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).

Mediterranean diet is better than statins

A Mediterranean diet is better than statins at slashing the risk of an early death for millions of Brits.

A landmark seven-year study found the healthy eating regime is twice as effective as the drugs alone at boosting the lifespan of heart patients.

Seven million Brits live with cardiovascular disease . The vast majority take statins every day, which can produce unwanted side effects.

The “extraordinary” findings were presented at the world’s biggest heart conference in Rome, Italy.

In the first ever study to look at the impact of a Med diet on heart patients, experts found a diet high in fruit , vegetables, fish, nuts and olive oil slashed the risk of an early death by 37%.

Previous research found just taking statins cuts mortality by 18%.

And leading experts said the discovery meant heart patients should be prescribed the Med diet before being given cholesterol-busting drugs.

Others hailed the breakthrough research as proof that the Med diet is “more powerful than any drug” and said it was “time for the NHS to embrace lifestyle medicine”.

Speaking at the annual congress of the European Society of Cardiology, Professor Giovanni de Gaetano, of the Neuromed Institute in Pozzilli, Italy, said: “We found that among those with a higher adherence to the Mediterranean diet, death from any cause was reduced by 37% in comparison to those who poorly adhered to this dietary regime.”

He added: “We know that taking drugs like statins for prevention can reduce mortality by around 20%.

“The message is that it is not only drugs that should be considered for secondary prevention, but also the Mediterranean diet.”

He also suggested that following the Med diet could reduce the need for drugs.

He added: “Adhering to the Mediterranean diet can reduce mortality for any cause to a large extent. It is a powerful means to reduce all causes of death.”

Speaking in Rome, he added: “The Mediterranean diet may be more effective than drugs .

“We are not saying exclude the use of drugs. We are saying that first of all doctors should consider diet before drugs.

“It could allow patients to get the benefits of statins but without the side effects.”

Lead author Dr Marialaura Bonaccio revealed: “The major contributors to mortality risk reduction were a higher consumption of vegetables, fish, fruits, nuts and monounsaturated fatty acids – that means olive oil.”

Researchers followed 1,200 Italians with heart disease over seven years.

Professor de Gaetano said: “The Mediterranean diet is widely recognised as one of the healthier nutrition habits in the world.

But so far research has focused on the general population, which is mainly composed of healthy people.

“What happens to people who have already suffered from cardiovascular disease? Is the Mediterranean diet optimal for them too?”

The study results, released for the first time this weekend, proved the answer is yes.

The 1,200 heart patients were among 25,000 participants enrolled into the MOLI-SANI project, a prospective epidemiological study that randomly recruited adults living in Molise, Italy.

Researchers recorded the food intake of the participants using the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer (EPIC) food frequency questionnaire.

Adherence to the Mediterranean diet was appraised with a 9-point Mediterranean diet score (MDS).

Over seven years, there were 208 deaths. After controlling for age, sex, education, exercise, smoking, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, diabetes and cancer, a 2-point increase in the Mediterranean diet score was linked with a 21% reduced risk of death.

When considered as a 3-level categorical variable, the top category – a score of 6 to 9 – of adherence to the Mediterranean diet was associated with a 37% lower risk of death compared to the bottom category (a score of 0-3).

A previous study of 92 trials involving 200,000 patients found that people with cardiovascular disease were 18% less likely to die early if they took statins.

Researchers said the next step would be to investigate why exactly the Mediterranean diet helps reduce the risk of dying early.

Mediterranean diet
Mediterranean diet

Professor de Gaetano concluded: “These results prompt us to investigate the mechanism(s) through which the Mediterranean diet may protect against death.

“This was an observational study so we cannot say that the effect is causal.

“We expect that dietary effects on mediators common to chronic diseases such as inflammation might result in the reduction of mortality from any cause but further research is needed.”

British experts said it was likely to be the “powerful anti-inflammatory effects” of the Mediterranean diet that slashes the risk of an early death.

Dr Aseem Malhotra, one of the world’s leading cardiologists, hailed the results as “extraordinary” and added that eating well is better than taking drugs for heart protection.

He said: “The results of this robust observational study are quite extraordinary and confirms previous randomised controlled trial data that the Mediterranean diet is more powerful than any drug at reducing death rates in patients with cardiovascular disease.

“It’s the powerful anti-inflammatory effects of foods such as olive oil, nuts, oily fish and vegetables where the benefits lie and unlike cholesterol-lowering statin drugs come without side effects.

He added: “It’s time for the NHS to embrace lifestyle medicine to rapidly save it from the collapse being predominantly driven by diet related disease.”

Professor Jeremy Pearson, Associate Medical Director of the British Heart Foundation, said: “It is good to know that even if you already have a history of cardiovascular disease, adhering to a Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of death.

“This study suggests that even if you are already receiving medical care, if you add a Mediterranean diet, it will have further benefit.

“Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, even if you have had a heart attack or stroke is really important and continues to benefit you.”