Oils, good or bad fats?

Gone are the days when all fat was maligned and held responsible artery clogging and early death.

These days, we’re being told fat is good – well, certain types of it, at least.

The theory is that fat is satisfying and filling – reducing hunger pangs after eating.

It’s also vital for absorbing nutrients from other foods, plus healthy skin and optimum brain function.

But it’s crucial to eat the right fats – or you could do more harm than good – not only to your waistline, but your long-term health.

What exactly are omega fats?

Fats can be split into two groups known as saturated and unsaturated.

The latter consists of two further groups known as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which are often referred to as ‘healthy fats’.

The omegas are groups of fatty acids that fall into these two categories and are classified as omega 3, 6 and 9.

What are omega 9 fatty acids then?

Omega 9 fatty acids are a group of unsaturated fats that fall into the monounsaturated group.

The primary fatty acid in this group is called oleic acid and can be found in plant-based foods that include avocados, olives, olive oil and nuts such as cashews, walnuts, pistachios, pecans and almonds.

This particular fatty acid has been shown to help promote cardiovascular health by increasing HDL (good) cholesterol and reducing LDL (bad) cholesterol. Omega 9 fatty acids are a group of unsaturated fats

Almonds for a key part of the cholesterol-lowering Portfolio diet and olive oil is renowned for its positive effect on health and is a major component of the much praised Mediterranean diet.

Olive oil
Olive oil

Omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids are also a group of unsaturated fats but they fall into the polyunsaturated group.

Unlike omega 9 which can be made within the body, the other two cannot and must be obtained from the diet, which is why they are referred to as being essential.

How about those much-hyped omega-3s?

So, the omega 3 group of fatty acids are made up of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexanoic acid (DHA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).

The most nutritionally significant are EPA and DHA.

They have a key role to play in the body, which includes forming a structural component of cell membranes, so getting adequate amounts from the diet is pretty important.

There has been a huge amount of research surrounding these two fatty acids and if you did a Google search you could be led to believe they are the antidote to every health concern under the sun, a modern day ‘snake oil’.

Once eaten, omega 3 fatty acids (and omega 6) go through a series of chemical reactions.

These convert them into compounds that contribute to several important physiological roles.

One such pathway leads to the formation of hormone-lie substances called prostaglandins and in the case of omega 3, these are anti-inflammatory.

This means they help to reduce inflammation in the body, which is thought to be at the root of many chronic diseases.

A great deal of the research has highlighted the positive effect they can have on improving cardiovascular health which is affected by inflammation – the effect of an overactive immune system can over time can cause damage to the body.

Other health benefits of omega 3 include the positive effect they can have on mood, skin and inflammatory conditions.

The main source of omega 3 is oily fish – but food surveys show that a significant number of people fail to eat any at all, let alone meet the Government’s recommendation of one portion per week – which means low intakes of omega 3.

Now, what about omega 6?

The omega 6 group of fatty acids are also vitally important and used for normal brain function, growth and development.

However, in order to meet these requirements only a small amount is required – and as omega 6 is abundant in so many foods, getting what you need is of little concern.

However, achieving a healthy balance of omega 3 to 6 is considered to be healthy and we tend to eat way more omega 6 than omega 3, which may contribute to the risk of disease.

This is because once you have gleaned the omega 6 your body requires, the excess begins to undergo a conversion to another type of prostaglandin that encourages inflammation in the body.

Research shows that over time the body can enter a state of low-grade inflammation that causes the immune system to remain ‘switched on’ and over long periods of time this could be detrimental to your health.

It’s also unlikely you would know this was happening, as the inflammation itself would not cause any obvious symptoms.

So what can I do?

The simplest way to start rebalancing your omegas is to address the type of oils and fats you use on a daily basis.

Many of us are trained to choose polyunsaturated margarines and cook with oils such as sunflower, which are rich in omega 6 (a result of the long standing guidance to reduce saturated fat in the diet).

However, you’re better off sticking to olive oil for everyday use (this is mostly omega 9) and coconut oil for high temperature cooking (this is all saturated fat known).

