Fabulous Fats! Why some are essential to our health and gut.
Poor fats. They’ve been demonised since the 1970s and many people fear them. Or are confused about them. I’d like to set the record straight that we should learn to love them again.
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Saturated Fats- the Myth
In the 1950s a major study by Ancel Keys determined that saturated fats increased cholesterol which led to cardiovascular and heart disease. But in recent years these studies have been found to be flawed and more current research has shown that the evidence is just not there to prove Ancel Keys hypothesis.
We now know that saturated fat does not raise cholesterol levels in the body. Cholesterol management is controlled by the liver which will make more cholesterol if levels are low and metabolises the excess if levels are high.
What about other fats- I hear about the importance of Omega 6 and 3 as being good for health?
Omega 6 and Omega 3 are known as “essential fatty acids”- called essential as the body cannot make them so they must be obtained from the food we eat.
Omega 6 is found in nuts and seeds and their oils (like sunflower oil). Omega 3 is found in flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts and oily fish. And there is even some in dark green leafy vegetables too!
The correct nutritional ratio should be 1:1 – that’s an equal intake of both. But in many Western diets it is more like a ratio of 20 times the Omega 6 compared to Omega 3. This unbalanced ratio is extremely unhealthy as it leads to inflammation in the body.
Yes, you heard that correct: Omega 6 in excess is pro-inflammatory to the body! It releases chemical messengers telling the body to be inflamed. In addition, when Omega 6 oils are heated to high temperatures they release toxic free radical compounds that damage human cells.
So beware! Too many processed foods contain Omega 6 oils: crisps, veggie burgers, salad dressings, hummus, pies, the list is endless. Next time you go shopping take a close look at the product labels to see what oils and fats have been used in the manufacturing process.
What about Omega 3?
Omega 3 is a group of polyunsaturated fatty acids, the most common one being ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). However, there are two more important Omega 3 fats – EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).
EPA and DHA have the most beneficial effects in the body. They release anti-inflammatory compounds sending messages around the body to dampen down inflammation. The reality today is that many disease states are due to excess and chronic low-grade inflammation.
Sad fact 1 – ALA has to be converted into EPA and DHA but the conversion is extremely poor. Only about 10% ALA can be converted.
Why is this a problem? Because most of the Omega 3 foods mentioned above are rich in ALA. Only marine sources mostly oily fish (sardines, salmon, herring, mackerel) are rich in EPA and DHA.
Sad fact 2- You can eat all the flaxseeds in the World but you won’t obtain a sufficient intake of EPA and DHA.
Why are EPA and DHA fats so important?
Other than the anti-inflammatory nature of these fats, there is an extremely lengthy list of benefits to our health:
→ The brain is made up of 60% fat from these two fat sources. They provide structure and functionality to the brain. Huge amounts of DHA is required during a baby’s development and EPA is required in large amounts throughout our lives to support cognition, concentration, mental clarity and help avoid depression.
→ The retina in the eye requires these fats for vision and a deficiency is associated with age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
→ Nerve endings are surrounded by a fatty myelin sheath containing these fats necessary for effective electrical nerve transmission.
→ Cell membranes contain a double fatty layer containing these fats keeping the cells flexible and porous allowing nutrients in and toxins out.
→ They help to keep the gut lining healthy as these cells are replaced every 4 days due to the wear and tear they experience with food and waste passing through. With such a high turnover of cells a steady intake of these fats helps to prevent intestinal permeability (where the lining becomes leaky to toxins).
→ They help to prevent inflammation in the gut: Gut dysbiosis with an increase in pathogenic bacteria and lower levels of beneficial bacteria can increase the risk of an inflamed gut wall.
→ These fats have been found to help increase microbial diversity. We now know that the health of the gut is due to its diversity and abundance of beneficial bacteria.
→ They help to mobilise fat stores so they have an important role in weight management.
Yes, you heard that right- fats do not make us fat and can with help weight loss!
→ Numerous studies support their essential role in cardiovascular disease.
→ The anti-inflammatory action leads to a positive impact on joint pain, skin health (like eczema), asthma and inflammatory bowel diseases and much more.
I hate fish what can I do?!
Ideally, you need 3 portions of oily fish a week from salmon, sardines, mackerel or herring.
If you really cannot bring yourself to consume oily fish or cannot manage to consume this much in your diet then you really must supplement.
Don’t look for an Omega 3 supplement.
Do look for a DHA/EPA fish oil supplement containing a daily dose of 700-1000mg combined.
But I’m vegan/vegetarian?
The good news is that in recent years supplement companies have brought algae-based supplements to the market containing EPA and DHA. The EPA/DHA levels are lower than a fish oil supplement so you may require more capsules.
One word of caution, our seas are so polluted now that it’s important to reduce exposure to heavy metals like mercury and PCBs.
This link helps explain the toxicity of fish and how to choose wisely:
With both types of supplements look for quality assured brands that screen the fish or algae for toxicity as purity is really important. When choosing fish, look for Wild Alaskan salmon, North Atlantic mackerel and most sardines (being a small fish) as they are low in mercury ↓
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