You’ve probably heard about Omega fatty acids, and that they are good for your health. What many people may not know, however, is that there are two types of Omega fatty acids and both play a role in the necessary processes of inflammation and blood clotting, but in a very different way.
What are Omega fatty acids?
Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs). Both of these types of unsaturated fats are healthy and essential in the diet. Both are biologically active in the body, unlike most fats which are used for energy or stored. This means that they play important roles in sustaining health, specifically in blood clotting and inflammation. Omega-6s are pro-inflammatory, and Omega-3s have an anti-inflammatory effect. The inflammatory process is a normal and healthy function of the body, specifically when an injury occurs. The early stages of inflammation enlist the immune system to help control infection, and wound healing and tissue re-growth occur in the later stages of inflammation. It is also necessary for blood to have the ability to clot in order to prevent excessive bleeding. The problem occurs when there is excessive inflammation and clotting in the body, which can lead to heart disease, arthritis, and other serious diseases. The key is to balance the consumption of Omega-6 and Omega-3.
How much do I need?
Health experts do not endorse a daily recommended intake for Omega-6 or Omega-3, rather, the emphasis is on the ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3. Most people consume a diet that is too high in Omega-6 fatty acids, and lacks in Omega-3s. This unbalanced ratio has a damaging effect on the body, and is one of the most negative aspects of the typical American diet. Anthropological studies show that humans evolved eating a ratio of Omega-6: Omega-3 somewhere around 1:1. The typical diet today has a ratio of 16:1!
To better balance the ratio of Omega fatty acids in your diet, follow these tips:
- Processed oils are loaded with Omega-6s, so limit or avoid them. The oils highest in Omega-6s include sunflower, corn, sesame, and peanut oil. These are typically found in highly processed or fried foods because they are inexpensive and readily available. Limiting these foods in your diet will reduce the overall amount of Omega-6 consumed.
- Omega-3s are found in seafood such as salmon, tuna, trout, sardines, anchovies, and halibut. Other sources are beans, nuts, and spinach. Some foods are fortified or enriched with Omega-3s, such as bread, cereal, oatmeal, and yogurt. Choose canola, flaxseed, soybean and olive oils when cooking.
- The American Heart Association recommends eating fish (like salmon) at least twice a week. Eating a variety of non-processed foods in place of processed or fried foods will also help to improve the ratio of fatty acid consumption in your diet.
- If you feel that your diet lacks in Omega-3s, consider taking a Fish Oil Supplement to get these beneficial fatty acids. Supplements will vary in the amount of fatty acids they contain, so look for one with at least 600mg of DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid, the primary form of fatty acid found in fish that offers health benefits). Let your doctor know if you are taking a Fish Oil Supplement.
Although the “fat-free craze” of the past has long since been discouraged by health professionals as a viable part of a balanced diet, the amount of products boasting “low-fat” this, and “reduced fat” that, are more abundant than ever. But, fat isn’t the enemy; and, most importantly, all fat isn’t created equal. Some healthy fat is actually a good thing. The key to navigating the revamped “fat craze” can be found in understanding how reduced-fat foods are made and how to recognize healthy fats when you see them.
Fat Free Isn’t Always a Good Thing
What happens when all or some of the fat content is removed from a food? Usually, it doesn’t taste as good because the flavor and texture are now drastically different. To make up for this, manufacturers add sugar, salt, and/or thickeners to replace the missing fat. Now, the food has nearly the same amount of calories, a little less fat, but with more sugar, salt, and other, well, crap. If that doesn’t sound like a healthy swap, it’s because it’s not. Take into consideration a comparison between regular and reduced fat peanut butter.
Compared to the regular peanut butter, the reduced fat peanut butter has 60% more salt and 30% more sugar in addition to a plethora of added fillers and thickeners. Even though the regular peanut butter has more fat, it is healthy fat. Regular peanut butter is the clear nutritional winner.
Think ‘Type’ of Fat, not ‘Amount’ of Fat
The good news is, healthy (unsaturated) fats like those found in olive oil, peanut butter, and avocado can and should be a part of a healthy diet. Unsaturated fats have been shown to decrease risk for cardiovascular disease as well as increase satiety (the feeling of being satisfied). Just one look at the list below of foods containing healthy fats and it’s easy to see how delicious and nutritious healthy fat can be. Remember, everything in moderation!
What to Look For
Heart healthy fats such as unsaturated, monounsaturated, and/or polyunsaturated fats might not be listed on the nutrition label. One way to determine the amount of unsaturated fat is to subtract the amount of saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol from the total amount of fat. Try to select foods with more unsaturated fat than saturated and trans fat. Keep in mind that plant based foods are higher in these healthy fats than foods originating from animal sources.