HEALTH BEAT: Dealing with fats often is a balancing act

Published 12:04 pm Saturday, June 8, 2013

Fat, fat, fat. How confusing can one thing be? Fat is bad, right? Now that we understand that saturated fat (from animals) and trans fat (from hydrogenation) is bad for your heart health, and we know that unsaturated fat (from plants)is better, it’s time to split hairs a bit further when it comes to knowing and choosing the most health-promoting unsaturated fats.

So you are doing the good things. You have switched out the stick margarine for soft tub margarine, you have traded in biscuits and croissants for English muffins and whole-wheat bread, you eat less full-fat cheese, you now snack on fruits and popcorn instead of cookies and Twinkies, and you trim off visible fat and purchase 7-percent-lean ground beef. On top of all that, you read nutrition-facts labels for trans fats. You are on the right track for sure. Now, though, your health practitioner is telling you to follow a Mediterranean diet and to use more olive oil. Your neighbor told you avocados were the new mayonnaise, and you have read in a magazine that some weird omega fat is good. Aren’t all these fats? Where has that low-fat diet gone that was supposed to save us all from heart disease and obesity?

As it turns out, through the years of food processing and livestock management, we are eating triple the amount of Omega-6 fatty acids (polyunsaturated) compared to 100 years ago. As the fat molecule turns, we are hurting ourselves. Research shows that eating too much Omega 6 fats compared to Omega 3 causes the production of inflammatory chemicals that trigger various responses in the body. Consuming more of the Omega-3 fats than Omega-6 fats, in a ratio of 2:1 or 3:1, will decrease cardiovascular risk, improve nervous system function and depression, decrease colon, breast and prostate cancer risk and improve vitality for rheumatoid arthritis sufferers to name few benefits. The problem is that Americans are eating a ratio closer to 10:1 to 20:1.

Omega-6 fats are polyunsaturated fats found in oils such as corn, safflower, sunflower, peanut and cottonseed and also in mayonnaise, salad dressings, margarines, nuts, nut butters, meat and egg yolks.  These fats are important and necessary, but too much causes inflammatory responses in the body. These inflammatory effects can lead to increased plaque build-up on artery walls leading to stroke and heart attack, metabolic syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, diabetes, fatty liver disease and immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and irritable bowel disease. 

So what to do? We thought the ‘polys ‘were the way to go. After all, the saturated fat was the bad guy and ‘polys’ were the good ones. As it turns out, the polyunsaturated fat, Omega-6, has a better poly sister.  She is Omega-3 and should demand more of our choices in the kitchen and at restaurants. Decreasing the vegetable oils above and replacing them with these fats will decrease the amount of inflammatory effects caused by oxidation. Both compete for the same enzymes so changing the ratio is important to getting the benefits of the Omega-3 fats. Besides the anti-inflammatory effects, Omega-3 fats have a cardio-protective effect because they interfere with blood clotting and stimulate nitric-oxide production that relaxes blood vessel walls. They are necessary for brain development in babies and nervous system function. It has been found to improve depression and the physical function of rheumatoid arthritis patients.

Omega-3 fats come from plants or marine algae and from cold-water fish. The plant source is called ALA. It is found in ground flaxseed, walnuts, soybeans, canola oil, green leafy vegetables and chia seeds. Ground flaxseed can be stirred into yogurt and hot cereals or added to baked goods. Walnuts can be incorporated into trail mix, cereals and salads. Try edameme (soybeans) for snacks or in salads. Use canola oil for sautéing vegetables or in salad dressings.

Our bodies can make the other Omega-3 fats (EPA and DHA) from ALA but not very efficiently. The conversion rate is 5 percent to 10 percent. Therefore, it is best to get these directly from marine sources such as salmon, sardines, herring, albacore tuna, mackerel and lake trout, for examples. Grass-fed varieties of meat have higher concentrations of omega-3 fats than grain-fed livestock. Setting the goal of eating cold-water fatty fish two to four times per week is recommended. If you want to use a fish oil supplements read the label for how much EPA and DHA is in the dose, seeking at least 1,000 mg per day for heart disease prevention and perhaps more depending on your triglyceride levels or if you already have heart disease. Talk to your doctor before taking supplements for your conditions.

Lastly, the monounsaturated fats such as olive oil, avocado and macadamia nuts help to better absorb fat-soluble antioxidants such as lycopenes which also have the potential to reduce inflammation.  Monounsaturated fats decrease LDL cholesterol and triglycerides for heart health. And though nuts are a polyunsaturated fat, research shows a 37-percent decrease in the risk of coronary heart disease in those who ate one ounce of nuts four times a week.

So, get your fats in balance. Read ingredient labels for what is in your foods. Turn down processed foods opting, instead, for preparing your family’s foods from whole food ingredients. Plan for more coldwater fish, olive oil, avocado, walnuts and ground flaxseed in your dishes. Beware that Omega-3 fortified foods provide little benefit and are more expensive. The right fats can be good for you after all.

Laurel MacKenzie, RD, LDN, CD, is a registered dietitian at Vidant Beaufort Hospital.