Fat is a controversial topic. Everyone agrees that eating too much fat, or calories from any source, can lead to weight gain. Plus, obesity is a risk factor for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic diseases.
The controversy around fat isn’t as much about the amount as it concerns the various types and sources of dietary fats. Saturated fats found in meat, dairy, eggs, and coconut and palm oil are often demonized because they raise cholesterol, which is associated with a higher risk of heart disease.
Yet, while saturated fat can raise cholesterol, cholesterol is not the real villain when it comes to heart disease. All fats, including much-maligned saturated fats, play critical roles in your body and are fine to consume within moderation. The one exception is trans fats, which you do want to skip entirely since they can increase inflammation throughout the body and lead to the oxidation of LDL cholesterol particles.
There is also confusion and misunderstanding about unsaturated omega-fatty acids, the dominant type in most plant foods and fish. Some unsaturated omega fats are essential for human health while others, when eaten in excess, promote inflammation and chronic disease. Let’s look at the different types of omega fatty acids—omega 3, 6, and 9—and their benefits, risks, and how to balance them for optimal health.
Omega-3 Fatty Acid Benefits
Omega-3s are a family of polyunsaturated fatty acids that include alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Foods that contain ALA include seeds and nuts, especially flaxseed, chia, hemp, and walnuts. The best sources of EPA and DHA are salmon, sardines, mackerel, trout, tuna, and other cold-water fish.
ALA is classified as an essential fatty acid because it can’t be produced in the human body, and if you don’t get enough of it, your health could suffer. ALA can be converted into EPA and further to DHA, but this conversion isn’t very efficient. Although ALA is beneficial, most of the research on omega-3s involves dietary and supplemental EPA and DHA.
- Cardiovascular health: Omega-3s support healthy circulation, blood viscosity, blood pressure, and triglyceride levels. Optimal levels reduce your risk of heart attack, stroke, cardiac arrhythmia, and sudden cardiac death. As a cardiologist, I can’t say enough good things about omega-3 and recommend supplements to all my patients.
- Inflammation: EPA is converted into eicosanoids, which are a family of [MP1] compounds that regulate inflammation, an underlying factor in many chronic diseases.
- Brain: DHA is the dominant fatty acid in the brain, essential for brain development and function throughout life. Studies suggest that diets rich in omega-3s may help to slow age-related cognitive decline. Omega-3s are also a promising therapy for some psychiatric disorders.
- Eyes: Retinal cells have high concentrations of omega-3s, suggesting overall benefits for the eyes. These fatty acids are also a proven therapy for dry eye syndrome.
Omega-6: Balance Is Important
Omega-6s are the most abundant dietary polyunsaturated fats. The two main types are linoleic acid (LA), in sunflower, corn, soybean, cottonseed, and most other cooking oils; and arachidonic acid (AA), in meat, poultry, eggs, fish, and dairy.
LA is an essential fatty acid that you must get from outside sources. Like other fatty acids, omega-6s provide energy, stabilize cell membranes, and serve as precursors to signaling molecules. Healthy bones, skin, and metabolism all require this essential fatty acid.
Both omega-6 fatty acids (AA and LA, which can be converted to AA) are precursors to signaling molecules that increase inflammation, and a high intake of omega-6s is linked with chronic inflammation.
This is where balance comes in. Ideally, you want your ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 to be as close to two to one as possible. Yet, the average Western diet is in the range of 20-30! This throws off the important balance of essential fatty acids, so instead of calming inflammation, it increases it.
What Are the Benefits of Omega-9?
If omega-9 doesn’t ring a bell, it’s because it’s usually referred to simply as monounsaturated. Oleic acid, the most common omega-9/monounsaturated fatty acid, is present in olives, cashews, almonds, avocados, peanuts, and canola, and is especially concentrated in their oils.
Your body can synthesize omega-9, so it isn’t an essential fatty acid to eat, but omega-9-rich foods are a great addition to a healthy diet. I am particularly enthusiastic about olive oil—no surprise since I’m Italian and I love to cook. But the reason I am bullish on olive oil isn’t just its great taste and versatility but also its diverse health benefits.
Olive oil helps to lower blood pressure. It enhances the function of the endothelial cells lining your blood vessels and reduces inflammation. It also improves blood flow and discourages excessive blood clotting. The credit goes both to omega-9s and to the antioxidant power of olive oil’s polyphenols.
- Eat two or three servings of wild-caught salmon or other omega-3-rich fish per week and snack on nuts and seeds. Be aware of the poor conversion rate of ALA, the essential omega-3 fatty acid in nuts and seeds. Only 1–10% is converted to EPA and 0.5–5% to DHA, which have the most proven benefits.
- Make extra virgin olive oil your go-to culinary oil for everything except cooking over moderate to high heat.
- Use coconut oil for cooking at higher temperatures. This saturated fat is more stable and can better withstand heat without breaking down and forming free radicals and toxic byproducts.
- Avoid highly processed vegetable oils. These polyunsaturated fats, which are often used for frying and in prepared foods, are prone to oxidation and transformation into unhealthy byproducts.
- Take supplemental omega-3 fatty acid, a minimum of 1,000 mg per day.