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Here are some simple answers to tricky questions about fats
Our relationship with fat continues to baffle us. We love it, then we hate it. It comforts us, then frightens us. Unlike sugar, which we’ve come to universally vilify, fat makes us sway with indecision.
Meanwhile, conflicting claims abound. Saturated fat clogs our arteries, but coconut oil lowers cholesterol. Canola oil is high in healthful monounsaturated fats, but it’s toxic. Flax is loaded with omega-3 fats, but they’re the wrong kind. Which are real-life facts, and which are big, fat lies? Some answers to the most frequently asked fat questions follow.
Q I know saturated fats are supposed to be bad for me, but what’s the difference between monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, and which are more healthful?
In chemical terms, monounsaturated fats contain one double bond in their structures, while polyunsaturated fats contain two or more double bonds, making them more “bendy” and prone to damage. Which are more healthful? That depends. Both have similar effects on cholesterol levels, but studies suggest that monounsaturated fats lower the risk for breast cancer, while polyunsaturated fats appear to increase risk.
Additionally, some foods that are high in monounsaturated fats have additional benefits. Olive oil is rich in compounds that have antioxidant properties and anti-inflammatory effects, and many studies have found that almonds are extremely effective at lowering LDL cholesterol while raising HDL levels. Peanuts raise HDL levels, especially in people with diabetes; they’re also rich in resveratrol, which fights inflammation and has heart-protective effects. Other foods rich in monounsaturated fats include avocados, macadamia nuts, and canola oil.
Q I’ve heard that canola oil is harmful; is that just an urban myth?
Yes and no. The idea that canola oil contains high levels of toxins comes from the fact that it used to be produced from the rapeseed plant, a weed that’s used to make mechanical oils; rapeseed is naturally high in erucic acid, a compound used as a lubricant in industrial processes that’s toxic to humans in high quantities (hence, the toxicity rumor). The rapeseed was then crossbred to develop a canola plant that does not contain erucic acid. Canola is named for Canadian oil, the main supplier of the product, since “rape plant” clearly has some marketing issues. The canola plant, not the rapeseed, is now used to make canola oil. All the other stuff about mustard gas and toxic fumes is urban myth.
However, many damning studies have cast suspicion on canola oil. It has been implicated in the formation of lesions in the arteries, and more recent studies noted that canola oil markedly shortened the survival rate of animals. Canola oil originally had a high polyunsaturated fat content. However, in the last few years canola oils have been developed that have a higher monounsaturated content. It’s safer to stick with olive oil, which has a vast body of clinical research and historical use, for your monounsaturated fats. Another reason to avoid canola oil: It’s one of the nine most genetically modified (GMO) crops/foods.
Q EFA, ALA, EPA, DHA, LA, GLA, AA—I’m confused by this alphabet soup of oils. What do all these letters mean?
They all refer to types of polyunsaturated fats. Here’s how it works: omega-3 and omega-6 fats are both referred to as essential fatty acids (EFAs); the body can’t make them, so we have to get them from our diets. The three main omega-3 fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is found mainly in flax and nuts; DHA and EPA are found mainly in fish. Omega-6 fatty acids include linoleic acid (LA), gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), arachidonic acid (AA), and others.
Q Can I eat flax instead of fish to get omega-3 fats?
Yes and no. Flax, walnuts, chia seeds, certain dark-green leafy vegetables, and a few other foods contain omega-3s, but they’re in the form of ALA; ALA must be converted into EPA, which is necessary for the production of certain hormones, and DHA, which is required for brain development, vision, and other functions. But the body generally uses ALA for energy, and conversion into EPA and DHA may be limited and inefficient for therapeutic purposes. Conversion efficiency depends on the individual, and varies widely; in most studies, conversion from ALA to EPA/DHA has ranged from 10 percent to 35 percent. What that means for you: if you’re counting on flax and walnuts for your main source of omega-3 fats, take into account the fact that not all of it will be converted; a tablespoon of flaxseed oil is generally recommended.
Q What about vegan omega-3 products? What are those?
Vegan sources of EPA and DHA are made from algae and have been shown to have the same benefits as fish oils. Unlike omega-3s in the form of ALA, algae-based EPA and DHA products do not require conversion by the body.
Q How many omega-3 fats should I eat every day?
The vast body of research on omega-3 fats involves cardiovascular health; most studies suggest that omega-3s help prevent erratic heartbeats, lower blood pressure, improve blood vessel function, and lower triglycerides. At higher doses, omega-3 fats may also reduce chronic inflammation, which plays a role in the development of atherosclerosis. In addition, some research suggests that EPA and DHA from fish may help prevent prostate cancer. Most evidence supports dietary recommendations of 1,000 mg per day of EPA and DHA combined for cardiovascular disease prevention—about the equivalent of eating fish twice a week. A couple of points to remember: fish may contain mercury and other toxins, and improper processing and storage can damage the delicate oils, turning them rancid. If you take supplements, buy a high-quality version that’s been stored properly and is tested to be free of contaminants.
