You may not realize it but the type of fat that you eat makes a big difference in how you feel. Hence the term essential fats.
Although fat is primarily known for storing energy and providing insulation, considerable evidence has recently linked fat to the condition of your skin, the mobility of your joints, and the sharpness of your memory. Fats and oils are major components of every cell in the body, serving as nutritional gatekeepers that protect cells from harm. However, consuming too much of the wrong fats and too little of the right ones can result in inflammation, deterioration, or disease.
Fats are essential in our diets because our bodies cannot make them on their own. There are two parent “essential fatty acids” (EFAs): linoleic acid (LA), commonly called omega-6, and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), also known as omega-3.
Our bodies metabolize these two EFAs into other fatty acids that regulate various physiological processes. For example, ALA, which is found naturally in such plant foods as flaxseed, has to be converted into EPA (eciosapentaeonic acid) and DHA (docosahexanoic acid) – two hard-working omega-3s. However, fish oils and fish oil supplements supply “ready-made” EPA and DHA that don’t have to be broken down.
Nutrition surveys of our eating habits over the last few decades indicate that the dietary ratio between omega-6s to omega-3s is alarmingly disproportionate. Our diets may supply up to twenty times the amount of omega-6s than necessary, while providing insufficient amounts of omega-3s. And EFA imbalances can contribute to such conditions as insulin resistance, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, arthritis, asthma, lupus, inflammatory bowel, skin problems, depression, attention deficit disorder, and neurological disease.
The optimal amount of omega-3s is a subject of continued debate. The Food and Nutrition Board recently recommended 110 and 160 mg/day of EPA plus DHA for women and men respectively. Other recommendations have suggested daily intakes ranging from 300 – 1000 mg/day of EPA plus DHA, from food and supplements, if necessary.
The following essential fats guideline will ensure a balanced intake of omega-3s & 6s:
• Enjoy safe fish. Cold-water, fatty fish such as sardines, wild salmon, arctic char, sardines, and trout provide considerable omega 3s, while leaner white fish and shellfish contribute lesser amounts. Consumption of fish (about 3 – 4 oz.) two to three times per week has been shown to be beneficial for heart health and is a simple way to increase omega-3 intake. However, due to recent environmental concerns with contaminants, certain fish, including swordfish, shark, tilefish, and King Mackerel, should be avoided. Consumption of white albacore tuna should also be limited. To learn more about fish safety, visit www.epa.gov or www.ewg.org for periodic updates.
• Fit in some flax. The beautiful blue-flowered flax plant contains seeds that supply tasty omegas when ground and serves as a nice option for non-fish eaters and vegetarians. Milled flaxseed is a flavorful addition to cereals, yogurt, salads, and can be used in baking. Flax oil is also a rich source of omega-3s, but it is highly perishable and is not suitable for cooking. It should be stored in the refrigerator and used by the expiration date. The Flax Council of Canada (www.flaxcouncil.ca) is an excellent resource to learn more about this nutritious seed.
• Diversify your omega assets. Although fish and flax are omega-3 standouts, canola oil, hempseed and hempseed oil, purslane (an edible weed), green leafy vegetables, soybeans, walnuts/walnut oil, Brazil nuts, and wheat germ are other good sources; they can also add interesting tastes and flavors to your menus. Meat products from animals allowed to roam and graze on wild plants are much higher in omega-3s than animals conventionally raised on a grain-fed diet. These products are now available in both regular and natural foods supermarkets. A recent study in the UK found that organic milk also provided respectable levels of omega-3s.
• Explore functional foods. Be aware that an entire new breed of “functional food” products (such as eggs) fortified with omega-3 fatty acids are also available. Energy bars, cereals, pastas, and other grain products which contain flaxseed and hempseed are also available to boost omega-3 intake.
• Temper your omega-6s. Omega-6s are most abundant in vegetable oils such as safflower, sunflower, corn, and cottonseed oil. One of the major reasons for EFA imbalances in America is that people consume too many omega-6s oils, which are often found in baked goods and processed and packaged foods. To reestablish a fatty acid balance, avoid using the aforementioned oils as your primary oil and limit food products that contain omega-6 oils as a major ingredient. Stock your pantry with extra virgin olive, canola, macadamia nut, and walnut oils. Use the best oil to complement menu items – try a splash of walnut oil on a spinach salad or a drizzle of olive oil on steamed purslane.
• Consider EFA supplementation. For those people in good health who want some extra oily insurance, I recommend focusing on omega-3s from EPA and DHA rather than “mixed EFA” or flax oil supplements. Generally, it is safe to take a formula supplying approximately 1000 mg of EPA and DHA/day. Omega-3 supplements vary in the amount of fatty acids each capsule provides, so it is important to note exactly how much EPA and DHA the product contains. For example, a 1000 mg softgel may provide only 180 mg EPA and 120 mg DHA, totaling 300 mg. To obtain 1000 mg/day, one would need to take roughly three softgels. Individuals with medical concerns should seek the advice of a nutritionist or physician before supplementing their diets with higher therapeutic levels since omega-3s have potential side effects and can interact with medications, herbs, and other nutrition supplements.
Other fat-smart changes to ensure optimal health:
• Eliminate Trans fatty acids (TFAs). These nasty fats raise your bad (LDL) cholesterol, lower your good (HDL) cholesterol, interfere with fat-soluble vitamin absorption, promote inflammation, and (perhaps worst of all) displace EFAs in cell membranes. Check your pantry for products containing “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oils in the ingredient list and seek healthier alternatives. Common sources include margarine, shortening, snack foods, and baked goods. In 2006, food labels will be required to indicate the amount of TFAs on their nutrition facts label, but for now your best bet is to scan ingredient lists in order to avoid these rebel fats.
• Minimize saturated fatty acids (SFAs). Scientists have long known that excess SFAs, often caused by heavy doses of animal products in one’s diet, are problematic and can result in inflammation. Thus, SFA-rich foods found in fatty cuts of meat or poultry and high-fat dairy products (cheese, whole milk, butter) should be avoided. Choose leaner options such as skim or low-fat dairy products and the leanest cuts of meat and poultry instead.
• Include some monounsaturated fats (MFAs). Epidemiological evidence suggests that consuming monounsaturated fats can support health and healing. Food sources that supply these healthy fats include olives, extra virgin olive oil, avocados, nuts (almonds, peanuts, macadamias), nut butters, and seeds. Indulge your taste buds and enhance your health with small amounts of MFAs at your meals.
We certainly will continue to hear more about these essential dietary treasures in the months to come as researchers continue to refine EFA recommendations. In the meantime, sprinkle some flax on your cereal, savor some sardines, and nibble on a few walnuts to boost your EFAs!