Fats in food and various oils is a hot topic, but with so many controversial opinions being offered, it can be overwhelming to understand. In this article, we will explore the subject from a more balanced, unbiased and scientific perspective.
Small amounts of fat are an essential part of a healthy, balanced diet. The body cannot make essential fatty acids on its own, and these are necessary to absorb vitamins A, D and E (fat soluble vitamins that play an important role in maintaining health).
Fat that is not used by the body’s cells gets converted into body fat, as do also unused carbohydrates and proteins. However, fats provide the body with nine kilocalories of energy per gram, which is more than twice that supplied by proteins or carbohydrates. With this in mind, a low fat, balanced diet, is the key to maintaining optimal weight and health. Many popular diets nowadays are essentially varying flavours of this central theme.
Fats: the good, the bad and the ugly
Fats in food sources can be saturated or unsaturated. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and include those from meat, butter, ghee, lard, hard cheeses like cheddar, coconut oil and palm oil. Too much of these fats can raise harmful low density cholesterol molecules, which increase the chance of heart disease and stroke.
Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and are primarily found in plants, nuts and fish. These oils can be polyunsaturated or monounsaturated (such as olive and avocado oil). The polyunsaturated fats may be rich in omega-6, which is essentially present in all vegetable oils, or rich in omega-3 oils, which are found mainly in fish oil. Trans fats such as margarine are common in processed foods and are best avoided as they are harmful, hydrogenated oils.
In recent times, coconut and hemp oil have been growing in popularity. Hemp seed provides a good source of a complete protein, and has other health benefits due to being rich in arginine. There is a bit of confusion around hemp, but unless it is a full spectrum hemp oil (taken from the entire hemp plant, not just the seed), it does not pose any risk of psychoactive effects. Coconut oil contains a high saturated fat content of 90 percent and is actually greater than butter, which has 60 percent! The only advantage of coconut oil is that it’s slow to oxidise and resistant to rancidification, and also has a very high smoke point so is a good option to use in small quantities for cooking. Some claims of coconut oil are actually attributed to its medium chain triglyceride (MCT) content, but it’s important to remember that these are specialised formulations.
Fishy fats: the best kind
Now that we have looked into the different types of fat, what type of fat does a healthy diet consist of? Ideally, we want to aim for a low calorie diet where fats are obtained through the use of monounsaturated oils (such as olive and avocado which is perfect in salad dressings, quick fry and baking options as the smoke point is reasonably high). In addition, try to consume more oily fish, 2-3 times a week, or supplement with quality fish oil to balance the ratio of helpful omega-3 fats. The modern diet is generally loaded with omega-6, which are inflammatory, and needs to be balanced with omega-3 oils to achieve a healthy ratio of 1:1 (it can be up to 10:1 omega-6:omega-3 in many populations).
High levels of omega-3 essential fatty acids (DHA and EPA) can be achieved by eating oily fish such as wild salmon or cod, or supplementing with fish oil to help improve cell function and promote a reduction in inflammatory activity. Long-term, low-grade inflammation is currently referred to as the main process responsible for all non-communicable diseases of modern times, such as heart disease and stroke. Research has also proven its validity in treating mental health disorders, especially depression. In light of the increasing positive research, in America and the UK, fish oil supplementation has now been approved for medical use.
However, the most significant finding in recent years is the discovery of specialised resolvin molecules (found in DHA and EPA). These molecules have been found to actively promote not only anti-inflammation, but resolution of inflammation. This has heightened their role in the management of several illnesses, and doctors are now increasingly recommending that a fish oil supplement is incorporated for optimal health and wellbeing.
With the huge range of fish oil on the shelf, it’s important to take into account a few factors to ensure you are choosing a high quality product:
A high quality fish oil will be processed in an oxygen-free manufacturing environment to prevent rancidity. A fresh fish oil will not have a fishy smell or taste, and it should not repeat on you.
A triglyceride form is what is naturally found in fish, as such, this is what the body most easily recognises and absorbs
Ensure your fish oil brand is third party tested, and is able to provide a certificate of analysis to show you the fatty acid profiles, as well as the environmental toxin/heavy metal levels.
Finally, if you want help in choosing a high strength fish oil with the omega blend that is right for your needs, you can work with a knowledgeable health practitioner who will be able to provide a personalised treatment plan that incorporates diet, lifestyle and supplementation measures.
Fats are essential, and should be obtained through the use of monounsaturated and omega-3 oils
Resolvins from EPA and DHA are key molecules that are very effective in treating chronic inflammation
It’s essential to keep in mind form, freshness and purity when choosing your fish oil supplement
Dr. Kamal Karl, MBBS, FACNEM, FRNZCGP, FNZCAM, currently practises in Auckland as a functional medicine practitioner. Specialising in treating chronic illness, he adopts an integrative, personalised and preventative approach to healthcare. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit functionalmedicinedoctor.co.nz for more information.