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The ultimate guide. Essential fats and oils for optimum health. Plus, a cooking oil kitchen cabinet makeover.
dietary fat has been the enemy for a long time. This is not without good cause. Numerous studies have conclusively demonstrated that a high-fat diet can contribute to a wide range of dangerous health issues, including the two most deadly diseases of our time: cancer and heart disease. But to say all fats are lethal is misleading and can be just as dangerous. Yes, some fats are bad, but some fats are absolutely essential to our health. But not just any fat will do. Our cells rely heavily on the right type of fat.
Trans fats are created synthetically by heating liquid fats in a process of hydrogenation. Trans fats are added to products to make them more solid and more stable. This increases the shelf life of prepackaged foods. This process also alters the structure of the fat molecule, creating a fat the body is not accustomed to metabolizing. Trans fat consumption is clearly linked to the development of cancer and heart disease. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, if we were to eliminate the use of trans fats, we would “likely prevent tens of thousands of coronary heart disease events worldwide each year.”
Although not as dangerous as trans fats, excessive consumption of saturated fats is also harmful to our health. Saturated fats are found in animal products such as meat and dairy products. High intake of saturated fats has been linked to both heart disease and cancer. “Excessive consumption of saturated fats from animal sources contributes to insulin resistance and obesity, and introduces bioaccumulated toxins and hormones into your body,” explains Alschuler. Coconut oil, although saturated, is a plant-source oil and a source of saturated medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). Half of these MCTs are made up of lauric acid, an essential fatty acid linked to immune health.
Omega-3 Essential Fats
Omega-3 fatty acids fall into the category of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). The average North American diet is severely deficient in PUFAs.
The best food sources of omega-3s include fatty fish. They are also found in plant oils, nuts and seeds, as well as many fruits and vegetables. The best plant source of omega-3s is flaxseed.
There are three main types of omega-3 EFAs:
- alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
- eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
EPA and DHA are the forms of omega-3s that are most readily utilized by the body. For this reason, the body converts ALA to EPA and DHA. ALA is the plant source of omega-3s. Omega-3 EFAs reduce inflammation, which explains why they are effective at preventing arthritis, heart disease, cancer, and other inflammatory conditions. Much of the research done on heart disease prevention involves omega-3 fatty acids from fish oils. Plant oils, however, are deemed to be a viable vegan alternative to fish oils.
Omega-3s are also concentrated in brain tissue; interestingly, EFAs have shown promise in preventing brain disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s, as well as relieving mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Several studies have confirmed that individuals with brain disorders have lower levels of EFAs in brain tissue.
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that women experiencing psychological distress and depressive symptoms associated with menopause found relief by taking an omega-3 dietary supplement as compared to placebo. The frequency of hot flashes in menopausal women was also reduced.
In addition, several studies have demonstrated that omega-3 fatty acids can help prevent type 2 diabetes. While more human clinical trials are needed in this area, preliminary data shows omega-3 fatty acids play a significant role in insulin sensitivity and regulation.
Fatty fish, fish oil supplements, and flaxseed are good sources of omega-3s. (Note: never cook with flaxseed oil; it is damaged by heat and can turn healthy fats into harmful toxins.) Krill oil supplements are also high in omega-3s, and provide the antioxidant astaxanthin.
Omega-6 Essential Fats
Omega-6 essential fats can be both bad and good. An excess of animal food sources of omega-6s, such as meat and eggs, can be bad. However, plant oil sources of omega-6 are good, and that includes evening primrose oil, black current oil, and borage oil. More than 10,000 years ago, the hunter-gatherer diet consisted of about a 1:1 ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 oils. Today, that ratio can be as high as 1:30.
Because omega-6s compete with 3s, an unhealthy balance of fats can result. The answer is choosing the right fats. By reducing bad omega-6 fats in the diet and taking a dietary supplement with the proper balance of fats, you will achieve the health benefits associated with these fatty acids. Omega-3 EFAs help balance omega-6 EFAs, so you should always take omega-3s with 6s in a supplement.
Just as omega-3 has three key forms, so does 6. These include:
- arachadonic acid (AA)
- gamma linolenic acid (GLA)
- linoleic acid (LA)
Healthful dietary sources of omega-6 fatty acids include whole-grain breads, nuts, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seed oil.