Cutting out processed food can also help – and of course upping your intake of oily fish.

ALA, or Alpha Linoleic Acid, is the final omega 3 fatty acid you need.

This can be found in foods such as green veggies, quinoa and seeds.

DHA (docosahexanoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) are omega 3 fatty acids found in oily fish that are essential as the body can’t make them ‘in house’.

While ALA can be converted to EPA and DHA in the body, our ability to carry out this conversion is poor.

So while foods such as seeds and seed oils – such as chia – are often promoted as being high in ALA, relying on these foods alone will not provide you with enough of the more important EPA and DHA.

Not great news for vegetarians, vegans or those of you who dislike oily fish!

What about supplements?

For those of you who don’t eat oily fish then a good quality supplement containing EPA and DHA can be beneficial.

These supplements are also available in a form suitable for vegetarians and vegans.

Try Healthspan’s Opti Omega 3, 1000mg (£10.95 for 60 capsules) which contains optimum levels of DHA (276mg) and EPA (220mg).

Fruit significantly lowers the risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke

Eating a piece of fruit each day significantly lowers the risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke – an effect size as large as taking a statin, Oxford University has found.

In the largest study of its kind, researchers looked at the dietary habits of half a million middle-aged people in China to find out if what they ate was linked to heart health.

The population was chosen because a large number of Chinese people do not eat fresh fruit at all, so scientists were able to tease apart the impact more easily than in western countries.

It was found that even eating just one piece of fruit each day (3.5oz) lowered the risk of a heart attack or stroke by one third over the seven year study period, compared with people who never or rarely ate fruit.

Statins also lower the chance of a heart attack by one third, but many people complain of side effects associated with the drug, such as muscle pains and fatigue.

Although the Oxford researchers do not recommend swapping statins for fruit, they say increasing fruit in the diet may provide an extra boost for people at risk of heart problems and potentially save thousands of lives each year.

Zhengming Chen, Professor of Epidemiology at the Nuffield Department of Population Health, Oxford University, said: “The potential impact is huge. In China if the current rate of consumption was to increase to a piece of fruit everyday around half a million deaths could be avoided each year, and maybe thousands in Britain.

“This was the largest study ever carried out and it is very robust, but the challenge is that it is an observational study so there may be something that people who eat fruit do which protects them, although we have tried to control for that.

“There are a lot of potential mechanisms for why fruit may improve cardiovascular health. It is known that fresh fruit lower blood pressure so that is something that is really good. Lots of fibre is good for certain diseases, and it contains anti-oxidants.

“It may be that fresh fruit changes the gut bacteria in a way that does not work with processed fruit. The take home message is that fresh fruit is very good for you and it should be encouraged to potentially reduce mortality.”

Around 17.5 million people are currently eligible for statins in Britain meaning that most men over 60 and women over 65 are offered the drug by GPs.


But many stop taking the pills within a year because of muscle pain, weakness and fatigue, leaving them at risk of suffering heart disease, heart attacks and strokes.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) estimates that 50,000 deaths a year could be prevented if everyone who was eligible for statins was taking the drugs, which equates to around one third of deaths.

Researchers from Oxford and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences studied 500,000 adults from 10 urban and rural localities across China, tracking health for 7 years through death records and electronic hospital records of illness.

After allowing for factors such as education and non-smoking, a 100g portion of fruit (one portion) per day was associated with about one-third less cardiovascular mortality, the authors reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Although more people consume fruit in western countries, a large amount is processed in fruit juices, so the study suggests that it is better to eat fresh fruit

A separate study found that a common drug which is used to make medication dissolve quickly in the body also melts away cholesterol in clogged arteries, potentially ending the need for statins.

Cyclodextrin, which is already clinically approved and safe in humans, was found to dissolve cholesterol crystals and reduced plaques in mice even when the animals continued to eat a high-fat diet.

It is thought that the drug increases activity in the liver which triggers the release of immune cells which clear out cholesterol.