by Dr. Ariel Policano
When we think of fat in our diet, there often seems to be confusion surrounding the types of fat and the amount of fat that is beneficial. Some say fats are important, some say it should be no more that 10% of your diet. Fats are really crucial for optimal human health, so cutting back on them excessively does not make good sense. Some of the areas that fats play a role in are memory and brain health, preventing cardiovascular disease, creating healthy hormones and maintaining health at a cellular level.
Research shows that longevity and the reduction of illnesses like cancer and heart disease come as a result of consuming plant-based sources of fats (as in nuts and seeds). Saturated fats are typically those that come from meat and dairy and can promote inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation in the body is now associated with heart disease and cancer. A notable exception to saturated fats causing inflammation is coconut oil, which actually has anti-inflammatory properties.
Some form of saturated fat is needed in the human diet, and I will cover that in more depth in future articles. Until then, let me give you some quick advice: Consume coconut oil! Especially vegans. This is a healthy form of saturated fat, which is needed by the cell membrane and helps to give you a complete spectrum of necessary fats for good health.
Unsaturated fats are beneficial for our health because they act as healthy building blocks for hormones as well as our cells. An important part of each cell in our body is the cell membrane. This allows nutrition into the cell and effectively allows waste to be pumped out of the cell. The health of this cell membrane is determined to some degree by the fats that we consume, and our overall health is of course related to the health of our cells. The brain is also made up in large part of fats, and many of these unsaturated fats are instrumental in creating good health.
There are polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats. Flax seeds, hemp seeds and chia seeds are all a form of a polyunsaturated fat. The nature of a polyunsaturated fat makes it highly reactive. Don’t ever heat polyunsaturated fatty acids because they oxidize very rapidly. This means that by heating or cooking with them, they produce free radicals. Flax seed oil should be consumed as close to the date it was pressed as possible. Similarly, grind your flax seeds right before consuming them, if possible.
Monounsaturated fats are somewhat more stable than polyunsaturated fats. Olive oil is an example of a monounsaturated fat.
People often wonder about the root of the names for the unsaturated fats – omegas 3, 6 and 9. The names take their cue from their chemical structure. This is a bit technical, so hold onto your hat. The location of a double bond, which connects two carbon atoms, determines the name of these essential fatty acids (EFAs). “Omega” tells us that when we start to count the double bond, we start from the end (the right hand side). The “3″ indicates where the first double bond occurs along the chain. The point is that it is the location of double bonds that causes omega-3s to behave differently in the body compared to other fatty acids.
Let’s take a look at some of the omega-3 essential fatty acids. One of that we hear about a lot is called ALA, or alpha linolenic acid. ALA is found in flax seeds and hemp seeds. Then there is EPA (eicosopentanoic acid), which is typically found in fish and DHA (docosohexanoic acid) which is also found in fish like salmon and others. However, marine phytoplankton contains both EPA and DHA! This is truly amazing because these two omega-3 fatty acids are very anti-inflammatory and have been used as key therapeutics in reducing the risk of heart disease. Fish oil has been the knee-jerk recommendation to many people who have or are at risk of developing heart disease. It is wonderful to have an alternative to fish and fish oil to derive the same benefits.
It makes sense that the phytoplankton would be more bio-available because it is the source of EPA and DHA for the fish. The fish eat the plankton and then we eat the fish, so we have quite a task then of extracting the oil from the fish. If we consume the fish oil, there are then other questions. Is the oil truly fresh? With the processing, transport time and the time it sits in a gelatin cap on the shelf of your health food store, does it have a chance to become rancid? Is the fish safe in terms of being free from heavy metal contamination? Marine phytoplankton does not carry any of those concerns. The plankton are very small and are easily broken down and assimilated.
Here is a summary of recommended foods and oils that contain omega-3 fatty acids: flax (seeds and oil), hemp (seeds and oil), chia seeds, walnuts and marine phytoplankton.
The benefits of omega-3s include reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke while helping to reduce symptoms of hypertension, depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Some research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids support the health of the immune system and may reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
One of the most important benefits of omega-3 fatty acids is that they reduce inflammation. The omega-3 fatty acids are the ingredients actually change chemical reactions to produce fewer substances called leukotrienes and prostaglandins. These substances will tend to increase aches and pains in the body. When we compare these to saturated fats, the saturated fats actually promote inflammation. Chronic inflammation, as measured in the blood with markers like C-reactive protein, is now known to be associated with cancer and heart disease.
One of the most interesting things about omega-3 fatty acids is that they do not make you “fat” in the way that saturated fats (as from meat and dairy) do. The omega-3 fatty acids help your body and your metabolism to function much more effectively. And when your body and brain function better, you feel better. Your cardiovascular system functions better because of the effects on the bloodstream.
And finally, here is an amazing key to maintaining healthy weight! By consuming foods that contain omega-3′s like flax and hemp, the body secretes a substance called leptin. The leptin will help you to feel more satisfied with less food. It also improves the body’s ability to respond to insulin. If you process insulin more effectively, you will also regulate blood sugar and manage your weight much more easily. High levels of circulating insulin tell the body “store fat!” and literally block the biochemical pathway that breaks fats down. The secretion of these leptins in response to omega-3 fatty acid consumption will reduce these circulating insulin levels. Pass the hemp seeds, please!
Enjoy the fats listed below in moderation and you will likely experience fewer aches and pains, better mood and memory, better hormonal health and maybe even some weight loss! After all, now you have the skinny on fats.
Healthy Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids:
- Flax seeds and flax oil
- Hemp seeds and hemp oil
- Chia seeds
- Marine Phytoplankton
Dr. Ariel Policano is a leading naturopathic physician with a special focus on women’s health, promoted through her Women Go Raw Health Tours. With over 15 years of experience using raw foods and superfoods to treat conditions that range from fatigue and menopause to cardiovascular disease and breast cancer.