Updated: Jul 6, 2020
What we eat and what we don’t eat directly impacts the level of inflammation in our bodies, especially when it comes to the types of fats we eat (or don’t). Most of us who lived through the 1980s were taught that fat was bad for us, especially saturated fat. Research studies in the past 15 years have turned this restricted thinking upside down.
I highly recommend reading “The Big Fat Surprise” by Nina Teicholz if you’re interested to learn how her 9-year investigation revealed the unthinkable: “everything we’ve been told about fat is wrong”. It’s a hefty but worthwhile read, especially if you are dealing with any inflammatory conditions.
As an Occupational Arm/Hand Therapist, I work with many people who have developed inflammatory conditions such as Tendinitis/Tendinosis, Trigger Finger/Thumb, Rheumatoid Arthritis and other Auto-Immune conditions. Traumatic injuries inherently cause inflammation but how well the body responds in managing this inflammation depends on the overall inflammatory state of the body, as well as the impact from certain medications like Aspirin and NSAIDs (which I’ll save for a future blog post).
Due to my interest in nutrition and how it impacts the health and healing of the body, I’d like to offer some practical recommendations about fats and share some nutrition-nerd details about prostaglandins. I realize I might lose some readers with too much sciency-speak up front, so I’ll start with practical info about healthy fats versus unhealthy fats.
HEALTHY FATS that are Safest for cooking:
1) Coconut Oil
3) Beef/Lamb Tallow, Chicken/Goose/Duck Fat, Lard (yes, lard) from pasture-raised animals
HEALTHY FATS that are “safer” for cooking:
1) Avocado Oil
3) Peanut Oil
4) Macademia Nut Oil
5) Olive Oil (keep heat low)
6) Sesame Oil (keep heat low)
HEALTHY FATS that are unsafe for cooking (best eaten raw and unprocessed):
1) Nut oils: Almond, Hazelnut, Walnut, Pine Nut
2) Seed oils: Flax, Pumpkin, Grapeseed, Hemp, Black Currant
3) Evening Primrose Oil
4) Rice Bran Oil
5) Sunflower/Safflower oil (in moderation due to high in Omega-6 fats)
1) Wild-fish (especially salmon) and seafood
2) Olives and Olive Oil
4) Nuts & Seeds
5) Pastured grass-fed meats, eggs, dairy and cheese (if dairy is tolerated)
UNHEALTHY FATS TO AVOID:
1) Partially/fully hydrogenated fats/oils (all types)
2) Vegetable shortening = Say NO to Crisco! Crisco used to be full of trans-fats but since the 2015 ban the recipe changed to "blend of soybean oil, fully hydrogenated palm oil, and partially hydrogenated palm and soybean oils".
3) Soybean/vegetable oil: 90% of US soybeans are GMO to withstand Monsanto Roundup. Soy accounts for 61% of American’s vegetable oil consumption (2). High inflammatory Omega-6 fats.
4) Canola Oil (Rapeseed Oil): Canola has been falsely promoted as a healthy oil. It is GMO and contains toxic chemical residues (3). Also high in Omega-6 fats. After you learn about the origins of canola oil, you’ll never want to eat it again!
5) Corn Oil: High Omega-6 fats. Made from GMO corn, highly refined and produces harmful acrylamide when heated (4).
6) Cottonseed Oil: Falsely promoted as healthy-heart oil. Cotton isn’t a vegetable and it takes an extensive refining process to get oil out of it (5) High Omega-6.
Now, get ready for some science:
The foods we eat contain varied amounts of Saturated, Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated fatty acids which are broken down into basic fatty acid molecules. These molecules are converted and synthesized into other forms of fatty acids in the liver when the proper co-factors and enzymes are present. The liver sends these fatty acids forms into the bloodstream to supply cells with the building blocks for creating prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are created within cell membranes through the synthesis of elongated forms of fatty acids.
Prostaglandins are hormone-like substances found in nearly all tissues and fluids of the body. Prostaglandins are needed in our body to carry out several required functions including controlling inflammation. The inflammatory response is needed to first protect and repair damaged or irritated tissues. Then a distinct anti-inflammatory response is required to turn off the inflammatory processes. The body needs the ability to both inflame and anti-inflame and these abilities are modulated by prostaglandins.
We have three groups of prostaglandins that help control the inflammatory functions in our body. There is one inflammatory prostaglandin called PG2 and there are two ANTI-inflammatory prostaglandins called PG1 and PG3. When balanced, these three prostaglandins modulate the proper amount of inflammation in the body. In order to create all three types of prostaglandins we need to eat a variety of fatty acids and with proper balance.
There are two essential Polyunsaturated fatty acids that the body cannot make that must come from our diet. These are Linoleic Acid and Alpha Linolenic Acid. The first, Linoleic Acid, is a precursor form of Omega 6 fatty acids which are required for making the PG3 anti-inflammatory prostaglandin. The second, Alpha Linolenic Acid, is precursor form of Omega 3 fatty acids which are required for making the PG1 anti-inflammatory prostaglandin. The PG2 prostaglandin is made from the conversion of saturated fats, which (remember) are not “bad”. We need PG2s to start the necessary inflammation which is initial part of the body's healing process.
