The F Bomb - Part III
Alas, we have arrived at the finale of this Fat Trilogy, and I dare say you couldn't make it all up if you tried. The history surrounding dietary fats and its many components is that insane.
The last step is to tackle PUFA's at the knees and then summarize our fabulous fat findings so we can go on living richer, healthier lives.
So I hope you've settled in with that bowl of toxic microwaved popcorn and a cold soda to sip on while you read. Just kidding, I would never. You best not be shoving any of that into your pie hole. Restrain yourselves, grasshoppers. We have come too far to self-sabotage now.
Before we get into PUFA's (polyunsaturated fatty acids), I'm going to point something out and I want you to hold tight to it. It's part of the foundational paradigm shift we're making in how we approach food and health.
Somewhere along the way, we made a bizarre shift in how we see our bodies. When you go to the doctor with a stomach ache, they refer you to a gastroenterologist. A cardiologist will see you for your heart, a nephrologist for your kidneys, and a neurologist for your brain. It seems that no one practicing conventional Western medicine these days considers whole body health... As if your gut, your brain, your heart and your kidneys were all part of separate systems unrelated to each other.
The same method is followed with our modern outlook on food. Over the past 150 years, we have adopted a very chemically-based perspective. Instead of simply appreciating whole foods for their comprehensive, life-giving benefits, we now classify them based on their chemical-makeup. We see carbohydrates, protein and fat instead of apples, steak and avocados. While this knowledge of food chemistry can be used to our advantage in many circumstances, it can also distract us from a whole health perspective. And as history has shown, it leads us to manipulating real food in order to create what we deem more nutritious than what nature has provided.
To give you some examples, we used to think of the following swaps as healthy choices (and many people still do).
Lab-made margarine instead of farm-made butter
Fat-free skimmed milk instead of whole milk
Rice cakes instead of nuts
Lean chicken breasts instead of fatty beef cuts
Tofu (soy) instead of fish
Crisco instead of coconut oil
Splenda instead of honey
Egg whites instead of whole eggs
Vegetable oil instead of lard
As a little girl, I can remember eating an avocado and hearing my dear grandmother (who, bless her heart, faithfully received all her dietary advice from the top down) say, "Be careful not to eat all of that at once, it's full of fat." Oh, okay... Never mind the fact that it's also full of vitamin C, vitamin K, folate, choline, magnesium, potassium and then some. The fat content of an avocado is actually quite beneficial in and of itself--certainly to be sought after.
Likewise, to eliminate the yolk in the name of the dietary guidelines when eating an egg is to forego most of its amazing nutritional benefit. You miss out on all the fat-soluble vitamins A, E, D and K, and the majority of the choline, folate, vitamin B12, iron and manganese. Why would you do that? Well, because our culture has succumbed to the idea that regardless of all those essential vitamins and minerals, the cholesterol in the egg is trying to give you a heart attack. It is sheer silliness.
Honing in on the chemical structure of our foods should not be our default way of thinking, but rather a secondary tool we can use to reach a particular outcome. For example, we can focus on food low in carbohydrate to lose weight. We can focus on foods high in protein to preserve muscle mass as we age. We can focus on low-glycemic foods to get control of our insulin responses and blood sugars. But in a general sense, optimal health is about eating intuitively. Before anyone understood the chemical complexity and antioxidant content of a grapefruit, they simply enjoyed it when it was in season. Let your intuition paired with the simple wisdom of generations past be your guide.
Which brings us right to the topic at hand.
What the crap is a PUFA? It is simply a type of fatty acid (polyunsaturated) found in nearly every food that contains any fat at all. There are two specific types of PUFA's that are well-known buzz words in the health space right now--omega 3 and omega 6. Both are essential for human life and come perfectly packaged in small amounts in various whole foods.
But as we've seen in the Western diet and medical trends, we're really good at jacking things up. So let's do a little review of how the Standard American Diet (SAD) arrived at it's tragic state:
- Error #1: Man creates industrial seed oils (aka: vegetable oil, safflower oil, canola oil, cottonseed oil, etc.) from toxic waste and serves them up to the public as a health food, endorsed by the American Heart Association.
- Error #2: Man deems natural fats containing cholesterol and saturated fat as hazardous, leading to Big Industry's manipulation of real, whole food and the wide-spread consumption of edible food-like substances rich in refined flours and sugars.
- Error #3: Man scrambles to fix the damage done over decades as health in America continues on a rapid decline. The strategy? Continue demonizing saturated fat and cholesterol while promoting seed oils, but now emphasize the benefits of copious amounts of fiber in the form of whole grains and recommend omega-3 fatty acid supplements.
Hmmm... Do you see a pattern here?
Another question. What would happen if you took away all of man's interventions as listed above? Now that's for you to ponder. And perhaps help to give you an entirely new perspective on achieving real health for yourself.
Moving on to why PUFA's should be any concern of yours...
Because of their chemical structure, PUFA's are especially unstable and prone to oxidation. That simply means that with any exposure to light, chemical inputs, and/or heat, these fatty acids are prone to being stripped of their electrons. You've heard of oxidative stress in the body (think free radicals)--it is the precursor to many degenerative conditions such as atherosclerosis (the hardening of blood vessels), hypertension, decrease in eye health, decrease in hearing ability, neurodegenerative disease (Parkinson's or Alzheimers) and cancer.
But that is not to say that PUFA's are inherently bad. They are not, and you do need them to exist. The key is knowing that a PUFA by itself doesn't equal a free radical. Rather, they can easily lead to free radicals under the right circumstances. So what are those circumstances and how can you avoid them? Great question! You're smart.
