The last couple of decades have involved a number of low and no-fat crazes which have left a lot of us avoiding fat. On top of that, the media is constantly barraging us with reports about various fats to avoid and include in our family’s diet. If you find it all a tad confusing and overwhelming, you are not alone.
Here’s a bit of a primer on the fats your family really needs and why they need them. It’s not intended to be exhaustive, just a guide to get you on the right track.
As a very general rule, good fats come from plant sources that are minimally processed, and the not so great fats are found in animal products and manipulated & processed plant fats. There are some obvious exceptions, but generally speaking, if you focus on getting the bulk of your fat from natural plant oils, nuts and seeds, you’ll be on the right track.
Animal fats, found in conventional meat and dairy products, contain a lot of saturated fat and not a lot of healthy fat. Animal products also also contain cholesterol and something called arachadonic acid, which is inflammatory. We all need a little saturated fat, but given the amount of meat and dairy in the average Canadian diet, most of us are getting more than enough.
Hydrogenated and partially-hydrogenated fats are plant fats that are naturally liquid, but have been processed and altered so that they can remain solid (found in margarines and spreads and many processed foods). These products contain transfat, which is bad, and they should always be avoided. As I mentioned in a recent post, check the ingredient list, not just the nutritional info, as Canadian manufacturers are not required to list the transfat amount in a product’s nutritional information if it is less than .2g per serving. If you are eating a product that contains partially-hydrogenated oils but “no transfat”, you are in fact ingesting transfat, and if it’s an everyday food in your household, you may want to consider looking for a healthier alternative.
I recommend you reduce your use of corn and canola oils as well. While they are plant oils, they are usually made from genetically-modified corn and rapeseed and are highly processed (see below). Corn is also a source of omega 6, and, as you’ll see, you should be aiming to decrease your family’s intake of that fatty acid.
A good source of saturated fat from the plant world is coconut oil. It’s got lots of positive natural properties (it’s anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal) and it is stable at a high heat so is perfect for cooking and baking.
Unsaturated fat is either monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
Monounsaturated fats are healthy and should be included in your family’s diet in moderation. They include: olives and olive oil, avocados, almonds, peanuts and most other nuts and seeds. Canola is also a monounsaturated oil but it is so highly processed (and often contains GMO rapeseed) that I recommend you choose another oil, like good-quality olive oil or coconut oil, to use in your cooking. Remember, olive oil should not be heated over medium heat, so use coconut oil for your high-heat cooking.
Polyunsaturated fats include the very important essential fatty acids (EFAs), omega 3 and 6. We all need more dietary omega 3, and less dietary omega 6. Here’s why:
Omega 6 is found in polyunsaturated vegetable oils like corn, sunflower, safflower and soybean oils, which are used in most processed food. We all get more than enough of these through processed foods, soy and corn-fed meat and dairy, and cooking oils.
Omega 3 fatty acids are found in dark leafy green veggies, cold-water wild oily fish (wild salmon, tuna, mackerel, trout, herring and sardines), flax seeds, flax oil, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, fish oil and vegetarian omega-3 supplements. Flax oil is unstable and needs to be refrigerated. It should never be heated, but makes a great salad dressing base.
When omega 6 intake is in proper balance with omega 3 intake, our bodies will favor making anti-inflammatory prostaglandins, little inflammation fighters that keep us feeling great and our immune systems strong. When out of balance, our bodies will actually create inflammatory, irritating prostaglandins, that go out and wreak havoc in our tissues and joints, and weaken our immunity.
A diet consisting of highly imbalanced omega 6 to 3 ratio is inflammatory. The optimal balance of omega 6 to omega 9 is about 1:3, but the average Canadian’s intake is closer to 1:20!
The key is to pump up your family’s omega 3 intake and reduce its omega 6 intake to restore balance, thereby maximizing anti-inflammatory prostaglandin production and minimizing inflammatory prostaglandin production.
Easiest way to start working restoring a healthy balance? Cut back on processed food, include lots of dark green leafies in your family’s diet (think: salads, soups, stir fries), switch to healthier cooking oils and eat a little less meat and dairy. Finally, consider a good quality omega-3 supplement for your family.
Yup, as usual, it’s back to my basic rule: Eat mostly whole, fresh foods and lots of plants.