As a culture, we've been conditioned to believe that low-fat foods are healthy. "This is not predicated on any science," says David Perlmutter, MD, author of the upcoming book, Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar-Your Brain's Silent Killers.
In low-fat processed foods, he points out, the fat has been replaced with carbohydrates, which increases our carbohydrate intake beyond our needs and causes blood-sugar spikes. This leads to a condition known as metabolic syndrome, which provokes belly fat, diabetes, and heart disease. Eating fat that is naturally present in foods is a critical part of the solution.
For example, conventional wisdom says that egg whites are healthier than whole eggs, but this isn't true. Scientists at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, compared the effects of whole eggs and a yolk-free egg substitute in a group of 40 men and women. For 12 weeks, they all followed a diet with no more than 30 percent of daily calories from carbohydrates (less than the American average), but half of them ate 3 eggs for breakfast while the others ate egg substitute. At the end of the trial, those who ate whole eggs had significantly lower levels of inflammatory cholesterol and better function of blood sugar and insulin.
"The diet humans have eaten for 2.5 million years is best," says Perlmutter. Such a diet includes 6-8 oz. daily of protein from grass-fed, organically raised animals, plus an optimal balance of fats and plenty of above-ground vegetables, which are lower in starch than root vegetables.
The Essential Fat Balance
The body needs a balance of two types of essential fats: anti-inflammatory omega-3s and pro-inflammatory omega-6s. In the days of caveman, it's estimated that the ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s was 2:1 or 1:1. In the modern American diet, that ratio is more like 20:1, which is highly pro-inflammatory and leads to diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, cancer, and weight gain. Several culprits contribute to this imbalance:
Inflammatory oils: Vegetable oils, such as canola and corn oils, are erroneously considered healthy options for cooking, and are abundant in processed and fast foods. Unfortunately, they're loaded with pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats.
Solution:Avoid processed and fast foods. Cook with healthy oils that withstand high heat, such as coconut, red palm, and rice bran oils. To dress salads, use extra virgin olive oil or flax seed oil. Add these after cooking, to preserve their beneficial fats.
Inflammatory meats: Commercial animal feed is made mostly from corn, rather than the grasses animals eat in natural habitats, and this alters the fat composition of meat. Rather than containing a healthy balance of essential fats, conventionally raised meat contains an inflated level of omega-6s.
Solution: Try to eat only grass-fed meats.
Inflammatory fish: Salmon, the richest source of omega-3 fats, is most often farm-raised. On conventional fish farms, salmon are fed corn, which raises their levels of inflammatory omega-6 fats. And high-heat cooking destroys omega-3 fats.
Solution: Eat wild salmon and other fish that are high in omega-3 fats. And cook your fish on low heat-preferably by poaching or steaming.
Inflammatory carbohydrates: Too many grains and too much sugar raise levels of chronic inflammation, increasing our need for anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats, which are already lacking in our diets.
Solution: Replace grains and sugar in your diet with non-starchy, above-ground vegetables; occasional fruit, such as apples or berries; and healthy plant sources of omega-3s, such as chia or flax seeds.
Different Types of Omega-3
"Increasing your omega-3 intake is probably the simplest thing you can do to improve your health," says Tom Gilhooly, MD, founder of The Centre for Nutritional Studies in Glasgow, Scotland. "Omega 3 fats have been the subject of more than 20,000 research papers," he says. Benefits include reduced risk of premature labor, less incidence of depression and ADHD, fewer PMS symptoms, and relief from inflammatory diseases.
Taking fish or krill oil supplements is a simple way to boost your healthy fat intake. Both contain key omega-3s: EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosapentaenoic acid). Vegan sources, made with algae, are also available.
Another form of omega-3 is found in plants: ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). Our bodies convert ALA to EPA and then DHA, but the degree of conversion varies. Lack of magnesium and zinc, and too many omega-6s can inhibit the process.
Perlmutter recommends getting ALA from foods such as flax seed, avocados, and walnuts, and taking 800-1,000 mg of DHA from supplements. Our bodies should convert enough ALA to EPA, he says, but will likely to fall short on DHA, which is particularly important for brain function.
