People generally form their opinions from what they read or what they are told. Indeed, we were told twenty years ago that healthy food should always be low in fat. This theme ran concurrently with the revolution of aerobics and the exercise craze. Jane Fonda was Queen, sun tans were in and low-fat was gospel.
Despite a huge reduction of fat intake, though, have you ever wondered why Western society is becoming more obese? Obesity is now the most important nutritional disease in developed countries, where its prevalence has increased rapidly over the last two decades. Perhaps there is more to the fat story.
Whether you lie in the low-fat consumption camp or indeed, have ignored this dominant health message in pursuit of culinary content, you are almost certainly deficient in fats – GOOD FATS‚ that is. A group of nutrients called essential fatty acids (EFAs), known as omega-3 and omega-6, are critical to our health and well-being. EFAs form an important structural component of every cell in our body, meaning that their presence contributes to the function of every single system in the body. Large-scale population studies have shown that our average consumption of these oils has fallen dramatically in the past few decades, leaving many of us with less than optimal quantities of these important nutrients.
Omega-3 and omega-6 is critical to our health and well-being
Deficiency in EFAs may compromise our outward appearance with problems such as; dry, flaky skin, weak nails and dull, brittle hair. This deficiency is possibly the fuel for the current boom of the cosmetics industry.
Moisturisers are now a prominent feature on every woman’s (and many men’s) bedside cabinet. Besides poor skin quality, common indications of EFA deficiency include: water retention, lack of energy, lowered immunity, pre-menstrual tension, impaired brain function (think attention deficit), depression, skin conditions (eczema or acne), food cravings and allergies. Additionally and more seriously, deficiency in EFAs has been linked to hypertension, high cholesterol, heart and circulatory disease, mental deterioration, arthritis, male sterility, miscarriage, auto-immune diseases (multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis) and cancer.
Another sign of EFA deficiency is a sluggish metabolism, which may result in increased body fat. According to Canadian fat guru, Udo Erasmus, essential fatty acids help us to lose weight in a number of ways: they increase fat breakdown and decrease fat storage; stabilise insulin levels (decreasing blood sugar that is stored as fat); suppress the appetite; diminish water retention and lower levels of depression which often lead to inappropriate eating.
Looking closer at the two groups of essential fats, omega-3s are thought to contribute to healthy levels of blood fats (cholesterol and triglycerides), blood pressure and other cardiovascular risk factors. In addition, one of the omega-3s, DHA, is an important structural component of the grey matter in the brain, so your mother was actually correct when she told you that fish will make you brainy! Omega-6 oils have also been associated with the same health benefits of omega-3 oils, including cardiovascular protection, increased metabolic rate, improved hair and skin quality, although it is perhaps best known for its ability to relieve pre-menstrual syndrome in up to 90% of sufferers, usually via supplementation of evening primrose oil.
The balance between omega oils is important and The National Institute of Health (NIH) in America recommends that we consume omega-6 and omega-3 oils in the ratio 2:1 to 3:1. As a society, we tend to eat disproportionate quantities of refined omega-6 oils (such as vegetable oils in processed foods). This imbalance in fat intake can contribute to inflammatory conditions in the body such as eczema, arthritis, asthma, allergies and inflammatory bowel issues like Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
Essential fatty acids help us to lose weight
Okay, so where do you get high-quality essential fats? Omega-3 rich sources include flax seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, deep water fish (such as mackerel and sardines), sea vegetables and omega-3 enriched eggs. Omega-6 rich sources include sunflower, sesame, pumpkin and hemp seeds, walnuts and soy beans. The omega-6 oil that is recommended for Pre-menstrual syndrome (GLA), is found in evening primrose, borage and blackcurrant oils.
A mixture of seeds in your daily diet is therefore a very healthy thing to do. You can put a tablespoon-full on your breakfast cereal or in your salad or consume them with some nuts and fruit as snacks during the day. Flax seeds need to be ground to release their oils, or you can buy them pre-milled in health food stores. You can also buy seed oils – these should only be cold-pressed (check the label) because the oils are too fragile for heat processing. Use 1-2 tablespoons per day of a flax, hemp or other seed oil, but do not heat it!
To obtain adequate levels of omega-3 oils, the American Heart Association recommends two servings of oily fish per week. Alternatively, you could supplement with a teaspoon of fish oil daily.
So to summarise: Consume the recommended amounts of seeds, nuts, fish and/or their oils, take olive oil in moderate quantities, control but don’t eliminate saturated fat from animal sources and limit intake of processed vegetable oils, margarines and processed foods.
Originally published in the May/June 2013 issue.