As I mentioned, exposure to light, added chemicals, and/or heat causes PUFA's to oxidize, wreaking mayhem on our energy systems in the body. (For example, as we discussed in the last article on cholesterol, oxidized LDL (LDL gone rogue) can lead to all kinds of trouble.) That means that cooking with PUFA's is a very bad idea. Purchasing oils high in PUFA's needs careful consideration as to how they were made, packaged and handled on the way to your kitchen. Sounds complicated, huh?
Perhaps, there's a better way altogether.
You already know to avoid industrial seed oils like the plague. In addition, here are some basic guidelines on which fats are typically safe in their marketable forms as put forth by the highly knowledgable and experienced Chris Kresser.
Eat the following without a second thought (liberally):
-Seafood (cold-water, fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, anchovies, or sardines)
**Whenever possible, choose pasture-raised and wild-caught sources.
Here's the thing.
Traditional diets around the world made up of natural, whole, seasonal foods typically provide the necessary ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. Which is precisely why the folks that eat them have no need of knowing the chemical details of their food. That ratio is found to be anywhere between between 1:4 - 4:1. Our western diet, however, delivers nearly 20:1 on average, favoring omega-6's. That's a huge difference. Why is it significant? Because an imbalance causes strange happenings in the body. For example, excessive omega-6 fatty acids can fuel inflammatory pathways and even reduce anti-inflammatory omega-3's in your tissues. The more you overload on omega-6, the less omega-3 you're bound to have.
So why is the ratio of omegas in our diet so distorted? Allow me.
The Standard American Diet is teeming with processed foods and industrial seed oils. These are, by far, the most copious source of Omega-6 fatty acids available to us. Even so-called health foods (protein bars, protein powders, imitation meat, "whole grain" products) and many of the foods we are encouraged to eat on a regular basis are way off balance in the PUFA department. Yet what is odd, is that the effects of a diet too high in omega-6's are well published in the medical literature, so you'd think they would be taken very seriously. Here are some of its detriments for review:
- chronic inflammation
- impaired gut function
- autoimmune disease
- rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis
- macular degeneration
- cardiovascular disease
- poor brain health
But here's the catch. It's not just the ratio that matters.
Whole foods containing omega-6's typically do not pose a threat. This is probably because the foods themselves are a complete package of other nutrients that balance it all out, such as folic acid, calcium, vitamin B6, vitamin E, magnesium and others. What's fascinating is that specific nutrients like vitamin E and magnesium have literally been shown to protect unstable PUFA's from being oxidized. (But don't go crazy, high amounts of omega 6 can still be a problem in the presence of too little omega-3.) The ratio, combined with the source of each, is what makes the difference.
Which brings us to the intervention of the fish oil supplement.
With the dangers of high amounts of Omega-6's becoming increasingly well-known comes the onslaught of doctors all over the country, along with the nightly news, encouraging people to supplement with fish oil. The point of doing so, is to "balance" out your omega ratio by adding in lots of Omega-3 fatty acids... But just as you can't exercise your way out of a bad diet, you likely can't supplement your way out either. As they often do, these "quick fixes" to a crappy diet come with their own set of problems.
*Warning: Whenever far away, faceless entities (like public health organizations and media outlets) isolate certain compounds in our food (like fiber, saturated fat or omega 3 fatty acids in the form of fish oil pills) and tout them as lifesavers or killers, we should be wary.
Remember that PUFA's are highly reactive compounds prone to oxidation with any exposure to heat, light or chemicals. Fish oil, even in the form of capsules, is no different. It is likely that most store-bought fish oil supplements have already been oxidized and are rancid before you ever even open the seal. This can easily cause cellular damage when ingested. So if you're going to supplement with anything, a high-quality cod liver oil for a set period of time will get the job done. (The Blue Ice Green Pastures brand is one that you can trust.) It is not meant to be permanent daily addition to your life.
It is true that because of our imbalanced diet, Americans tend to be most deficient in omega 6's in the form of arachidonic acid (ARA) which is found in liver, egg yolks and other land animal fats; and omega-3's in the form of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) which is found in cod liver oil and other fatty fish. But a simple shift of focus on getting enough of those whole foods will ensure your getting all you need to thrive, negating the need to even consider taking fish oil pills to begin with.
So when it comes to polyunsaturated fats, the secret to success lies in the amounts we have of each (we actually need very little) and the sources we get them from.
For additional insight on PUFA's, I highly recommend reading the incredibly well-written, comprehensive article Precious Yet Perilous by The Weston A. Price Foundation.
Now for a quick recap:
Saturated fat does not pose a threat to your health in any way shape or form, and cannot be avoided in the diet. Its health benefits are many.
Cholesterol is essential to life, and the consumption of dietary cholesterol has little to zero impact on heart disease and cardiovascular health. There is much more to the story. Industrial seed oils and refined sugar consumption play a much bigger role.
Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAS) are provided naturally by diets made up of whole, real foods (complete with animal protein and fats) in the very small amounts we need them. All industrial seed oils should be avoided. Any PUFA supplements or marketed products should be either avoided completely or given very careful consideration before consuming.
So where does all this information leave us? Per usual, it all points us back to the basics.
When our eyes are opened and able to spot real food from edible food-like substances, we don't have to think so hard about what to eat and what not to eat. Whole foods complete with all their comprehensive nutrition provide exactly what we need to thrive. And so often, these foods even compliment each other (spinach cooked in butter, liver cooked in lard or with bacon) and allow for a naturally rich enjoyment and satiation that is otherwise missing.
It is unnecessary to think in terms of chemistry or complicated (and inaccurate) food pyramids. The key is to zoom out, to simplify it all down to eating the real, whole foods that your great grandparents were accustomed to. Make it your business to know what those were and follow suit. There is great wisdom there.
So what do you think? Did you learn anything new? Now is the time to take back control of your health. You have what it takes. No more excuses.
Get 'er done.