The Fats of Life - Herbal Health

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Monday, 30 July 2012

The Fats of Life

There has been much adverse publicity on fats but they are vital to health and well-being. The confusion has arisen due to the type of fats that are consumed and the imbalance in what we eat far too much of. Modern diets contain a disproportionate amount of saturated fats, trans fatty acids (or trans fats for short) and hydrogenated fats. The body requires a certain amount of saturated fats although we are currently eating too much of these. Saturated fats in their natural form are found mainly in animal fat although fried foods also contain a high quantity of these depending on how they are prepared. Trans fatty acids and hydrogenated fats are not found naturally and thebody is not designed to process these. As a consequence, they accumulate in the body and can cause ill health through toxic build up. These unhealthy fats are found in most processed foods (eg. biscuits, cakes, crisps, chocolates etc..) and fast foods (eg. take away foods).

In addition to saturated fats (in moderation), other healthy fats are the essential fatty acids (omega 3, 6, and 9) are found in fatty fish and some vegetarian sources such as flaxseeds. So let’s look at these in more detail…
Fatty acids intake:

There has been a lot of media coverage on the subject of theessential fatty acids and how good they are for you. We are apparently not getting enough of these nutrients from our diet due to theappalling standards of the ‘western diet’ having too much of theunhealthy saturated fats, hydrogenated fats and refined sugars. To understand the true importance of essential fatty acids, it is perhaps best to start at a description and their function in the body.

The essential fatty acids (EFAs) are a vital part of our diet because they cannot be made by the body, so they need to be obtained from the diet. In this sense, they are referred to as ‘essential’. They are a group of fats (lipids) and make up some of the most important parts of our body especially the brain, hence the term ‘brain food’. There are 2 types of essential fatty acids that are important – omega 3 and omega 6. There is also omega 9 but this is not technically essential as the body is capable of making it provided there are enough of the other EFAs in the first place. The EFAs are needed by the body in certain proportions; more is needed of the omega 3 than the 6. Omega 3 is found in flaxseed oil (flaxseed oil has the highest omega 3 content of any food), flaxseeds, flaxseed meal, hempseed oil, hempseeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, Brazil nuts, sesame seeds, avocados, some dark leafy green vegetables (kale, spinach, purslane, mustard greens, collards, etc.), canola oil (cold-pressed and unrefined), soybean oil, wheat germ oil, salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, albacore tuna, and others.

Omega 6 is also found in flaxseed oil, flaxseeds, flaxseed meal, hempseed oil and hempseeds. Other sources include grapeseed oil, pumpkin seeds, pine nuts, pistachio nuts, sunflower seeds (raw), olive oil, olives, borage oil, evening primrose oil, black currant seed oil, chestnut oil, chicken, amongst many others. It is important to avoid refined and hydrogenated versions of these foods. Other sources must be checked for quality as they may be nutrient-deficient as sold in stores. These include corn, safflower, sunflower, soybean, and cottonseed oils which are also sources of omega 6, but are refined and may be nutrient-deficient..

Omega 9 is found in olive oil (extra virgin or virgin), olives, avocados, almonds, peanuts, sesame oil, pecans, pistachio nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, etc. One to two tablespoons of extra virgin or virgin olive oil per day should provide sufficient omega 9 for adults. However, the “time-released” effects of obtaining these nutrients from nuts and other whole foods is thought to be more beneficial than consuming the entire daily amount via a single oil dose. I have discussed at length the benefits of argan oil in a previous post (Dec 2011); I is a natural oil from Morocco that is gaining in popularity in the West – please remember to only purchase products that are ethically sourced.

For a clear mind, a healthy body and efficient use of energy, theessential fatty acids are a vital part of thediet. They also have other health benefits such as maintaining thesuppleness of the joints, offering some protection against heart disease and general all round health. They also ensure a healthy circulation and immune system amongst other important functions that are too many to mention here. There is conflicting information however, as to their usefulness in pregnancy. Concern is really over themercury levels in fatty fish, which is a good dietary source of omega 3 fatty acid. However, given that EFAs are vital to the growing baby (brain & spinal cord development) it should not be avoided. If concerned, an alternative choice could be to try vegetarian sources (such as flaxseed or hemp seed oil) or take supplements made from algae sources as these pose no dangers for pregnant women. Taking these supplements in moderation is always the sensible approach and if in doubt, it is best to seek advice from a herbalist or a nutritionist.

