By Dr. Alan C. Logan, ND, FRSH
For years, health conscious consumers were offered little in the way of guidance with regard to different dietary fats. The general message was that all fats were bad and should be avoided. As nutritional science has become more sophisticated, a different message has emerged: Not all fats are the same nor are all fats bad for us! In fact, many fats are absolutely essential for our every day health and long-term protection. Confused? Here’s a brief overview of the good, the bad and the ugly regarding the different kinds of dietary fats.
By far, we know that the best fats are marine-based Omega-3 essential fatty acids, specifically found in fish and seafood in the form of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). According to numerous scientific studies, both EPA and DHA have been shown to reduce the risk of heart attack, lower triglycerides, increase HDL (good) cholesterol, stabilize heart rhythm and significantly lower the risk of cardiac death – among other key benefits.
What’s more, these types of marine-based Omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to decreased risk of various cancers, mental disorders, obesity, diabetes and certain skin conditions. Today’s research has also shown a link between Omega-3 intake with reduced risk for premature birth among pregnant women, as well as healthy cognitive development in children.
Needless to say, these fats – not coincidentally known as ‘essential’ fatty acids, are indeed beneficial for our health and well-being, and must be included in our diets.
Despite knowing their benefits, the average daily intake of healthy EPA and DHA is a mere (combined) 130mg per day – a far less amount that the 650mg per day recommended by the American Heart Association. And while consuming other sources of Omega-3 fatty acids, including canola oil, flaxseeds, walnuts and dark green leafy vegetables will add to our total Omega-3 intake, it is important to note that the bulk of the research on Omega-3 fatty acids has been in the form of EPA and DHA (the very best sources include sardine, mackerel and anchovy). Also, these other vegetarian sources of Omega-3 (such as flax) require conversion into health-promoting EPA and DHA. Human conversion of the parent Omega-3 from vegetarian sources (alpha-linolenic acid) is only 5% or less.
For convenient and effective sources of EPA and DHA, consider a fish oil supplement containing these ingredients as part of your daily diet. You will also want to look for an easy to swallow capsule with no fishy taste or odor, that’s been tested and approved to meet International guidelines.
A separate class of essential fatty acids includes the Omega-6 group. These too are critical and easily obtained from a variety of dietary sources. Unfortunately however, the typical North American diet contains more than the required amount in the form of corn, safflower, sunflower and soybean oils among others. Genetically, humans have been accustomed to an Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio of about 1:1. In the last half-century we have had an explosion in the delivery of Omega-6 fatty acids. Our current ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 is at least 10, and up to 20 parts Omega-6 for every one part Omega-3.
Why be concerned? Studies are showing a diet that’s top-heavy in Omega-6 fatty acids promotes the production of free radicals, among other unhealthy benefits.
So, as essential as Omega-6 fatty acids might be, we do NOT need to supplement with them – it makes no nutritional sense.
There is one Omega-6 fatty acid which falls into the good category: gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) from borage, blackcurrant, and evening primrose oils. This particular Omega-6 is considered a ‘good’ oil as GLA has been shown to be of benefit in a number of human conditions, most notably, arthritis and skin conditions.
In addition to unnecessary Omega-6 oils, another fat which finds its way into supplements is medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). At one time, the MCTs were full of promise as heart-healthy oil – some animal studies showed that they could lower cholesterol. According to today’s human research however, as published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (Tholstrup, et al. 2004) MCTs are shown to be far from good. In fact, MCTs have been linked to increase the risk of cardiovascular issues over 21 days by increasing total cholesterol (11%), LDL cholesterol (12%), triglycerides (22%), and blood sugar (4%). Based on this, and similar research in the Journal of Lipid Research (Hill, et al 1990), MCTs should be avoided.
That brings us to the ugly fats – notably saturated and trans fats. Without question, both should not be included in any healthy diet. According to the joint Health Canada/US National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine: ‘saturated fats, trans fatty acids, and dietary cholesterol have no known beneficial role in preventing chronic health issues and are not required at any level in the diet… the recommendation is to keep their intake as low as possible’. (Institute of Medicine 2002) What’s more, both of these fats have been shown to promote oxidative stress, elevate cholesterol, as well as increase the risk of cardiovascular health issues and diabetes.
With the growing amount of significant research now available, we have no excuse but to make smarter health choices when it comes to the fats we eat regularly. Rest assured, our bodies need fat! It’s a matter of feeding ourselves the right kind for long-term health and protection.