Getting to know your fats
What About Nuts and Oils?
Consume a Handful of Nuts and a Teaspoon of Oil Every Day
What is the appropriate amount and type of fat people should get in their diet?
What is the position of high-fat foods like avocados, nuts and oils in a healthy diet? Good science explains that reducing meat and dairy consumption decreases heart disease (1), but other studies suggest that substantial decreases in dietary fats may contribute to neurologic disease (2).
Some nutrition experts recommend severe restriction of dietary fats for optimal health, including the avoidance of meat, dairy, and eggs, and also avocado, nuts and vegetable oils.
However, recent studies show the benefit of consuming nuts.
Consuming a handful of nuts, daily, decreases the risk of certain cancers (3) and reduces your risk of cardiac death due to cardiovascular disease (4). Studies conclude that nuts play an important role in a healthy diet in order to minimize heart disease risk and get multiple health benefits.
What could possibly be in nuts that so powerfully protects us from disease?
Nuts are at least partially beneficial because they represent such a good source of healthy fatty acids.
Apart from being a source of energy, fatty acids have a wide range of physiologic functions. Many fatty acids can be produced by your own body; however, n−3 and n−6 polyunsaturated fatty acids are essential fatty acids that must be provided in the diet.
The long-chain metabolites of these essential fatty acids are needed for healthy heart and cellular function. Long chain essential fatty acids also influence gene regulation, helping the body go back to the proper spot on our DNA to collect the information it is looking for. EPA and DHA are of particular interest. Although their action is not fully understood, they most likely protect against heart disease and promote healthy neurologic function.
The major dietary source of EPA and DHA is seafood, but they can also be found in lean red meat, in organ meats such as liver and brain, and in eggs; very small amounts are found in dairy products.
Consequently, vegetarians, who do not eat meat or fish, and vegans, who, in addition, exclude eggs and dairy products from their diets, have very low or negligible intakes of EPA and DHA. However, vegetarians eat much higher amounts of linoleic acid (18:2n–6; LA), which is largely derived from plant sources.
EPA and DHA can be synthesized in the body from alpha-linolenic acid (18:3n-3; ALA). It’s argued that the process of making your own EPA and DHA is limited in humans, but even at a limited rate, people who get most of their calories from plants can still make plenty of EPA and DHA on their own. That’s due to the much higher content of alpha-linolenic acid in a vegetarian diet makes that building block more readily available.
People who limit meat and dairy in their diet have less overall fat in their diet; it makes sense that they will have less fat to measure floating around in their blood. Healthier fats measure lower in the blood of healthy eaters because so much of the healthy fats are tied up for immediate use in making cell membranes and sex hormones. If healthy eaters supplemented their diets with nuts, they would enjoy a health benefit from that addition.
I do agree that dietary restriction of high-calorie nuts and oils is important for limiting calories and cutting excess fat. I do not think that dietary exclusion of these foods will result in superior health outcomes. For this reason, I recommend one handful of nuts (approximately 14-20 kernels) and 1 teaspoon of oil per day. I prefer the consumption of nuts over oil as a source of concentrated healthy fat.
Even with the recommendation for healthy levels of fats, my dietary fat recommendations are about half the recommended fat content of a Standard American Diet (6) and half the fat recommended by the American Heart Association (7). This is a level of healthy dietary fat that will lead to excellent health.
Omega-3 vs. Omega-6 Fats
The Inflammation Connection
Choosing the right fats in your diet is just as important as choosing the right amount of fats. In order to make the smartest decisions, the conversation around fats should discuss Omega-3 vs. Omega-6 fats.
Omega-6 fats are stable, stiffer fats that allow foods to have a longer shelf life. For that reason, you’ll find higher concentrations of these stable fats in foods that tolerate storage, like dried beans or whole grains. Omega-6 fats are converted into unhealthy prostaglandins that promote pain through the development of arachidonic acid.
Animal-based foods and fry oils are also unnaturally high in these fats. That’s because of the way that the animals are raised today. Animals such as chickens and cows typically eat grass with a few crickets and other insects thrown into their diet. When they are eating a healthy diet typical for them, their bodies contain healthy Omega-3 fats.
When animals are eating foods like corn and soy, which is commonplace in animal farming today, they are following an unhealthy diet. This results in unhealthy storage fats in the animal. Eating a well-fed animal is probably safer for you than eating a factory farmed animal, however, good luck finding one. While many people report that they seek out and eat only traditionally farmed animals, 98% of the meat sold in the US is factory farmed.
Omega-3 fats are concentrated in fresh foods that spoil easily, like fruits and vegetables. These fats make up for the lack of stability with their high level of flexibility. These healthy fats are readily converted into hormones and steroids in the human body, and also make excellent cellular membranes. They are also converted into healthy prostaglandins that protect the lining of the stomach from ulcer formation and also provide protection to the kidneys.
Omega-6 fats break down into unhealthy prostaglandins that promote pain through a series of chemical reactions. One of the main pain generators created with Omega-6 fats is arachidonic acid. This series of chemical reactions can be limited by drugs like ibuprofen, which are in a class of drugs called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories. Ibuprofen and similar drugs block the breakdown of Omega-6 fats into arachidonic acid by disabling an enzyme in the final stages of production.
However, wouldn’t it be easier to just limit the Omega-6 fats in the diet? That way, instead of taking a pill to reduce inflammation, you’d already naturally reduce inflammation by making the precursor to painful prostaglandins unavailable to even start the series of chemical reactions necessary to create a painful process.
These painful prostaglandins are important in many different pain syndromes. They are responsible for the pain that occurs when a person experiences pneumonia and has difficulty breathing. More commonly, painful prostaglandins promote pain in headache and menstrual cramping. Low back pain and other musculoskeletal pain is also mediated by painful prostaglandins. Arthritis pain is mediated primarily by these chemicals.
So, simply by reducing Omega-6 fats in the diet, pain is decreased. Substantially. My study revealed pain decreases of two points on a ten-point pain scale in as little as two weeks.Posted on by Mary Clifton, MD