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Nutritional and medical experts have, over the last 10 years, made it perfectly clear: we are all eating too much fat and oil. The logical step is to avoid fatty foods wherever and whenever possible. And for the most part, this is good. But there are some oils which we need in our diets to keep us healthy. Many diets like Medifast or Atkins try to incorporate this with varied success. And this leads to a great deal of confusion.
There are two basic types of fatty substances which come from food: fats and cholesterol. Since there is no need for any intake of cholesterol, it is not an essential nutrient. (Your liver can make plenty.) There are certain fats, on the other hand, which the body needs to function but it cannot make from other nutrients. These are called essential fatty acids.
Fats are made up of two parts: a glycerine 'backbone' with three fatty acids attached. (Thus the name 'triglyceride'.) You can imagine the arrangement by picturing a flagpole with three banners flying in a stiff wind. The pole would be the glycerine and the banners would be the fatty acids. Saturated fats, solid at room temperature (like butter or lard), have all three fatty acids completely 'saturated' with hydrogen. Unsaturated fats, liquid at room temperature (like safflower oil) have some spaces in their fatty acids where more hydrogen could be added. It is the unsaturated fats which, depending on where those spaces are, can be 'essential' to the body. Diets such as the Medifast diet regulate which fats you ingest. Giving the body the fats it needs and less of the fats it does not.
Fats and fatty acids are used for many purposes in the body. Cholesterol is needed to make hormones. Fats, in general, help as a storage of energy for when we do not get enough to eat and as a padding to keep internal organs from bouncing around. Fats are also needed as protection around the nerves and to help keep cell membranes fluid so cells can change shape as needed, for instance, when red blood cells need to squeeze through capillaries.
Fats that are saturated are used primarily as energy storage. As we eat more saturated fats, blood cholesterol levels tend to increase and body fat increases. Butter, lard, bacon 'grease', margarine and solid shortening are all forms of saturated fats.
Fats that are unsaturated contain the essential fatty acids. These include nut and seed oils, fish oils and vegetable oils. Essential fatty acids are used in many ways. But for now, I want to focus on how they help determine the level of inflammation in the body. Fatty acids can be converted in the cells of our bodies into sustances called prostaglandins. These are cellular messengers which tell other cells in the area whether they should be more or less inflamed, as well as telling the body whether blood should or should not clot. These fats from shellfish, dairy and red meat tend to become those prostaglandins which increase inflammation in the body and encourage blood clotting. Those from vegetable, nut and seed oils tend to do the opposite. In fact, aspirin works by blocking the conversion of fatty acids into inflammatory prostaglandins. This is why it helps reduce the risk for heart disease and certain cancers.
Some seed and fish oils are more powerful in reducing inflammation and clotting than others. Cold or deep ocean fish contain more of the 'omega-3' fatty acids which reduce blood clotting and reduce the risk for heart disease. They are also particularly good at reducing joint inflammations like bursitis and the common form of arthritis called 'degenerative joint disease'. Borage seed oil contains a high amount of 'omega-6' fatty acids good for reducing inflammation in the skin (eczema), and lungs (asthma), and this oil has been particularly effective in reducing pain and inflammation from autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Evening primrose oil is another oil high in omega-6 fatty acids. Many people find it more effective than other oils to treat 'female' problems such as menstrual cramps and menopausal vaginal inflammation.
The one type of oil which contains a significant amount of all the essential fatty acids (omega-3, -6 and -9) is flax oil. Flax is a highly unsaturated fatty acid and as such can go rancid very quickly. But because it contains a high level of antiinflammatory essential fatty acids, it can really make a difference in all types of inflammatory diseases from asthma and eczema to arthritis and even cancer. Be aware, however, that because flax is so highly unsaturated, its fatty acids can become oxidized easily. Oxidation causes free radical formation which can cause inflammation and impaired immune fuction, counteracting any benefits from taking this oil. So when using flax oil, it is imperative that you take an antioxidant nutrient, such as vitamin E. at the same time.
So how do you modify your diet to help reduce your risk of heart disease while still getting these essential fatty acids? First, avoid all saturated fats whenever possible. (If you must use butter on your bread, use real butter rather than an artificially saturated fat like margarine which causes more damage than it's worth. Use as little as possible and try substituting olive oil or apple butter instead). Keep total fats down down to 20% of calories (on a 1500 calorie diet, 300 calories from fat, just over 30 grams of fat, or 2 1/2 Tbsp oil per day). When sauteing, use a little olive oil and mix in some broth to keep the fish or vegetables from burning. When baking, substitute applesauce for butter or oil in most muffin and quick bread recipes. Use balsamic vinegar and just a dash safflower or canola oil on your salads. Avoid all fried foods. Eat cold water fish (halibut, cod, salmon, tuna) twice each week. And if you have a specific health problem, try using an essential fatty acid supplement such as those mentioned above, plus an antioxidant nutrient to see if you feel better.