Heartland Naturopathic Clinic Email Newsletter - March 2004
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* Fats & Fish Oils: What You
Need To Know For Health
& FISH OILS: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW FOR HEALTH
Dr. Lorinda Sorensen
First there was low fat and high carb, now
there are low carb and high protein diets - where did the fat
go? If you have been confused about how popular diets have
treated the role of fats in the diet you are not alone. Diets
high in carbohydrates, especially simple carbohydrates like
pasta, breads and potatoes have been shown to increase the risk
of diabetes, insulin resistance, heart disease and obesity.
Thanks to the popularity of the Atkins diet, the Zone diet and
others, more of the American public is aware to this issue.
Unfortunately, with more of the focus on meat products and
protein, there is a general lack of focus on fats and the
different type of fats that we eat. So what do you need to know
to make healthy choices?
Some medical researchers have speculated
that the low-fat craze of the 1980s was put forth by dieticians
and the medical community because they did not think the
American public would understand the different types of fats,
and how to eat a proper ratio of them. Instead they thought to
reduce all fat. So they popularized the low fat diet in the
hopes that it would reduce obesity. Unfortunately, it has only
made obesity and health worse because low fat diets are almost
always high carbohydrate diets.
Dietary fats or lipids are of significant
importance to our bodies and include such compounds as fatty
acids, triglycerides, cholesterol and steroids. Without dietary
fats deficiencies in fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin A or
vitamin E, will develop. Certain kinds of fats are needed for
normal structure and development of brain, nervous system
tissues and in healthy cell membranes.
There are 3 main kinds of fats that we get
in our diets: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Fats and oils are a general name for lipid molecules, which
contain fatty acids.
Saturated fats (SFAs) are fats where the
fatty acid part of the molecule (the most important part)
contains no double bonds between carbon atoms, and the carbons
are in a straight chain. Many saturated fats are solid at room
temperature (for example butter and lard), which has made them
very useful for cooking. SFAs are very common in tropical oils
and animals, especially mammalian meat products. An
overabundance of SFAs has been implicated in the formation of
Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) are molecules
where there is one carbon-to-carbon double bond. So instead of
being straight, it has a slight bend in it. Because it has only
one double bond it usually occurs at the same spot in the
molecule, at nine carbons from one end. Therefore they are
called omega-9 oils. The most common source of monounsaturated
fats is from avocados, olive and canola oil. Diets from
Mediterranean countries like France are high in MUFAs.
And last but not least are the
polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs). These fats have more than one
unsaturated bond, and can be very curly in structure. Almost all
naturally occurring PUFAs have a curly structure that is
predominately in what is called a “cis” formation. This is
in contrast to oils and fats that have been hydrogenated through
chemical manipulation. Here a lot of the fat has been turned
into a “trans” formation - a completely different curled
structure. This is important because chemical shape is very
important to how the body responds to it. These trans-fatty
acids are harmful to the body and are much worse than saturated
fats for heart disease. Trans-fatty acids and hydrogenated oils
actually inhibit the formation and utilization of the good fatty
acids. Trans-fatty acids are found in abundance in margarine and
vegetable shortening, but are rarely found in nature.
The Essential Fatty Acids
Among PUFAs there are two main groups of
fats that the human body needs in order to be healthy. The first
is the omega-6 group. Linoleic acid is an essential omega-6
fatty acid. Its essential because our bodies can’t make it.
Linoleic acid is very common in plants and vegetables such as
sunflower, safflower, corn and soybean oils, walnuts and
almonds, sesame and pumpkin seeds and pine nuts. Our bodies can
convert linoleic acid to another fatty acid you may see for sale
in health food stores, gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). GLA is found
in evening primrose seed oil, borage seed oil, black current
seed oil and is in spirulina. GLA is considered by some to be
the best oil when treating some inflammatory conditions. But if
you eat vegetable oil, you are probably getting more than enough
omega-6 fatty acids.
The other essential fatty acids are in the
omega-3 group. The main dietary omega-3 fatty acid is alpha
linolenic acid. Its found in great abundance in flax, and is
found in chia, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and dark leafy green
vegetables. Alpha linolenic acid is used in the body to make
eicoapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), fatty
acids that are also found in fish. EPA and DHA can slow down the
production of inflammatory chemicals and increase beneficial
chemicals that are anti-inflammatory, anti-thrombotic and
anti-spasmodic. They are the best fatty acids for protection
against heart disease. Since the body can make EPA and DHA from
alpha linolenic acid, they are not considered essential but many
studies find positive health benefits of from their use. As well
as protecting hearts, fish oils improve circulation, are thought
to dampen inflammatory conditions, improve thinking, and may
even have a role in preventing cancer.