Sources of Healthy Fats
A combination of supplements, oils, and seeds can restore the balance of fats in your diet. Many of these ingredients are found in nutritional powders, bars, and other food products.
Supplements-One or more of these can help correct a shortfall of omega-3s.
Fish oil or a combination of EPA and DHA from algae or krill: Get 1-3 grams of a combination of EPA and DHA daily-quantities are listed on labels.
ALA: 1-2 grams daily. (One ounce of walnuts contains about 2.5 grams.) Flax seed oil contains the most available concentrated source of ALA
Omega-6 oils: Borage seed, evening primrose, and black currant oils contain a particular type of omega-6 fat, gamma linolenic acid (GLA), that is anti-inflammatory and helps keep fats balanced.
Omega 3-6-9 blends: These supplements provide a combination of beneficial fats.
Cooking oils-These healthy fats can withstand high heat; they contain antioxidants; and they support a healthy metabolism. For cooking or baking, substitute any of these for vegetable oils or butter.
Coconut oil: Rich in a type of healthy saturated fat (see above), coconut oil also kills harmful bacteria in the gut.
Red palm oil:High in vitamin E and carotenoids, it's also called palm fruit oil. It's an ingredient in the cholesterol-lowering spread Smart Balance.
Rice bran oil: Lighter than olive oil or butter, it helps burn sugar and reduce absorption of cholesterol from food.
Seeds-Chia and flax seeds are rich in omega-3 fats as well as other nutrients and fiber. Hemp seeds, also called hemp nuts, contain a combination of omega-3s and other healthy fats.
Specialty oils-Unlike the cooking oils listed above, these oils lose much of their nutritional benefit in high temperatures, and are better used for dips and dressings, or taken as supplements.
Sacha inchi oil: Sacha inchi is a Peruvian plant whose oil is rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fats. It may reduce inflammation and help reduce belly fat.
Sea buckthorn oil:Found in many supplements, it contains a wide range of vitamins and minerals, and is rich in healthy omega-7 fats. It fights viruses, reduces inflammation, and lubricates mucous membranes.
Extra virgin olive oil: High in healthy omega-9 fats, it's rich in antioxidants and is proven to enhance heart health. Drizzle it on food after cooking, or use it as a base for salad dressings.
Barlean'sIdeal Omega 3 is the "one and done" solution-just one softgel gives you an optimal dose (1,030 mg) of pharmaceutical-grade omega-3 fats from fish.
North American Herb & SpiceCocaPalm Virgin Coconut & Red Palm Oil, naturally high in vitamin E and beta-carotene, is great for sautéing vegetables and cooking eggs.
Olympian LabsKrill Oil delivers omega-3 EPA and DHA, along with omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids-plus, this oil is a natural source of antioxidants.
ReNew LifeNorwegian Gold EPA 1000 Omega is the highest-potency EPA-only omega-3 supplement, formulated to help lower triglycerides without raising LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.
Spectrum Essentials Decadent Blend Chia & Flax Seed (with Coconut & Cocoa) mixes omega-3-rich seeds with yummy coconut and cocoa-try it on cereal and more!
Breakfast Smoothie Tip
Smoothies with protein powder can make a healthy breakfast but generally lack fat. To get your omega-3s, add chia seeds, flax seeds, or flax seed oil. Or, add flavored fish or flax oil, or a fruit-flavored Barlean's Omega Swirl, which has a smoothie-like consistency and is made using a proprietary technology that increases the bioavailability of omega-3 fats.
Coconut Oil Offers Hope for Alzheimer's
Coconut oil contains a special type of fat, medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), which provides a special type of brain fuel that may help people with Alzheimer's and other neurological diseases. According to preliminary research and anecdotal evidence from more than 200 people, up to 85 percent of patients experience a noticeable reduction of symptoms.
The most definitive study yet is being launched this year at the University of South Florida in Tampa by David Morgan, PhD, a researcher who has studied Alzheimer's disease for 25 years. When Alzheimer's patients take coconut oil, he says, it appears that "healthy parts of the brain work better." A therapeutic amount is 2 tablespoons daily of organic coconut oil or 20 grams of MCT oil, available in supplements.