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When it comes to your health, one of the most important things you can do is steer clear of processed fats, meaning partially hydrogenated oils and vegetable oils that are high in polyunsaturated omega-6 fats. Avoiding refined carbohydrates—such as sugar and refined wheat or gluten-free flour—is a critical nutrition strategy for preventing disease, and so is avoiding partially hydrogenated and refined vegetable oils.
Hydrogenation is a chemical process in which hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oils to turn them into semi-solid oils that are used in deep-fat frying, added to processed foods, and used to make margarine and vegetable shortening. These man-made trans-fats cause dysfunction in the body on a cellular level, and they promote obesity and insulin resistance and double the risk of heart disease.
Many consumers over the past decade have learned about the dangers of trans-fats and have been gradually moving away from them, and fewer food companies are using them. Even so, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that further reducing trans-fats in the food supply could prevent an additional 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year and up to 20,000 heart attacks each year.
What You May Not Know About Vegetable Oils
Most consumers haven’t learned about the importance of avoiding refined vegetable oils. That’s because there’s been a lot of misinformation on the subject. Starting in the 1960s and 1970s, and particularly in 1980, public health officials began advocating the use of vegetable oils high in omega-6 fats in place of saturated fats, such as butter or coconut oil, to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. It turns out that was bad advice. Much evidence, including a large and exhaustive new analysis by international scientists, does not support guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fats and low consumption of total saturated fats.
Vegetable oils are sources of omega-6 polyunsaturated fats that we were never designed to eat in such large amounts. Before chemical solvent extraction and refining methods were developed in the last century, we didn’t have the ability to extract oils from foods such as corn and soybeans. So people got their omega-6 fats in small amounts from whole foods-seeds, greens, grains, or nuts-which contain natural antioxidants and other nutrients. This isn’t the case with modern, conventionally produced vegetable oils.
After the “saturated fat is bad” message went out to the public, vegetable oils began to be used in virtually every processed and packaged food on the shelves-from chips to sauces to salad dressings. Restaurants, too, switched to vegetable oils: Now almost every restaurant-from fast-food joints to fine-dining stablishments-uses them. That’s a big problem.
Although both omega-6 and omega-3 fats are essential to health, they need to be balanced in a ratio of between 1:1 and 4:1 for optimal health. Today’s balance of essential fatty acids is out of whack: Western diets have a ratio of, believe it or not, between 10:1 and 25:1. High-omega-6 vegetable oils are the primary culprit of this severe imbalance, but other factors, such as the increased use of grains instead of grass for livestock feed (which in turn alters the fatty acid profile of meat), have contributed as well.
Did you know?
Research by Artemis Simopoulos, MD, implicates a diet high in omega-6 fats in the development of cancer and autoimmune diseases. Nix refined vegetable oils that are high in inflammation-promoting omega-6 fats, including corn, cottonseed, grapeseed, peanut, rice bran, safflower, soybean, and sunflower oils.
This out-of-balance ratio of essential fats creates health problems: Omega-6 fats stimulate the body’s production of inflammation-causing substances, while omega-3 fats-found in flaxseed, coldwater fish, and other foods-encourage the body’s production of inflammation-suppressing compounds. A diet high in omega-6s and low in omega-3s, therefore, contributes to chronic inflammation, which plays a major role in the development of cardiovascular disease and other health problems.
Healthy Fat Tips
An important nutrition strategy to promote optimal health and help reduce inflammation is to give the body a balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fats-one that matches the body’s natural requirements for good fats. To dramatically improve the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio in your diet, try these tips:
- Make an oil change. Do a complete overhaul of the fats and oils you use in food preparation: Nix margarine and vegetable shortening made with partially hydrogenated oils. Ditto for refined vegetable oils that are high in inflammation-promoting omega-6 fats, including corn, cottonseed, grapeseed, peanut, rice bran, safflower, soybean, and sunflower oils. Instead, use alternatives that are high in monounsaturated or natural saturated fatty acids, such as cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil, unrefined coconut oil, and organic pastured butter or ghee (clarified butter).
- Avoid processed foods. Excess omega-6s are hidden in the oils used to make everything from crackers, cookies, packaged baked goods, and frozen meals to salad dressings, condiments, and sauces. Instead, eat mostly whole foods, and be choosy about the processed foods you do buy. Look for convenience foods, such as Tessemae’s condiments and salad dressings, that are made with olive oil only-or make your own salad dressing using unrefined olive oil or avocado oil, both of which are rich in monounsaturated fats.
- Up your omega-3s naturally. We’ve all heard that flaxseed and chia seeds are good sources of omega-3 fats. They are. But the conversion of the type of omega-3 fat they provide (alpha-linolenic acid) to the types of omega-3 fats (EPA and DHA) that more easily lead to anti-inflammatory substances in the body isn’t terribly efficient and can be slowed down by certain dietary and lifestyle factors. Many people take omega-3 supplements; however, excessive consumption of omega-6 fats interferes with the absorption of omega-3s-supplements won’t do much good if you’re eating too many omega-6 fats.
The best way to up your omega-3 intake is to upgrade your animal protein sources by eating more cold-water fish, such as wild salmon, tuna, anchovies, and Alaskan halibut. Other good sources include organic 100 percent pasture-raised meat, organic pasture-raised butter, and organic eggs from chickens that are fed flaxseed meal or are pasture-raised.