Life in the Fat Lane
by Lara Evans
How to get the good stuff and avoid the bad
We of the Cosmo cover-girl generation have borne silent witness as images of voluptuous, full-figured beauties quietly turned to androgynous stick figures. The implication — thin is sexy — impressed itself into our collective psyche. We believed it.
The market, whether they believed it or not, saw an opportunity and responded with a variety of low-fat and fat-free foods. And Americans literally ate them up, not realizing what was being lost in the processing.
"Not all fats are bad fats," says Mary Van Elswyk, PhD, RD, and vice president of scientific affairs at OmegaTech Inc. "It's dangerous when you start severely restricting fat, because you also cut out essential fatty acids (EFAs)," she says. Van Elswyk, whose doctorate dissertation was titled "Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Nutritional and Physiological Consequences," is considered one of the leading authorities on EFAs. "These are important nutrients the body can't make on its own," she adds, "yet they're needed for normal physiological functions."
Marcia Zimmerman, CN, author of several books, including Eat Your Colors! A Nutraceutical Plan to Eat the Right Foods for Your Body Type (Henry Holt and Company), agrees. "There are certain fats we need," she says. "EFAs impact every system of the body." Every membrane of every cell is constructed of EFAs. If you're not getting enough, Zimmerman notes, you will be affected. The first warning signs of an EFA deficiency are usually dry skin and hair. However, more serious problems can result, including vision loss, cognitive and behavioral impairment, heart disease, disrupted digestion, hormonal imbalance and compromised immunity. Furthermore, EFAs help the body absorb fat-soluble nutrients such as vitamins A, D, E and K.
But what kind of effect will eating EFAs have on weight? "The most common misperception is that fat makes you fat," says Van Elswyk. "But excess calories of any food group cause weight gain."
Zimmerman takes the subject a step further, suggesting that optimal EFA levels can actually contribute to weight loss. She believes: "Obesity results when the body is unable to process nutrients. You've got all this stored fat unable to convert to energy, and you're not able to make proper use of it. The cells are literally starving." She continues, "Then it becomes a vicious cycle: Your body is looking for more energy; you eat more to provide it, but cells don't have access to it and your body holds onto it. If you improve the nutritional status throughout the body with the correct vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids, cells will function better and be able to access the fat."
The good, the bad...
Saturated fatty acids (SaFAs) are literally saturated with hydrogen molecules. Because they have the greatest heat resistance, they are considered "stable," or unlikely to turn rancid. However, despite their prevalence, they should make up only a moderate portion of fat intake, because saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease. Food sources high in SaFAs include coconut and palm oils, animal protein, and animal fats such as butter.
Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) have two less hydrogen molecules than saturated fatty acids. Thus, they have lower heat tolerance, and while considered fairly stable, they are less stable than SaFAs. A component of MUFAs is oleic acid, which helps keep arteries supple. Food sources high in MUFAs include olive, avocado, canola, pistachio, almond, pecan and macadamia oils.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) contain fewer hydrogen molecules and so are considered unstable. PUFAs play a vital role in human health. They consist of two types of EFAs — omega-6 linoleic acid (LA) and omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Food sources for LA include sunflower, corn, sesame and other oils; Americans generally get plenty of this omega-6 EFA. Food sources for ALA include flaxseed and hemp seed oils, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and dark leafy greens; generally Americans need more of these.
Due to our current diet habits, the ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s is greatly imbalanced. Says Van Elswyk, "It should be about 4:1 — as opposed to 20:1 or 30:1 like it is now." And some experts even believe the ideal ratio should be 1:1.
...and the ugly
It's nutritionally wise to avoid "partially hydrogenated" oils of any kind. Here's why: When oil is partially hydrogenated it firms up, giving margarine, for example, its spreadability, cookies and crackers their crunch and chocolate its ability to melt in your mouth, not in the wrapper. But partial hydrogenation also chemically alters the oil, stripping it of most or all of its EFAs and creating trans-fatty acids, an unnatural altered fat substance known to be detrimental to health. "Trans-fats raise cholesterol," says Van Elswyk. "The body can't metabolize them correctly because they're unnatural." In addition to increasing cholesterol, trans-fatty acids have been shown to decrease HDL (good) cholesterol, impede liver function and interfere with EFAs.
To date, the US Food and Drug Administration has not required that trans-fats be included on food labels. According to Zimmerman, "If total fat content is listed, then broken into saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, just add those three together. If they don't equal the total fat content, the remainder are trans-fats." Van Elswyk adds, "Look for 'partially hydrogenated oils' in the ingredients, and don't be fooled if it states 'partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.'" Despite the vegetable source, she explains, it's now loaded with trans-fats.
From Land and Sea
Landlocked EFAs won't cover all your requirements. Essential fatty acids that come from the sea, specifically omega-3s docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), address different health needs. While these EFAs are components of every cell, they are especially plentiful in brain cells. They've also shown benefits in treating Crohn's disease, diabetes, eczema, psoriasis, hypertension, memory loss and rheumatoid arthritis. DHA is especially critical in brain development, so DHA intake is very important for pregnant mothers and infants (see above). Some species of algae and cold-water fish, including mackerel, cod, herring, salmon and anchovy, are excellent sources of DHA.
Weight control is an important component of health, and there's no doubt limiting saturated fats and trans-fats is a benefit to the heart. But in this effort, we must not skip the essential fatty acids that every cell in our bodies is counting on.
Sources: Fats that Heal, Fats the Kill (Alive Books); Natural Therapeutics Pocket Guide (Lexi-Comp)
Lara Evans is a health writer and senior editor for Delicious Living.