One important side note here about PG2s is that high-sugar diets create more insulin in the bloodstream. When there is too much insulin, Omega-6 fatty acids are converted into Arachidonic Acid (AA), which is the precursor to PG2 (pro-inflammatory prostaglandin). Saturated fat has been falsely demonized when it is actually the high-sugar and highly-processed diets of most Americans that convert these Omega 6 fatty acids into AA. High-sugar diets + Omega 6 oils/fats = higher PG2 which creates imbalanced prostaglandin levels.
Here’s the Big Fat Rub: Our Paleolithic ancestors thrived on a 1:1 up to 1:4 ratio of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fats. However, the Standard American Diet typically contains 15-25 times more Omega 6 fats from eating processed foods, vegetable oils and commercially raised meat products.
Most processed and packaged foods are made with highly refined vegetable oils. Vegetable oils contain mostly Poly-Unsaturated fats which are highly unstable. This means the fat oxidizes when exposed to light and heat. Which means the oil/fat turns rancid more easily and becomes a toxin in the body.
Decades ago, in order to make vegetable oils more heat stable, manufacturers used to hydrogenate oils through a chemical process. This process forced hydrogen molecules into the oil to make it solid at room temperature. The big problem is that hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils contain trans-fatty acids, which are the only type of fatty acid NOT found in nature. They significantly mess up the molecular structure of our cellular membranes. Recent research proved that trans-fats were so bad that the World Health Organization requested that governments remove them from the international food supply. The US was slow to adopt this advice but in 2015 the FDA recognized that partially hydrogenated oils were no longer “generally recognized as safe” for human consumption (5) and gave companies 3 years to comply with converting their products to be trans-fat-free.
Please note these cautionary words about meats: Animals that are fed grain instead of grass hold Omega 6 fatty acids in their tissues instead of Omega 3s. That means when we eat commercially raised meat we are ingesting more Omega 6 fats. It is very important to carefully choose the source and processing of the meats we consume. Grass-fed, pastured raised, and wild meats are much healthier for us to eat. Yes, they are more expensive but it would be better spend money on high-quality meat and eat less of it than eat commercial meat regularly. It is better for the environment to eat less meat as well. Many people get stuck in a rut thinking they need to have meat at every meal but there are other healthy protein alternatives such as beans/legumes (with rice or complex carb to create a complete protein), quinoa, chia seeds, organic sprouted tofu and organic tempeh.
Healthy Fatty Acid deficiency has become epidemic in all cultures that have adopted the "Western diet" full of high-sugar, overly-refined vegetable oil processed foods. It is a major factor behind many musculoskeletal, endocrine, cardiovascular, immune, skin/allergy and mental/depression issues. Nutritional therapy is very important for effectively managing inflammation. Proper nutrition can help reduce healing time from injuries as well as impact chronic conditions for the better.
General ratio guidelines for fatty acid consumption:
- 60 % Monounsaturated fats (Avocado, Olive, Nuts/Seeds)
- 30 % Saturated fats (Coconut, Macadamia, Meats, Eggs, Dairy)
- 10% Polyunsaturated fats (Safflower/sunflower oils, grapeseed oil, flax/nuts/seeds)
These guidelines are controversial and vary greatly within individuals because of heredity, blood type, climate, etc. Working with a Nutritional Therapist can help you determine what ratio is best/therapeutic for the current state of your health.
Here are four important take-away points:
1) Most people eat WAY too many unhealthy polyunsaturated fats from consuming processed foods, poor-quality commercial meats and vegetable oils/fats.
2) Most foods containing fats have a blend of fatty acids so it is difficult to delineate them as fully Saturated, Mono/Polyunsaturated. Most nuts and seeds have a blend of mono and polyunsaturated fats (whereas macadamia nuts are primarily saturated). Meats also have a blend of fats and are not entirely saturated.
3) The ideal ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 oils in the diet should ideally be 1:1, up to 1:4, like our Paleolithic ancestors because we still have the same DNA!
4) Make an effort to eat more wild fish and take fish/krill/algae oil supplements because they are high in Omega 3 anti-inflammatory fatty acids.
All these words boil down to one simple statement:
Eating a variety of good quality fats is required for optimum health!
1) Teicholz, N. (2014) “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat & Cheese Belong in a Health Diet”. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.
2) Philpott, T. (April 2014). “Monsanto GM Soy Is Scarier Than You Think”. Mother Jones. https://www.motherjones.com/food/2014/04/superweeds-arent-only-trouble-gmo-soy/
3) Gifford, D. “The Inconvenient Truth About Canola Oil”. https://www.smallfootprintfamily.com/the-inconvenient-truth-about-canola-oil
4) Shoemaker, S. (May 2019) “Is Corn Oil Healthy? Nutrition, Benefits, and Downsides”.
5) Stanton, B. (September 2019) “Why Cottonseed Oil Is Bad For You”.