Not so many years ago, dietary fats were demonized by those “in the know.” Nutritionists recommended low-fat diets to reduce the risk of heart disease and maintain a healthy weight. The net result was that Americans, with increasing frequency, became obese, and heart disease is still very much with us. The emphasis has now reversed course: processed simple sugars are out, and fats are getting a second look, especially the “healthy” ones.
What makes a dietary fat healthy or unhealthy?
Fats are categorized as healthy or unhealthy based on the effects they have on human physiology. However, the relationships are many, interwoven, and complex. Most nutritionists define unhealthy fats as refined vegetable oils high in omega-6 fatty acids and trans fats. On the other hand, healthy fats are predominantly omega-3-rich, monounsaturated and saturated fats like those found in fish, nuts, avocado, EVOO, coconut oil, and red palm oil.
Nutrition researchers are particularly concerned with the high omega-6/omega-3 ratio of the typical American diet for many reasons. High levels of some omega-6 fatty acids can contribute to chronic inflammation, and consequently raise the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, autoimmune disorders, and dementia. However, some omega-6 is essential for regulating metabolism, maintaining reproductive health, and supporting healthy brain function.
The problem is one of balance. It has been estimated that the typical American diet contains omega-6:omega-3 in a roughly 16:1 ratio, which increases the risk of inflammation! Since humans are thought to have evolved on a diet in which the ratio of omega-6:omega-3 was 1:1, and because many disease markers are significantly improved by stressing a 4:1 ratio or better, there may be considerable value for public health in promoting dietary practices that establish the more favorable ratios.
Should we be eating more omega-3 fats and fewer carbohydrates?
That’s a good question, but there are benefits to a higher omega-3 diet:
- Reducing carbohydrates and omega-6 fats and increasing omega-3 helps promote optimal body composition as long as you are eating an appropriate number of calories. Fat loss will be easier, as will building muscle. Aim for equal amounts of omega-3 and omega-6, and make up to 40% of total calories fat. Remove all refined carbs and eat mostly low-GI complex carbs from a variety of sources, perhaps no more than 200 grams per day until you achieve a desirable weight.
- Brain function will be improved, as will reproductive health.
- LDL, the “bad” cholesterol causing obstructed arteries and heart disease, will go down; HDL, the “good” cholesterol that helps keep arteries clear, will go up. Immune function will improve, and cancer risk will decrease.
How do I get started?
Try the Mediterranean diet. Eat no refined carbs, lots of fibrous veggies (greens, including brassicas like kale, cabbage, and collards), one-half avocado daily, and a few walnuts. Eat fish a few times per week, use coconut oil and grass-fed butter in moderation, eat omega-3, free-range eggs, and skip the polyunsaturated oils like safflower and sunflower seed oil. Supplement with fish oil capsules if you do not like fish; eat four ounces of meat a few times each week instead.
Exercise at least five days per week and eat your carbohydrates mostly before and immediately after your workout. If you persist and can achieve the optimal 1:1 omega-6:omega-3 ratio, in the long run, your risk of almost all metabolic diseases will be much lower.