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Editor's note: This is the fourth part of a series focussing on nutrition that will run every other Thursday.
In my last article, I discussed the important role fats play in our diets. Just as fruits and vegetables are crucial to a healthy diet, so are healthy fats. The reason heart disease is so rampant in the Western society isn't because we eat too much fat, it's because we eat too much of the wrong fats.
But what constitutes a good or bad fat? Without any understanding of trans fats or omega fatty acids, we could do fairly well just by looking at how processed the fat in question is. Raw nuts, avocados, cold water fish, wild game and dairy products are pretty clear-cut examples of fat-containing foods that have undergone little or no processing.
When we start talking about oils, things get a little more complicated. Obviously, any oil has been processed to some degree. The first thing to look for is how much heat was used processing the oil and whether or not it has been hydrogenated. When oils are hydrogenated, or "partially hydrogenated," the chemical structure is changed and they become trans fats. Trans fats don't occur in nature, and there Is no safe amount. Avoid any food that contains hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils and look for cold processed, expeller pressed or extra virgin when purchasing oils.
Secondly, and just as critical, we need to look at the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in any oil that we consume. Prior to the 1900's, our consumption of omega-6 to omega-3 was in a ratio of around 2:1. In the last 50 years that ratio has changed for the worse to 15:1. This is largely due to the huge amount of oils extracted from vegetables used in both cooking and in prepared foods. These oils (such as corn oil, safflower oil, cottonseed oil, peanut oil, soybean oil) are primarily omega-6s. Also contributing to the problem is corn being added to many processed foods, as well as being fed to livestock. At the same time, we have decreased our consumption of omega-3's, which are found in whole grains, beans, seeds, fish and grass-fed animals.
Dr. Gabe Mirkin, a practicing physician for more than 40 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, does a pretty good job of listing some of the problems caused by our modern diet. "Eating too much omega-6 and too little omega-3 causes clots and constricts arteries to increase risk for heart attacks, increases swelling to worsen arthritis, and aggravates a skin disease called psoriasis. It may block a person's ability to respond to insulin, causing high insulin and blood sugar levels and obesity. It increases hormone levels of insulin like growth factor-1 that causes certain cancers."
As strong a case as Dr. Mirkin makes against eating omega-6 rich foods, what he doesn't mention is the connection between high 6:1 ratios and depression, dementia and other emotional, mental and cognitive dysfunctions.
Recognizing then that it is imperative to correct the 6:1 ratio in our diet, how do we go about it? The first step goes directly back to our concept of eating whole, unprocessed foods. If we minimize our consumption of processed foods, we minimize our consumption of omega-6 rich polyunsaturated vegetable oils.
Remember to be on the lookout for corn oil, safflower oil, cottonseed oil, peanut oil, soybean oil and any oil simply listed as vegetable oil, and shun anything containing "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" oils. When you prepare foods at home, you should use extra virgin olive oil and walnut or flax seed oil. Extra virgin coconut oil is an excellent choice for cooking because it has a high burn point, but it is also delicious to use on toast, vegetables, or even baked potatoes.
Along with decreasing our omega-6 intake, we should also increase our consumption of omega-3's. We can do this by eating oily fish, walnuts and flax seed and by supplementing with fish oil.
As I've mentioned, fats have gotten a pretty bad rap over the last few decades. In reality, they are as important to health as any other component of food. Eating more whole, unprocessed foods is a great start to making sure the fats you are consuming are healthy. Looking for and avoiding the unhealthy oils used in processed foods is the other part of the puzzle. Both your body and your mind will thank you.
Dr. Corey Pavitt is a chiropractic physician, competitive bodybuilder, and a recreational yoga, cycling and hiking enthusiast. He and his wife Ellen own and operate Pavitt Health and Fitness. His Wednesday Juneau Empire column has run over nine years and will continue in addition to this bimonthly article.