One of the biggest and more misleading health trends of the last 20 years has been the anti-fat movement. Everything had to be low-fat, preferably fat-free. Truth is, fats are critical to good health, releasing energy slowly to keep the body satiated and regulating blood sugar. They also provide powerful nutrients and antioxidants for cellular repair of joints, organs, skin and hair.
- Fats are critical to good health.
- Cell membranes are made of fat.
- Fats release energy slowly, keeping hunger satisfied.
- Fats help you get from meal to meal without feeling as if you’re starving and they give your body some powerful nutrients and antioxidants for cellular repair of the joints, organs, skin, and hair.
- Fats, especially those found in fish oil and flaxseed oil, also help with cognitive ability, mental clarity and memory retention. These fats also help keep inflammation in the body under control.
Saturated Fat Vs Unsaturated Fat
The difference in chemical structure of saturated and unsaturated fat produces significantly different effects on health. Saturated fats raise serum cholesterol levels, clog arteries, and pose a threat to your heart. Unsaturated fats do not raise cholesterol levels, and research indicates they actually reduce blood cholesterol levels when substituted for saturated fats.
Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and are found in foods such as olive oil, canola oil, flaxseed oil and fish oils. Not all unsaturated fats are healthy though either. Vegetable shortening is also unsaturated, but when used to fry foods, it’s unhealthy. That’s because it contains trans fats, which raise bad (LDL) cholesterol and lower good (HDL) cholesterol. This artery clogging fat is found in processed foods such as cookies, crackers, pies, pastries and margarine. It’s also found in fried foods, especially those at fast-food restaurants, and in smaller quantities in meat and some dairy products.
Essential Fatty Acids
Essential Fatty Acids are defined as fatty acids that cannot be constructed within the body and must be obtained from the diet. The two classes of EFAs include omega-6 fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids.
Broken down further, linoleic acid (LA) is an omega-6 fatty acid, and the three primary omega-3 fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Omega-6 fatty acids can be found in liquid vegetable oils, including soybean oil, corn oil, and safflower oil, as well as seeds and meat. Plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids (ALA) include soybean oil, canola oil, walnuts and flaxseed. EPA and DHA are the omega-3 fatty acids that are contained in fish and shellfish. Oily fish such as salmon, trout and herring are higher in EPA and DHA than are lean fish like cod, haddock, and catfish.
While both play important roles in our bodies, as some inflammation and blood clotting is necessary, studies suggest that a lower omega-3 to omega-6 fat ratio in the diet (which is typical in the U.S.) ratio promotes diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and auto-immune diseases. This is where the buzz comes in: balancing your intake by increasing omega-3 fatty acid consumption and maybe lowering your omega-6 fatty acid consumption can promote heart health and reduce inflammatory conditions.
To increase your omega-3 consumption, aim to have two to three servings of fatty fish per week or supplement with flaxseed or fish oil. Sometimes people will choose flaxseed oil to add to a shake or use as a dressing, while others choose a fish oil in pill form.
Even though these are all omega-3 supplements, they do differ. Plant based ALA is converted into EPA and DHA in the body. But the conversion rate is typically low. Therefore, people often choose fish-oil supplements because they have a higher concentration of EPA and DHA and provide them directly to the body, therefore possibly being more beneficial and effective.
The recommendation for EFA consumption varies depending on your total food and fish intake, as well as health conditions. Speak with your physician before taking any supplements, and choose high quality products.
Keep in mind that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend total fat intake be kept to 20 to 35 percent of total calories consumed and less than 10 percent from saturated fat for adults. Fats and oils are part of a healthy diet; the type and amount of fat consumed is what makes the difference. So don't overdo it, but don't be afraid of fats either.
Nuts, Fish and Seeds
Some of the best fats come from nuts, oils and seeds. Few foods have such an undeserved bad rap as nuts. As part of an anti-fat movement, people avoided nuts since they are high in fat. But nuts and seeds are a good, convenient source of protein, fiber and positive fats, and they stick with you longer, helping control your blood sugar and appetite.
A handful of nuts every day can lower your risk of heart ailments and Alzheimer’s disease. You don’t want to eat an entire can of nuts, but a small serving is a good snack, especially if combined with, say, a glass of fat-free milk. A quarter cup (about the size you might get on an airplane) is a good serving size.
Nuts also make a nutritious topping for salads and main courses. In a recent rating of nuts by Men’s Health magazine, almonds were found to have the most nutritional value, followed by cashews, pecans and macadamias.
- Fish oils provide powerful omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which have antioxidant properties and are essential for good cardiovascular health and mental clarity. These are found in salmon, mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines and some types of white fish. Swordfish and tuna have fatty acids, though not as much as salmon especially wild salmon, as opposed to farm-raised). Fish is a tremendous source of protein without the high saturated fats found in fatty meat products.
- Get a variety of nuts and seeds in your diet to provide essential fatty acids from plant sources.
- Olive oil is another excellent choice for cooking. It has great antioxidants properties, is good for cooking and goes well with salads.
- Verstegen, Mark, and Pete Williams. Core Performance: The Revolutionary Workout Program to Transform Your Body and Your Life. Pennsylvania: Rodale Press, 2004.
- Verstegen, Mark and Pete Williams. Core Performance Essentials: The Revolutionary Nutrition and Exercise Plan Adapted for Everyday Use. Pennsylvania: Rodale Press, 2006.