By: Clifford Sonnie, M.D., M.P.H.
Remember when the diet pyramid first came out. Oils (which are fat) were stuck near the top with instructions to use very sparingly if at all. Well nothing could be farther from the truth. Oils play a huge role in our health. Today we’ll talk about a couple types of oil.
First some science. I’ll try to make this painless. Oils or fats are nothing more than long strings of carbon atoms sewn together. Most of the carbons are “single stitched” to each other so they can be flexible. Some are double and triple stitched in places which gives them unique qualities. Since all of the body’s cells are lined with fats, these oils help make and repair those cells. They also make something called prostaglandins that control inflammation. Oils come in three flavors. Omega 6 oils, sometimes known as saturated fats, come from animal sources like red meat and such and some plants like corn. They are usually solid at room temperature and in a nut shell, they promote inflammation. Omega 3 oils, sometimes known as unsaturated fats, come from animal sources like fish but also come from plant sources like flaxseed. They are usually liquid at room temperature and, you guessed it, are anti-inflammatory (more about this in a bit). The third type is trans-fats also known as partially hydrogenated fats. These are fats that have had the stitching all messed up and have lost their flexibility. It is like fixing a hole in your clothes with super glue instead of a nice soft thread. It’s hard, doesn’t bend and scratches the skin. Yes, the shelf life of the oil is increased from weeks to millennia, but it is not worth it except to the food manufacturer. If you see “trans fat” anywhere on a food label, PUT IT BACK!!
Those are the three kinds of oils. With the exception of trans fats, you need the other two. In order to work properly, our bodies need to produce inflammation and it needs a way to shut it down. Yin and Yang if you will. We sprain our ankle, it swells (inflammation). This is the stuff your body needs to repair the injury. After the repair is done the body takes it away (anti-inflammation). Likewise, in your arteries, the body causes inflammation along a damaged part of the wall to repair it. After the repair the body has to get rid of the inflammation. Being unable to effectively remove the inflammation is like keeping the orange barrels and equipment on the street after the city repairs a pothole. Traffic can still pass but it has gone from three lanes down to one.
Since I was in medical school, the understanding of the role of Omega 3 oils has exploded. It helps in the treatment and prevention of depression and has been used successfully in the treatment of bipolar disorder. Its use will decrease the chance of premature labor and is used to treat preeclampsia which is a dangerous elevation of the mother’s blood pressure during gestation and/or labor. It has been proven that these oils decrease anger and anxiety. Schools have been shown to have significant drops in violence and delinquency when the candy machines are replaced with more nutritious foods. Omega 3 improves immunity and has shown promise with autoimmune diseases. It helps to develop and protect an infant’s brain as well as the mature person’s brain. It fights cardiovascular disease and helps prevent strokes and other vascular problems. The list does not stop here. So as you can see, it’s not just for salads anymore.
The role of Omega 6 is to get the repair equipment there, and the role of Omega 3 is to pack it up and shut it down after the repair. So, what’s the problem in our health today? We don’t get enough of the Omega 3. Why? Prior to WWII people ate more vegetables as well as wild meat and fish. All these were very high in Omega 3 oils. Yes, even red meat was high in Omega 3 oils. This was because the cattle grazed on plants which themselves had lots of Omega 3. Today cattle are grain fed with more chemicals than you can shake a stick at and literally no Omega 3’s. Secondly, today’s fast food society wants it fast and cheap. So, manufacturers use vegetable oils high in Omega 6 and trans fat because it’s cheap and yes it has an almost intoxicating taste. The days of actually taking the time and preparing a meal that is good for you are all but gone. And yes so is the family dinner table discussions of the days events and I think that is a tragedy in itself. Sorry, I digress.
So how do we get them? Well, increase the use of good oils such as flax seed and olive oil in your diet and decrease the use of vegetable or corn oil. Stay as far away as you can with anything that says trans-fat. Decrease those fast foods and read the labels for goodness sake. It will say how much saturated and unsaturated fat is in each serving. Increase fish as a staple in your diet. Animal sources of Omega oils are always easier for the body to use than vegetable sources. Omega 3 supplements are a good alternative although I will always side with diet over a pill. Google the internet as to what foods are high in Omega 3 and Omega 6 and go from there.
The next question is how much. First let’s talk about ratio. Remember, Omega 6 boosts inflammation and Omega 3 decreases it. You need both. The perfect ratio is obviously 1:1. Unfortunately in today’s “All American Diet” the ratio is about 20:1. No, the 20 goes with the Omega 6. I personally try to actually get more Omega 3 than Omega 6 because there are a couple extra sources of inflammation such as stress and pollution. (Topics for another time). Likewise, I try to make sure I eat about 2 to 3 grams of Omega 3 a day. That should about do it. (Let’s not forget about plenty of water and good old fashion “get your butt moving” exercise as well). Look for a good source of oils and know where the fish actually come from. As always, check with your family medical physician or stop in to see us at the Balance of Life Clinic and we can talk with you not only about oils but all sorts of ways to stay healthy and as the old saying goes “keep the doctor away”. I‘ve said this before and I will say it again, anything in excess can be harmful. The smart health care consumer is informed and aware.
Clifford Sonnie, M.D., M.P.H. is the medical director at the Balance of Life Clinic.