The Skinny on Fats

UH OptiWeight Blogger Meghann Featherstun, MS, RD, LD

Meghann Featherstun, MS, RD, LD

November 20th, 2012

We often harp on the fact that we need to eliminate trans fat and minimize saturated fat in our diets. These two fats have been demonized related to their known impact on cardiovascular disease. By avoiding trans fat and limiting saturated fat to less than 15 grams daily, we can decrease our risk of cardiovascular disease.

We have been so bombarded with information on ‘bad fats’ in our diet that many people are misled that all fats are bad. This drove us to the ‘fat free’ diet craze of the early ‘90s, which cut out virtually all fat and replaced it with sugar and refined carbohydrates. And we thought this was a good idea!? Sounds more like a recipe for high blood sugar and weight gain! All joking aside, what I really want to focus on are two of the beneficial fats in our food supply and how to make sure we are getting the right amounts.

Instead of eliminating all fats in our diet, we need to make a shift to fewer saturated fats and more mono- and polyunsaturated fats. These fats have shown many beneficial properties for our health, specifically heart health. Two polyunsaturated fats of utmost importance to our health are omega-3 and omega-6, as these are essential fats which our body cannot produce. In the American diet we easily exceed our recommended intake of omega-6 which is found in eggs, meat, dairy, and vegetable oils. In fact, on average, we consume 4-5 times the daily amount of omega-6 that our body needs. The trouble is excessive omega-6 intake in the setting of inadequate omega-3 intake promotes inflammation in our bodies. On the flip side, omega-3 is not naturally abundant in our food supply and most Americans are not eating enough. The reason we should care about this is because consuming adequate omega-3 in our diets can decrease inflammation in our body. This link has been widely studied in management of inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases. Other proposed areas of beneficial impact with omega-3s are reducing depressive symptoms, improving brain development and function, and decreasing asthmatic symptoms. Because of the beneficial effects of consuming omega-3 and the scarcity of omega-3s in the typical American’s food supply, due diligence is needed to ensure that we all eat enough!

Omega-3 fatty acids come from two sources: plant and fish (marine.) Fish sources contain EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), two types of omega-3 fatty acids. Plant sources contain ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). A combination of all three sources of omega-3 is recommended.

Does this mean I need a supplement? Not necessarily. Here are the recommendations from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics:

  • Eat 6-8 oz. of fatty fish each week. Fatty fish includes salmon, tuna, herring, anchovies, sardines, rainbow trout, halibut and oysters.
  • Choose one food rich in plant (ALA) omega-3 daily. These foods include walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, edamame, tofu, and canola/flaxseed/walnut oils.

If you do not meet the above recommendations, you may want to consider an omega-3 supplement. Read your labels carefully and make sure that 50-100% of the supplement comes from EPA, DHA, and/or ALA. Often times they ‘water down’ the fish oil supplements with omega-6, which totally defeats the purpose! Feel free to contact me for specific brand name recommendations. Also, if you plan on taking more than the daily recommended amount of 500-1,000 mg of omega-3, discuss with your doctor. Amounts greater than 1,000 mg daily may have a blood thinning affect, depending on your current and past medical history. When in doubt, check with your PCP!

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