Q What’s all this about the balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fats?
There’s no question that omega-6 fats are necessary to health; however, the average American diet provides about 10 times more omega-6 oils, in the form of LA, than we need. That’s because LA is found in processed foods and in common cooking oils, like cottonseed, safflower, corn, sunflower, and soybean oils. Many experts suggest that eating omega-6 fats in excess deprives us of the health benefits from omega-3 fats. Too many omega-6s relative to omega-3s can promote inflammation, and may increase the risk of dying from heart disease. One exception is GLA, an omega-6 fat found in evening primrose oil that may actually reduce inflammation.
On the other hand, many studies have found a heart-protective effect of omega-6 fats, and other studies have found that the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats wasn’t linked with heart disease risk, since both are beneficial. The best advice: avoid processed food altogether and stick to a whole-foods diet; you’ll get enough omega-6 fats from foods like nuts and seeds. Use monounsaturated fats for cooking and eat fish or take an omega-3 supplement.
Coconut has been a staple food for thousands of years in tropical cultures, but the islanders clearly aren’t obese and plagued by many of our modern diseases.
Q I know trans fats are really evil, but I don’t eat margarine or processed foods. Am I safe?
We now know that trans fats, also called hydrogenated fats, raise the risk of heart disease, increase total cholesterol, decrease HDL levels, and are worse for us than saturated fats. But even if you don’t eat Pop-Tarts or fast foods, you may still be getting trans fats. They show up in crackers, microwave popcorn, biscuits, and even instant “international coffee” mixes. (Very small amounts also occur naturally in beef and dairy products.)
Now that trans fats are required to be listed on labels (they weren’t until 2006), you can find out what’s in your food. Anything that says “partially hydrogenated” or “hydrogenated oil” in the list of ingredients contains trans fats. The product may be labeled as “free of trans fats” or “0 grams trans fats,” but that’s because products that contain less than 0.5 gram trans fats are considered by federal regulatory agencies to be trans fat-free. If you see a product that lists “fully hydrogenated oils,” it is free of trans fats; the chemical process of fully, rather than partially, hydrogenating an oil removes the trans fats. The best advice: steer clear of manmade oils, and stick with the ones made by nature.
Q What about coconut oil? It’s saturated, but it’s supposed to be healthful.
The most compelling information comes from studying traditional tropical cultures. Coconut has been a staple food for thousands of years, but the islanders clearly aren’t obese or plagued by many of our modern diseases. In one early study, researchers examined people living on Polynesian islands and found that vascular disease was uncommon, and there was no evidence of their high saturated fat intake having a harmful effect. More recent studies suggest that coconut oil reduces blood cholesterol and lowers other markers of heart attack risk.
What are omega-7 Fats?
Omega-7s support heart health, lowering LDL cholesterol while increasing HDL cholesterol, and are powerful inflammation-fighting antioxidants. Omega-7s have also been shown to boost the strength, tone, and texture of skin, hair, and nails, particularly when consumed in the form of wild-grown sea buckthorn berry—the richest plant source of omega-7s.
Palmitoleic acid is a purified and concentrated form of one specific omega-7. Initial human studies have found that palmitoleic acid helps lower unhealthy triglycerides, reduce harmful LDL cholesterol, and raise beneficial HDL cholesterol—all of which benefit circulation and heart health.
Attain Your Ideal Weight “If you’re trying to lose weight, I recommend whole-food nutritional supplements, cod liver oil, and supplements made with concentrated fucoxanthin, a carotenoid from brown seaweed that has shown tremendous fat-burning potential,” says Jordan S. Rubin, ND, the founder of Garden of Life and the author of numerous books on health, including The Maker’s Diet for Weight Loss.
Barlean’s Flax Oil can be mixed into salad dressings, yogurt, blended beverages, and more for a healthy dose of plant-based omega-3s.
Greens+ Organics Chia is a natural source of omega-3s, antioxidants, and fiber—try these seeds in cooking, baking, or added to beverages.
Wiley’s Finest Wild Alaskan Fish Oil delivers 1,000 mg of EPA and DHA per dose—just one softgel per day is all you need.
Dr. Bronner’s Coconut Oil Whole Kernel Unrefined is certified organic and cold-pressed, with a slightly nutty flavor and tropical aroma.
Sibu beauty Cellular Support With Omega-7 delivers a mega dose of omega-7s, along with omega-3s, -6s, and -9s, from sea buckthorn oil in softgel form.