Choosing the right type of 6 is critical. Many studies have shown that a diet high in omega-6 foods—primarily meat and dairy—is linked to several different types of cancer, including breast and prostate cancers. Chronic, excessive ingestion of omega-6s is also associated with stroke, heart attack, arthritis, osteoporosis, and depression. This is not surprising, as many of the same foods associated with high omega-6 content are also associated with high saturated fat. These foods are also high in arachadonic acid, which when stored in fat tissue can increase the risk of heart attack.
However, while studies indicate that a diet high in omega-6s can cause cancer and heart disease, there are also studies indicating that omega-6 oils, specifically LA, can protect us from heart disease.
According to an editorial by Frank Sacks and Hannia Campos with the Department of Nutrition at Harvard, omega-3s and omega-6s provide the perfect one-two punch against heart disease. Omega-6 LA reduces LDL (bad) cholesterol and omega-3s reduce harmful triglycerides.
Omega-6 LA has also been shown to improve insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism, which can help prevent the development of type 2 diabetes. According to a 2009 scientific paper featured in the journal Progress in Lipid Research, “The evidence suggests that replacing saturated fats and trans fatty acids with unsaturated (polyunsaturated and/or monounsaturated) fats has beneficial effects on insulin sensitivity and is likely to reduce risk of type 2 diabetes.” The researchers specifically identified omega-6s as having a significant role in diabetes prevention. They suggest replacing saturated fat foods such as meat and dairy with foods like vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds.
The reason omega-9 is not a “true” essential fatty acid is because our body has the ability to produce it in small amounts. As mentioned previously, the body cannot produce omega-3 and 6 in any amount; these two EFAs can only come from the diet and dietary supplements. However, if the body does not have enough omega-3s and 6s, the body cannot produce omega-9. So you see, this is truly the trifecta of essential oils—3, 6, and 9. Because the body can produce some omega-9, we don’t need as much.
Omega-9 is also known as oleic acid, and it is a monounsaturated fat (a good fat). The most well-known food source of omega-9 is olive oil, which is the best source of oleic acid available. Avocado and macadamia nut oils are also great sources of omega-9. The best way to add omega-9 to the diet is to replace saturated fats such as butter with these healthy oils. Margarine should also be replaced with olive oil or avocado oil.
Omega-9 is important to our health, but it plays a smaller role in disease prevention than the other two EFAs. Omega-9 has, however, been shown to help prevent the same conditions as the other two oils, including cancer and heart disease. This is represented via the many scientific studies evaluating the Mediterranean Diet, which is high in oleic acid (olive oil).
All three of the essential oils in the trifecta (3, 6 and 9) are critical. Because the typical Western diet contains a lot of omega-6, and because our bodies can manufacture a small amount of omega-9, the proper ratio of oils should have more omega-3 than the others.
According to numerous scientific sources, the proper ratio of these three oils is 4 parts linolenic acid (omega-3) to one part each of linoleic acid (omega-6) and oleic acid (omega-9). On a dietary supplement label, this looks like 4:1:1. Adding a small amount of 6s and 9s will also help compliment the effectiveness of omega-3s.
Nordic Naturals complete Omega-3.6.9 delivers full-spectrum omega essential fatty acid support with EPA and DHA from cold-water fish and GLA, an omega-6 from borage oil that supports mood and hormone balance.
essential formulas Dr. Ohhira’s Essential Living Oils is a vegan alternative to fish oil. Provides an ideal balance of linolenic acid (omega-3), linoleic acid (omega-6), and oleic acid (omega-9).
KAL Omega 3 From cold-water fish, this fish oil goes through a multi-stage purity process to remove contaminants. Each softgel contains 180 mg EPA and 120 mg DHA with natural vitamin E.
Source Naturals Neptune Krill Oil (NKO) supports heart health and cell membrane integrity. From Antarctic krill, rich in highly unsaturated phospholipids and omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA).
The Vitamin Shoppe Organic Extra Virgin Coconut Oil Cold-pressed and non-GMO. An excellent cooking oil with natural coconut flavor and aroma, it’s stable, trans-fat free, and nonhydrogenated.
New Chapter WholeMega Fish Oil A whole-food approach to fish oil and alternative to high-heat processed and “purified” oils. 100% wild-caught salmon oil from Alaska, with vitamin D3 and astaxanthin.