Given that in the West, over 40% of our calories come from processed and hard fats, it is worth taking a closer look at our diets and answering some important questions:

Q. Are all natural fats good?
A. In a nutshell, yes! Natural food sources are always good for humans – the problem has always been one of excess. Our bodies haven’t changed much over the evolutionary period but our diets have and the manner in which we process food for human consumption has made foods almost unrecognisable from its original form. Fats (even saturated fats) are essential for human health. They are important in a diverse range of bodily functions such as nerve conduction, brain development (especially in growing children), important for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, as a storage facility (eg. oestrogen is stored in our fat reserves), for insulation and for protection. Not to mention the fact that fats provide important building blocks for other structural, nutritional and functional components of the body.

Q. How are natural fats made unhealthy?

A. Natural fats in foods are made unhealthy by processing. Simply put, with the exception of butter and lard which are from animal sources, all natural fats from plants are liquid at room temperature and have a limited shelf life before they goes rancid. Therefore, to increase the shelf-life of such oils and to make them solid which are convenient, food manufacturers alter their chemical configuration in a process known as hydrogenation. The fats are then referred to as hydrogenated fats (look out for them on any food label and it’s surprising how many processed foods contain them). Whilst this process extends the shelf-life of our foods, unfortunately, it also alters the EFAs in any natural fats by converting them to trans-fatty acids (trans fats).
This is disastrous for the body in that it cannot process these fats and therefore they linger in the body leading to increased risk of all sorts of diseases such as cardiovascular disease. Look out for hydrogenated fats in margarine, breads, cakes, biscuits, instant soups, chocolate bars, deserts, crisps, convenience foods and peanut butter.
Another way of making natural fats unhealthy is by frying. EFAs are heat-sensitive and therefore frying will destroy the most susceptible components of them. Frying converts healthy, natural oils into unhealthy, toxic ones, increasing the risk of heart disease and cancer. If foods need to be fried, always supplement the diet with additional sources of EFAs in their natural form. Equally, food manufacturers also refine many of the natural oils and remove their distinctive odours which are characteristic of pure, natural oils. They also remove their colours. The extent of this refining renders all natural oils devoid of any nutritional benefit. Go for cold-pressed, extra virgin oils which may be more expensive but it is infinitely healthier than the cheaper, refined alternative.

Q. How do you tell if there are ‘hidden fats’ in foods?

A. All processed foods are a minefield of ingredients. We are utterly reliant on legislation (not all of which is adhered to) and the integrity of food manufactures to provide adequate and honest food labelling. They should by law list all ingredients so fats should be easily spotted. It’s amazing how fats somehow find their way into the least expected food items (where one wouldn’t think to find it). Hidden fats are so-called because they don’t appear to be fried or dripping in fat. But many foods contain them eg. chocolate, cakes, crisps, pastries and all processed foods.The only certain way to limit or avoid unnatural fat intake is to source your food carefully (this may require some research into which outlets and some homework into foods) and to cook your own food from natural ingredients.
Q. Is it healthier to buy low-fat foods instead?
A. Not necessarily as many of the so-called low calories foods are loaded with sugar (simply because removing fat from food can make it rather unpalatable and tasteless therefore manufacturers compensate by adding extra sugar, often refined). Excess sugar presents all sorts of other problemsbecause it is changed into harmful forms of fat. It also limits absorption of EFAs, inhibits Vitamin C uptake, disrupts insulin function making regulation of blood sugar erratic and unstable, it increases the risk of blood clots (which has potential consequences such as raising cardiovascular risk, cancer risk and diabetes). Moreover, immunity is compromised with disruptions to mineral absorption and excess adrenaline secretion – this can have devastating metabolic consequences. Watch out also for extra salt in low-fat foods, again by a means of adding taste to compensate for the lack of it when fat is removed.
If you want to cut down on fat, simply eliminate all processed foods and reduce portion size as well as animal fat intake such as butter, lard and suet. Ensure that daily quotas of EFAs are met from vegetable/plant and fish sources. Always cook from fresh ingredients then you know for sure exactly what is in your foods.

Remember, natural, unrefined oils also contain a host of other nutrients such as phytosterols, antioxidants, lecithin and many other useful ingredients. In addition to a myriad of nutritional benefits, these minor ingredients also contribute to the flavour, smell, colour, consistency and character of the oil. Always store oils such as flaxseed, argan and hemp seed oil in the fridge as sunlight and exposure to air once opened will oxidise the EFAs in them making them go rancid and devoid of nutrients. They will also need to be consumed fairly quickly so make sure they don’t sit around in the fridge for months on end!

For specific medical conditions or for general advice on EFA intake, seek advice from a medical herbalist or a nutritionist: the College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy or the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH)

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