This leads us to discuss fish, and how not
all fish are created the same. The fish highest in omega-3 fatty
acids are salmon, sardines, herring, trout, mackerel and both
albacore and blue fin tuna. Most of these types of fish are
available in supermarkets as fresh or canned. While canning
doesn’t change the omega-3 fatty acids composition, it does
create a more processed and therefore less vital food product.
Most other fish and seafood are considerably lower in omega-3
Of concern is that some fish are
dangerously high in mercury, a heavy metal that is toxic to the
brain and nervous system, especially in young children. The
mercury levels in certain fish are so high that the FDA warns
that women of childbearing age should limit the consumption of
predatory fish, such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel and
tilefish. Tuna is a predatory fish not mentioned in the FDA
warning but because it is one of the most commonly eaten fish it
gets special attention. While tuna is high in omega-3 fatty
acids, it is also very high in methylmercury, the active form of
mercury in seafood. In a report done by Bill Moyers last year it
was shown that a person that ate one 6-ounce can of tuna would
be getting 52.7 micrograms of mercury. If this person was a 45
pound child that child would be getting 4 times what the
Environmental Protection Agency has determined to be an
acceptable amount of mercury. So unfortunately tuna is
potentially harmful and its use should be limited.
Because salmon is high in EFAs and low in
mercury, it is definitely the best choice. But when looking for
salmon to add to the diet there are a few options to chose from:
fresh, frozen or canned. There is also another element to the
choice: whether to purchase wild caught or farm raised fish.
There are many salmon hatcheries that produce farmed salmon very
similar to the fish that is caught in the wild. However, to grow
the fish as similar to the wild as possible it has been fed food
with additives or food made from other fish parts.
The fatty acid makeup of these fish may be
similar to wild-catch fish, depending on what type of food the
fish are fed. But recently it has been shown that farmed salmon
can be high in other, newer dangerous man-made chemicals like
dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). According to the
Environmental Protection Agency the levels of these chemicals
are well below what they call “standard,” but other groups
such as the Environmental Working Group believe that these
levels are high enough to increase the risk of cancer.
So what can you do when choosing foods to
eat to achieve optimum essential fatty acids (EFA) levels and
Don’t consume hydrogenated oils or
trans-fatty acids like in margarine, shortening (Crisco) and
most deep-fried fast foods. This includes fried fish from most
restaurants, especially fast food restaurants. Most prepackaged
frozen fish are also cooked in hydrogenated oils. Look at
labels, because it will list fats used (look out for
“partially hydrogenated vegetable oils”). If you must use
frying methods for cooking use a stable monounsaturated oils
like olive or canola. Although Crisco is used frequently in
baked goods, using butter is much more natural and safer.
Margarine is composed of trans-fatty acids and should rarely if
ever be used. Some newer kinds of margarines are now being made
without hydrogenation, making these are acceptable choices. If
you want to try margarine that it claims it has no trans-fatty
acids make sure it has not been hydrogenated. Hydrogenation
itself is the problem.
Raw nuts and seeds are a great way to
increase good EFAs in the diet. Most nuts and seeds also contain
a moderate amount of protein that makes them a great snack for
someone following a low-carb diet. Nut butters also can be used
to make excellent sauces for meats and vegetables. The best nuts
are walnuts and almonds, with peanuts being the worst (peanuts
are actually in the bean family and not nuts). Seeds can also be
eaten for snacks and can also be ground into a meal and added to
food. Flax meal is an example. Flax oil can be used as a
supplement as well. Flax oil may be used with foods (i.e., in
salad dressing). Flax seeds and oil should be stored in the
refrigerator and never be heated.
Eating fish can be a challenge for some but
it is the best food to get high quality fatty acids. To reduce
the amount of the other more hazardous compounds in the fish
remove the skin and grill or bake it. As mentioned before salmon
has a great composition of fatty acids, but other fish such as
sardines and herring are also good.
Supplements can be the most convenient way
to get EFAs. If you are going to use fish oils as a supplement
for omega-3 oils several brands have consistently provided high
quality oil that is routinely checked for contaminants. These
include Carlson and Nordic Naturals.
Health researchers are consistently coming
up with data that essential fatty acids and the fatty acids
found in fish have numerous benefits. We hope this has shed
light on fatty acids in the diet and the benefits of fish. Now
you too can reap the rewards of these powerful foods.
Many of the
mentioned in these articles can be ordered from us by calling
(402) 391-6714 or can be found at your local health food store
and various online companies.