Fats and Oils: A Much Maligned Class of Macro Nutrients

We have been shortsightedly taught to count fat grams without regard to the type of fat. In fact, we need the right fats in our diet as much as we need protein. Fats (or lipids) serve three main purposes in our bodies:

  1. Structural components of cell membranes and other essential structures, especially brain tissues
  2. Precursors of regulatory chemicals and hormones
  3. Fuel and energy production

As always, we do best when we eat foods in the most naturally occurring state as possible. We should definitely avoid all food containing artificially hydrogenated vegetable oils, which some call “plastic fat” and which are foreign substances to our bodies; they appear to be irritants and pro-inflammatory substances that may increase the risk for cancer and cardiovascular disease. These are also known as trans fatty acids and are found in almost all commercially prepared foods and mixes, margarine, Crisco, bakery goods, and deep-fried foods. Avoid these foods and anything with partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil listed on the label.

Natural fats and oils can be classified as saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fats are found in animal foods such as meat, dairy, butter, lard, and also in some vegetable foods such as palm oil and cocoa butter. While these fats are not classified as essential, they are easily digested and metabolized by the body and are always preferable to the artificial variety.

Unsaturated fats are less stable than saturated fats. They go rancid much more easily and must be refrigerated. They must be used up within shorter periods of time. Among the unsaturated fats are found the essential fatty acids, essential meaning that they must be obtained from food and cannot be converted in the body from other raw materials to perform irreplaceable functions. If we don’t get a good supply of the essential fats daily, we just don’t heal as well, and our metabolism is impaired; nothing works optimally.

The most important of these essential fatty acids are the Omega 3 oils, which are found in flaxseed oil (as alpha linolenic acid) and fish oil (as EPA and DHA) and a special type of Omega 6 oil called gamma linolenic acid (GLA). Both of these essential oils are precursors of anti-inflammatory prostaglandins, which have a calming and healing effect on the body. They also are structural components of all cell membranes and are critical in the function of the brain and nervous system.

All of the above translates into the following practical daily principles:

  1. Avoid processed foods, deep-fried foods and any artificially hydrogenated fats (partially hydrogenated vegetable oil).
  2. For cooking, use olive oil, natural cocoa butter or coconut oil or dairy butter
  3. Eat wild fish or take fish oil supplements daily. For supplements, add the amount of EPA and DHA on the label together and take 1,000 to 4,000 mg of these nutrients per day. Alternatively, you may take part of your EPA and DHA in the form of cod liver oil, which provides Vitamins A and D in addition to the Omega 3 oils. An adult does is about 1 tablespoon per day.
  4. Incorporate flaxseed oil or flax meal into your meal planning. A good dose is 1 tablespoon of the oil or ⅛ to ¼ cup of the meal, freshly ground. Buy the oil in the refrigerated section of a health food store and keep it refrigerated. Use it before the printed expiration date. Mix it with vinegar and herbs for salad dressing, pour it over vegetables or cereal, or add it to a blender shake. Remember that it takes 9 to 12 large capsules to equal one tablespoon of oil, so it’s easier and less expensive to learn to use the oil.
  5. Gamma linolenic acid (GLA) is most abundant in evening primrose oil, black currant seed oil, or borage oil, usually found in capsules. A good average dose is 100 mg of the GLA per day, although more can be taken for special reasons.

Dr. Dianne Farley-Jones, MD

*The information available on the Alpine Clinic web site are not intended take the place of a consultation with a licensed physician. These are strictly intended for educational purposes, and should not be used to diagnose, cure, prescribe or treat any specific disease.