Thoughts On Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs):
Like I mentioned last week, I wanted to dedicate this week to talking about fats. Fats are always categorized as the enemy and we spend much of our time finding ways to fight these bad guys. In fact, Canadian food guidelines as well as most health care practitioners are constantly reminding us to reduce our fat intake. Considering the sky-high obesity rate in North America, we can easily understand why we are constantly reminded that our fat intake should not exceed 15 – 20% of our daily caloric intake. Unfortunately it is very rare that people take the time to differentiate the artery-clogging-heart-stopping fats from the life-giving-essential-nutrition fats that we need. So for this week, let me challenge you to not focus on the quantity of fat in your diet, but the quality of fats.
The focus of “fat education” is generally geared towards saturated fats and cholesterol, and it is true, these are our enemies. Briefly, saturated fats are stable molecues of fat that are “saturated” with hydrogen atoms. This means there are no empty spaces for them to be altered, making them stable and less susceptible to oxidization and free radical production. Unfortunately these saturated balls of blubber make our blood sticky, clogging arteries (atherosclerosis) and leading to heart disease. Also, saturated fats increase “bad cholesterol” in our blood, which further aggravates heart disease issues. Sources of saturated fats include: animal fats, dairy fats, tropical oils, cocoa butter and hydrogenated fats. Although not all of these fats are created equally, essentially this is the fat that our bodies have no need for and are found in over-abundance in the Standard American Diet. Any of the saturated fat that we eat and do not burn off is the fat that we are constantly being reminded to cut out. The leftovers settle nicely on our hips or bellies or in the very important vasculature that pumps blood to and from our hearts.
The next bad one that we all hear about is cholesterol. This fat is highly misunderstood, as it actually serves many purposes in our bodies. Cholesterol is needed to produce hormones, vitamin D and bile acids. Cholesterol is a necessary component in such things like our cell membranes and our brains and cholesterol cushions our organs. The misunderstanding comes from the difference between “blood” cholesterol and “dietary” cholesterol. Blood cholesterol (HDL), our bodies manufactor and are used for the important things stated above. Dietary cholesterol (LDL) are the bad guys that tend to work like saturated fats. Additional dietary cholesterol is not really needed and therefore must be limited or better yet eliminated. Interestingly only animal-derived foods contain cholesterol, plant foods are cholesterol free. (I suppose this fact alone will give us the answer to dealing with cholesterol if it is an issue for you. If you aren’t ready to take the plunge into the vegetarian world – I can highly recommend it! – soluble fibre intake increases our body’s ability to remove cholesterol. Some interesting facts: For someone with an elevated cholesterol 2x’s normal values, 1 month of a strict vegetarian diet will lower your cholesterol to below normal values. Also an average meat eater has a 40-50% chance of developing heart disease, whereas vegetarians have only a 0-10% chance (Pass the lentils please!).
Enough about the bad guys, lets talks about the good guys! Omega 3 essentail fatty acid and omega 6 essential fatty acid are 2 of the 50 essential nutrients that our body must have to survive but cannot make. Therefore, we must find them in our diets. This is a condensed list of what EFA’s do for us: essential for circulation, hemoglobin (blood) production, membrane (skin) function, recovery from fatigue, prostaglandin (hormone) synthesis, growth, cell division, brain development, immune function and anti-inflammatory response. That’s quite a list! Even further, there are other factors that add to our EFA deficiency, including: stress, caffeine, alcohol, drug usage, smoking and pollution. An astounding amount of research has suggested that many of the symptoms of degenerative diseases (amoung many, includes heart disease and cancer) are due to a deficiency in either or both omega 3 and omega 6 EFA’s.
This sounds depressing…. but I am a firm believer in being well informed. With this information it so much easier to make some changes! Not quite ready to cut out all of those steak dinners? At least make some adjustments to ensure that EFA’s are included in your diet.
What can you do?
I have eaten a vegetarian diet for nearly a decade, I do believe it is the best diet I can follow, however it may not be for everyone. If that’s the case for you, then here are some examples of foods that are high in omega 3 and omega 6 EFA’s, it would be highly benefical to adjust your diet accordingly to increase these food items:
Omega 6: safflower, sunflower, hemp, soybean, walnut, pumpkin, sesame and flax oils, nuts, seed and wheat germ.
Omega 3: flax, hemp, canola, soy and walnut oils, nuts, seeds wheat germ and dark green leafy vegetables.
Also, keep in mind, EFA’s are considered to be “super-unsaturated” fats, meaning that unlike saturated fats, the molecular makeup is highly unstable. There are lots of open spaces for their chemical makeup to be altered, and this will oxidize them and allow for free radical production. These oils are heat and light sensitive, should be stored in the refrigerator and kept in a dark container. If you bought it off the shelf at your local grocery store, it is likely rancid, so make sure you are shopping from the refrigerated section. Furthermore, these oils can be affected by the heat that they are cooked at, the following temperature chart should be referred to when you are cooking:
Cold Prep: do not heat (120F/49C), super polyunsaturated (flax oil, walnut oil). Uses: blender drinks, salad dressing, condiments
Low Heat Cooking: (212F/100C), polyunsaturated (pumpkin seed oil). Uses: light sauteing, baking, salad dressings
Med Heat Cooking: (325F/163C), poly and monounsaturated (sesame oil), monounsaturated (extra virgin olive oil). Uses: Light sauteing, baking, salad dressing
High Heat Cooking: (375F/190C), high in monounsaturated (sunflower oil), saturated (coconut oil, ghee). Uses: browning, frying, baking
Don’t forget…every day we make choices on how we live and the foods we will put into our bodies. We can make wins in every single little decision during the day. That can be a lot of wins!