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Fats and Fatty Acids – What You Need To Know

Fat in our diets has been blamed for many of our health issues:  obesity, heart disease, and some types of cancer.  As a result, many people turned to a “low fat” diet.  Unfortunately, the resulting “low fat” foods and diets haven’t resulted in most people controlling their weight or becoming healthier.  In fact, the opposite is true.  What we have found is it is the type of fat that matters in addition to how much you consume.  Reducing your intake of some types of fats reduces the risk of several chronic diseases, but other types of fats are absolutely essential to our health and well-being.

Sifting through all the conflicting information on fats can leave you with even more questions.   In order to understand good and bad fats, you need to know their names and some information about them:

Monounsaturated fats

  • Are liquid at room temperature and turn cloudy when kept in refrigerator.
  • Primary sources are plant oils like canola oil, peanut oil, and olive oil. Other good sources are avocados; nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts, and pecans; and seeds such as pumpkin and sesame seeds.
  • People following traditional Mediterranean diets, which are very high in foods containing monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil, tend to have lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

Polyunsaturated fats

  • Are liquid at room temperatures as well as at cold temperatures
  • Primary sources are sunflower, corn, soybean, and flaxseed oils, and also foods such as walnuts, flax seeds, and fish.
  • This fat family includes the Omega-3 group of fatty acids, which are anti-inflammatory and your body can’t make them on its own.

Saturated fat

  • Are usually solid at room temperature and have a high melting point
  • Primary sources are animal products including red meat and whole milk dairy products. Other sources are tropical vegetable oils such as coconut oil, palm oil and foods made with these oils. Poultry and fish contain saturated fat, but less than red meat.
  • Saturated fat raises low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol that increases your risk of coronary heart disease.
  • It is unnecessary to eat saturated fat sources since our bodies can produce all the saturated fat that we need when we consume enough of the good fats.

Trans Fats

  • Trans fats are created by heating liquid vegetable oils in the presence of hydrogen gas, a process called hydrogenation. Partially hydrogenating vegetable oils makes them more stable and less likely to spoil, which is very good for food manufacturers – and very bad for you.
  • Primary sources of trans fat are vegetable shortenings, some margarines, crackers, candies, cookies, fried foods, baked goods, and other processed foods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
  • Trans fat raises LDL or “bad” cholesterol that increases your risk of coronary heart disease, as well as lowering HDL, or good cholesterol.

Omega-3 Fats

We should all be increasing our intake of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which we need for body functions like controlling blood clotting and building cell membranes in the brain. We’re still learning about the many benefits of Omega-3, but research has shown this fatty acid can have a positive impact on:

  • Cardiovascular Disease (CVD) Epidemiologic and clinical trials have shown that omega-3 fatty acids reduce CVD incidence (American Heart Association), by:
    • decreasing risk of arrhythmias, which can lead to sudden cardiac death
    • decreasing triglyceride levels
    • decreasing growth rate of atherosclerotic plaque
    • lowering blood pressure (slightly)
  • Liver cancer: omega-3 fatty acids may be an effective therapy for both the treatment and prevention of human liver cancers. (University of Pittsburgh study)
  • Depression: Omega-3 fatty acid DHA reduces symptoms of depression probably because it increases gray matter in the brain. (University of Pittsburgh study)
  • Dementia – Eating fatty fish, high in omega 3, lowers the likelihood of developing “silent” brain lesions that can cause memory loss and dementia (University of Kuopio in Finland)

Types of Omega 3 fatty acids

The three key members of the Omega -3 family are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA); eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA); and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The best sources for these are fatty fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, or sardines, or some cold-water fish oil supplements.  Canned (albacore) tuna and lake trout can also be good sources, depending on how the fish were raised and processed.

You may hear a lot about getting your omega-3’s from foods rich in ALA fatty acids.  ALA is the most common Omega-3 found in American diets and is found in abundance in flax seeds and flax seed oil, as well as walnuts. While your body may be able to convert ALA into EPA and DHA, you can’t be sure – only some people have the ability to do so. Thus, to insure you get enough of these vital nutrients, it’s prudent to include fatty fish or fatty fish oil supplements in your diet. But, if you eat no fish or fish oil, getting just ALA is better than nothing – your cardiovascular protection may still go up, though not nearly as much as with fish oils.

Some people avoid seafood because they worry about mercury or other possible toxins in fish. Most experts agree that the benefits of eating two servings a week of these cold water fatty fish outweigh the risks.

Choosing the best Omega-3 Supplements

When choosing an omega-3 supplement, keep the following in mind:

  • One 500-mg capsule per day is sufficient – any more than that is extraneous and could even be detrimental to your health. The American Heart Association recommends consuming 1–3 grams per day of EPA and DHA. For certain medical conditions, higher doses of omega-3 might be beneficial, but make sure these are prescribed by a medical professional.
  • Choose supplements that are mercury-free, pharmaceutical grade and molecularly distilled. Make sure the supplement contains both DHA and EPA. They may be hard to find, but supplements with higher concentrations of EPA are better. A good ratio to look for is 3:2 (EPA:DHA).

The Omega-6 to Omega-3 Ratio

Omega-3 and omega-6 fats are both essential fats (meaning the body can’t make them and instead we need to get them from the food we eat). The proper balance of these two fats is extremely important for a number of reasons – one being that omega-6 fats are the precursors for pro-inflammatory molecules (which helps us avoid infections and promotes healing) whereas omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory and turn off the inflammatory response when it is no longer needed.

In recent decades the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids has become way out of balance in the western diet. Most people consume far too many omega-6 fatty acids and consume far too little omega-3 fatty acids. This ratio is one of the important factors that can help reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, inflammatory conditions, and depression.

Tips for helping to balance your intake of the omega fats

  • Avoid vegetable oils such as corn or safflower oil.
  • Reduce your consumption of meats and dairy products.
  • Eliminate highly processed foods.
  • Increase consumption of omega-3 rich foods such as wild-caught cold-water fish like salmon, flaxseed oil, and walnuts.
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