMJ, online, Aug. 12, 2015), found no association between intake of saturated fat and the risks of heart disease, stroke, premature death and type 2 diabetes.

Another new study from Finland (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, online, Feb. 10, 2016) supports the BMJ findings. The researchers followed more than 1,000 healthy, middle-aged men for over 20 years and found no link between cholesterol in the diet and hardening of the heart’s arteries. About one-third of the study participants had the ApoE4 gene, which predisposes them to both heart disease and Alzheimer’s. Even these high-risk men showed no effect from eating cholesterol foods.

Moderate consumption of whole eggs (seven/week), which each contains 185 mg of cholesterol and 5 grams of fat, can now be part of a healthy diet, according to Harvard’s Nutrition Source. Even the new federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans no longer limit cholesterol intake to 300 mg/day. But the government and professional associations don’t go far enough, insists Mark Hyman, MD, director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine and author of the newly released Eat Fat, Get Thin.

Read more about this, including the benefits of coconut oil, considered a saturated fat, in one of my upcoming posts.

The Ugly

One of the most serious threats to our health is trans-fat. Trans-fat is partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Food makers put vegetable oil through a chemical process to solidify the liquid oil for use in food products. The same BMJ study that looked at saturated fat consumption found that people who ate trans-fat were 34% more likely to die from all causes, 28% more likely to die from heart disease and 21% more likely to develop heart disease. Trans-fats are commonly found in packaged, processed foods, such as cookies and crackers—and in margarine. The FDA is finally banning trans-fats, but unfortunately not until 2018. Until then look for the words “partially hydrogenated” on food labels and avoid those products.