Many of us are familiar with the broad concept of healthy diet fats, but the conversation often gets complicated behind the technical rhetoric. Let's simplify things!
First, there are numerous variations of fatty acids within the body. We commonly classify these variations by their degree of saturation. The good news is most people are already familiar with the classes. They are Saturated, Monounsaturated, and Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids.
Over the past few decades, fatty acids (usually "fats" for short) have been extensively researched and criticized as a key contributor to the onset of degenerative diseases, especially cardiovascular disease. SFAs have been the labeled as "bad fat" along with a fatty acid mutation we will discuss shortly known as trans fat. MUFAs and PUFAs have been touted as "good fats" but as we will see, this story isn't that simple.
Unfortunately, the answer for many people is to abstain as much as possible from fats and oils. This is not the best solution for your healthy diet. That is the old, outdated story.
The Alaskan Inuit and Mediterranean people are the commonly-cited examples to support the notion above. Both cultures have very high fat intakes as percentage of calories (sometimes up to 50%), but have a low incidence of lifestyle diseases associated with the modern high-fat diet.
This is the new story: Fats are an essential part of a healthy diet, so choose to eat mostly healthy diet fats.
One last thing before we get started. Almost every food we eat that contains fat has a balanced profile of each of the three fatty acid categories. For example, olive oil is perhaps the most prominent member of the monounsaturated (MUFA) family. However, olive oil also contains a small proportion of its fat as saturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Foods are labeled and classified by the fatty acid type that is most predominant within their fat profile.
This is promising news so long as we choose foods that are labeled as "healthy diet fats" we will obtain the essential fats we need and curb the fats that promote poor health.
If you are a little lost, now would be a great time to review the Nutrition Basics on Fats and Oils, otherwise known as lipids. It never hurts and should clear up any confusion moving forward!
Our bodies are incredible. They can actually create all the the fatty acids on demand from other nutrients with the exception of two variations. We must supplement these essential nutrients through our diet in order to maintain optimal health and well-being.
The first of the essential healthy diet fats is linoleic acid (LA). It is the parent member of the Omega-6 family, which is a group of fatty acids variations that are polyunsaturated. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is the parent member of the Omega-3 family and is the other essential variation. ALA is also a polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA).
Both ALA and LA are derived and found predominantly in edible seeds and their oils. There are a few variations within each of the Omega-6 and Omega-3 families but most medical research and dietary focus surrounds two Omega-3 variations:
Significant sources of DHA and EPA are found only in seafood, especially finned fish.
Over the previous decades, thousands of studies have been conducted to investigate potential their potential benefits. The Agency for Health and Research Quality has reviewed these studies to find those that are of the highest quality and reports their findings.
With respect the #1 cause of death in the world, there is strong evidence that cardiovascular (heart) disease and its risk factors can be positively influenced with the inclusion of EPA and DHA. Listed below are the numerous benefits of including Omega-3s in your healthy diet plan that are supported by review of the available medical research.
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The positive benefits of Omega-3s have also been studied with respect to aging, maternal health, insulin resistance, and mental health including schizophrenia and depression. While the future looks bright, studies in these fields have been limited and/or of poor-quality to draw solid conclusions. As research progresses, we will see first hand just how expansive healthy diet fats play an integral role to disease prevention!
As it currently stands, prevention of cardiovascular disease is the benefit of Omega-3 intake supported by the strongest evidence. One theory proposed to explain this phenomenon is platelet aggregation.
Most cases of heart disease and stroke can be attributed to blockages in the arteries that carry oxygenated blood to our body's tissues. The inside of our blood vessels delicate lining made up of endothelial (smooth-muscle) cells which give our arteries flexibility. When that lining becomes inflamed or damaged, the body's normal response is to adhere platelets to the injured area.
These platelets stimulate growth of new cells, but in the process begin to aggregate and protrude into the space where blood flows. Over time and repeated inflammation, this protrusion becomes calcified, hardening and decreasing the elasticity of the arteries.
Central to the theory of platelet aggregation is eicosanoids, which are derived from the Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acid families. Endothelial cells in our blood vessel linings is anti-aggregatory while platelets serve to aggregate when needed by our body. Omega-3s play a part in the production of endothelial tissues while Omega-6s help produce platelets.
Keeping a balance between the two fatty acid families could be a critical component to whether or not plaque builds up in our arteries.
Based on the theory of platelet aggregation, it can argued that bringing more balance to this ratio would reduce inflammation and resulting plaque, decreasing the overall risk of a cardiovascular event. All of which is supported by the systematic review of hundreds of scholarly articles.
Intuitively a 1:1 ratio would be an ideal balance, but Omega-6: Omega-3 ratios ranging from 3:1 to 1:4 have been recommended in research studies. Remember, we need Omega-6s just as much Omega-3s, but we need to focus more on Omega-3 intake because they are the essential fats that are typically lacking in our current diet.
In any case, increasing the proportion of Omega-3 fatty acids into our healthy diet is not only something we need, but considering the numerous health benefits, it should also be something we want to do.
One of the biggest misconceptions in the ongoing debate over healthy diet fats is the idea PUFAs are god-like, MUFAs are average joes, and SFAs are evil renegades.
This order of rank isn't necessarily misinformation, but there are healthy diet fats that are monounsaturated and saturated. Let's see why!
While PUFAs represent essential fatty acids and the beneficial Omega-3 family, in an ironic twist, they are extremely fragile and must be handled with care to reap their benefits as healthy diet fats. Any exposure light, heat, or air will begin the process of oxidation and degrade the nutritional quality of PUFA oils.
The oxidation of these oils indirectly damages our body and its tissues by forming free radicals. Free radicals are regarded in nutrition science as antinutrients and a primary factor in degeneration of the human body. As a result of the sensitivity and risk, PUFAs are best consumed mostly in the form of whole foods.
Edible seeds and seafood are the two food groups with significant sources of each of the essential healthy diet fats. When using the PUFA oils derived from the edible seeds category, certain cautions must be taken. Store these oils in opaque containers that have an airtight seal in a refrigerator, where the air temperature is low and light exposure is limited.
The minute this happens, these highly-nutritious healthy diet oils become antinutrients. So which oils should we cook with?
The technical answer is oils with a higher smoke point. From a culinary perspective, the smoke point of an oil is the temperature where it begins to visually give off smoke, creating a pungent odor and giving food an unsavory taste. On a molecular level, the oil itself is beginning to breakdown which triggers automatic oxidation.
Using oils with a higher smoke point minimizes the risk of oxidizing free radicals to form, while preserving taste and flavor in the food.
**As always, feel free to use the navigation below to backtrack and get an overview of Healthy Diet Mentor and our plan to get you on your way to a lifelong healthy diet.
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