Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Monos, Polys, and Omegas of Nutrition

We are all aware that saturated fats, found chiefly in meat and high-fat dairy products, are not good for health. These fats are responsible for increased cholesterol levels and gummed up arteries. On the other hand, unsaturated fats that mostly come from plants and fish are essential to good health.

The issue about good fat/bad fat has become more cumbersome than nutritionists once thought. Health effects of good fats not only improve cholesterol and triglyceride levels but also reduce inflammation, making fats as one of the new functional foods.

Researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands found that cutting back on carbohydrates and consuming more polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats decreases the level of harmful LDL cholesterol and increases protective HDL cholesterol.
Recently, a study conducted by the Optimal Macronutrient Intake Trial for Heart Health (OmniHeart) revealed that a diet rich in unsaturated fats also lowers blood pressure and reduces overall heart disease risk.

Researches sometimes yield confusing results. In the Maastricht University study, it slightly favored polyunsaturated fats for improving the ratio of HDL (good cholesterol) to total cholesterol. However, the Trinity College in Dublin studied people with diabetes, who have a high risk of heart disease, and found that monounsaturated fats may offer more protection.

So which is which? Monounsaturated fats or polyunsaturated fats? Come to think of it, both types of fats are present in edible oils. If both are beneficial to health, why bother counting the grams of each? Instead, people should focus on the amount of saturated fats found in edible oil that debating between the monos and polys.

Check out this comparison:
• Olive oil – 73% monounsaturated fat, 11% polyunsaturated fat, and 14% saturated fat.
• Soybean oil – 24% mono, 61% poly, and 15% saturated fat.
• Canola oil – 62% monounsaturated, 32% polyunsaturated, and only 6% saturated fat.
Obviously, canola oil wins by having the lowest content of saturated fats among edible oils.

The Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois found that substituting canola oil for other vegetable oils and canola oil-based margarine for other spreads could significantly lower saturated fat levels in the American diet.

In addition to that, canola oil is also a good source of omega-3 polyunsaturated fats, which may be especially crucial to good health.
Since studies of the Mediterranean diet suggest that olive oil, which has a very different fatty acid profile, also offers potent protection against heart disease, the issue is no longer about which oil is healthiest but a matter of encouraging people to use the ones they prefer.

And yet, it doesn’t end there. Did you know that polyunsaturated fats are even subdivided into omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids? The former are found in most plants while the latter are found predominantly in fish oils. Many researchers believe that the balance of these two fats may be the most critical measure of a healthy diet.

Today, modern western diet favors the omega-6s over omega-3s in a ratio of 9:1 up to a high of 40:1. While there is no standard for what the optimum balance should be, Floyd Chilton, PhD, director of the Bontanical Lipids Center at Wake Forest University said that there’s a good evidence that the diet of hunter-gatherers, and thus the diet our bodies evolved to eat, had a ratio of 2:1 omega-6s to omega-3s.
Omega-6s fatty acids regulate genes that spark inflammation increasingly being seen as the central process in heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and other chronic health problems.

Omega-3s, in contrast, tamp down inflammation and have been linked to many health benefits, including lowering triglyceride levels, guarding against dangerous irregular heart rhythms, and preventing plaque from breaking away from the lining of arteries.
Maybe achieving a balance of these omegas could help fight many of the chronic diseases that plague us nowadays.

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