When it comes to fueling your body for optimal performance and overall well-being, healthy fats play a crucial role. While fats have long been misunderstood and demonized in the past, we now know that not all fats are created equal. In fact, incorporating the right types of ‘must have’ healthy fats into your diet can provide numerous benefits and keep your body running like a well-oiled machine.
Food Rationing in WWII: The Rise of Hydrogenated Vegetable Margarine as a Butter Substitute
In the dark days of World War II, America was running short of foods. With the farmers drafted into the service and much food being shipped to the troops overseas, the government decided to support food rationing. Hydrogenated vegetable “oleo margarine” was offered as the acceptable substitute for butter. Take corn or safflower oil and expose it to a catalyst to “saturate” the carbon bonds with hydrogens. You end up with a fat that has similar taste and appearance to saturated fats in nature.
From supporting brain health to promoting heart health and aiding in nutrient absorption, let’s explore why these essential nutrients are a must-have for a vibrant and energized life.
Trans Fats Increase the Risk For Heart Disease
Although on paper this substitution looked good, we have since found numerous reasons to ban or seriously discourage these unnatural fats. Trans fats can increase the risk for heart disease and many other health problems. “It is not nice to fool with mother nature.” was a popular witty ad slogan.
Understanding Healthy Fats: The Good Guys
Healthy fats, also known as unsaturated fats, are a category of dietary fats that are beneficial for our health. They are typically found in plant-based sources and are liquid at room temperature. There are two main types of healthy fats: monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats.
1. Monounsaturated Fats: The Heart’s Best Friend
Monounsaturated fats are known for their heart-protective properties. They can help reduce bad cholesterol levels (LDL) and increase good cholesterol levels (HDL), thereby lowering the risk of heart disease. Foods rich in monounsaturated fats include avocados, olive oil, nuts (such as almonds, peanuts, and cashews), and seeds (such as pumpkin and sunflower seeds).
2. Polyunsaturated Fats: The Brain Boosters
Polyunsaturated fats are essential fats, meaning our bodies cannot produce them, and we need to obtain them through our diet. They are crucial for brain function and play a role in the development and maintenance of our nervous system. Two types of polyunsaturated fats are particularly important: omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been extensively studied for their brain-boosting properties. They are associated with improved cognitive function, memory, and mood regulation. Fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines, are excellent sources of omega-3s. For vegetarians and vegans, plant-based sources like chia seeds, flaxseeds, and walnuts are great options.
Omega-6 fatty acids are also essential for brain health, but it’s essential to strike a balance between omega-3 and omega-6 intake. The typical Western diet tends to have an excessive amount of omega-6 fatty acids, mainly from processed vegetable oils and fried foods. While omega-6 fats are necessary, too much can lead to inflammation. Therefore, focusing on whole food sources like nuts, seeds, and plant-based oils (in moderation) can help maintain the right balance.
3. Avocado Oil and Coconut Oil
Apart from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, there are other healthy fats worth mentioning. Coconut oil, which is primarily composed of saturated fat, has unique properties that make it a popular choice for cooking and baking. Its medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are quickly absorbed by the body and converted into a readily available source of energy.
Similarly, avocado oil, rich in monounsaturated fats, is an excellent option for high-heat cooking and salads. It adds a delightful flavor to dishes while providing the health benefits associated with monounsaturated fats.
4. Vitamin E: Can Lower The Risk for Heart Disease
Vitamin E was called the “vitamin in search of a disease” in the 1960s after a study deprived students (“volunteers”) of vitamin E for a year and found no blatant deficiency symptoms. Turns out it takes longer for the symptoms of premature hemolysis (bursting of red blood cells) to surface in vitamin E deficiency. One study found that nurses taking 200 mg per day of vitamin E supplements lowered their risk for heart disease by 40%.
The Benefits of Including Healthy Fats in Your Diet
- Sustained Energy: Healthy fats provide a longer-lasting source of energy compared to carbohydrates. Including them in your meals can help you stay energized and avoid energy crashes throughout the day.
- Brain Health: As mentioned earlier, omega-3 fatty acids are particularly beneficial for brain health, supporting memory, focus, and cognitive function.
- Heart Health: The monounsaturated fats found in foods like olive oil and avocados have been linked to improved heart health and reduced risk of heart disease.
- Nutrient Absorption: Some vitamins (like A, D, E, and K) are fat-soluble, meaning they need fat to be absorbed properly by the body. Healthy fats facilitate the absorption of these essential vitamins.
- Healthy Skin and Hair: Healthy fats play a role in maintaining the integrity of cell membranes, which can lead to healthier skin and hair.
Incorporating Healthy Fats Into Your Diet
Introducing healthy fats into your diet can be a simple and delicious process. Here are some easy ways to incorporate them into your meals:
- Swap Out Cooking Oils: Instead of using oils high in saturated fats (like butter or palm oil), opt for healthier alternatives such as olive oil, avocado oil, or coconut oil.
- Add Avocado: Avocado is a versatile fruit that can be mashed onto toast, sliced into salads, or blended into smoothies for a creamy texture.
- Snack on Nuts and Seeds: Keep a handful of almonds, walnuts, or pumpkin seeds as a convenient and nutritious snack.
- Include Fatty Fish: Aim to have fatty fish like salmon, trout, or mackerel on your menu at least twice a week.
- Sprinkle Flaxseeds or Chia Seeds: Add a tablespoon of ground flaxseeds or chia seeds to your oatmeal, yogurt, or smoothies for an omega-3 boost.
Remember, while healthy fats are beneficial for your body, they are calorie-dense. Moderation is key, and it’s essential to strike a balance with other macronutrients in your diet.
Here is a brief true story regarding one of my patients:
R.T. was only 5 years old when he started developing attention deficit disorder. His teachers recommended prescription drugs. I suggested omega 3 oils to nourish his brain instead. While fish oil is best, flax oil is an acceptable omega 3 oil source. R.T.’s parents made a whole fruit smoothie with flax oil daily for R.T. Within 2 weeks, the parents called me at their astonishment in R.T.’s improved behavior. He was a bright kid who did not need medication. He needed essential fats for his brain to work properly.
Energizing your body with healthy fats is a smart and delicious way to support overall health and well-being. From nourishing your brain and heart to promoting radiant skin and hair, these essential nutrients are a valuable addition to your daily diet. By incorporating sources of monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, and other healthy fats into your meals, you can unlock a world of culinary delights that fuel your body for a vibrant and energized life. Remember, it’s all about balance and making mindful choices to enjoy the benefits of these nourishing fats while savoring the delicious flavors they bring to your plate.