FATS, OMEGAS, & SUPPLEMENTATION
While there has been this growing confusion about the presence of fat in our diets over the past 50 years I am going to try and keep things as simple as possible in this article. Let's start by breaking things down. There are 3 Macronutrients I am sure most of you are familiar with; carbohydrates, fat, and protein. They are "macro"nutrients because our body needs them in large amounts. Did you catch that? Needs them! That means we are not supposed to cut an entire group out. The Recommended Daily Allowance from the USDA for fat is 20-35% of calories. When looking at fat there are 3 different types that you can consume; saturated, unsaturated, and trans fatty acids. The saturation refers to the number of double bonds on the chemical carbon chain and thus has different reactions in our bodies.
Saturated fat is most commonly found in animal products but is also present in coconut, coconut oil, palm oil, & palm kernel oil. This type of fat is solid at room temperature, a chemical property of the saturation of the carbon chain.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend getting less than 10% of your total daily calories from saturated fat, which is incredibly difficult to do if you are consuming animal products.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat to less than 7% of your total daily calories which is just about impossible if you are eating animal products!
While the evidence has fluctuated over the years from the ever so popular "Butter is Back" to "Butter is Bad" and so on there is still not enough conclusive research to fully demonize this fat source. The main problem with the research in support of the health benefits of saturated fat is that it isn't looking at the nutrient displacement. This means during the study what food/ nutrient group was replacing the saturated fat? Refined carbohydrates was most often the case. Thus when saturated fat was removed from the diet and replaced with refined carbs the saturated fat group had a better health outcome. So with that I say look at what nutrient you are displacing. If you are going to consume something with saturated fat over something with trans fat & sugar (both have known & proven health consequences) then it would be beneficial. However, if you are going to consume something with saturated fat over something with unsaturated fat and fiber (both have known & proven health benefits) then it would not be beneficial. So while the research is limited, your choices are not. Will you chose the food with potential harm and potential small benefit or known benefit with no chance of harm?
Unsaturated fats are predominantly found in foods from plants such as vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds. They are liquid at room temperature.
This type of fat is considered beneficial because it has been proven to improve blood cholesterol levels, ease inflammation, stabilize heart rhythms, and more.
There are two types of fat in this category, monounsaturated & polyunsaturated.
Monounsaturated Fatty Acids (MUFAs)
This type of fat contains one double bond hence "mono." It is found in high amounts in olive, peanut, canola oils, avocados, almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds.
According to the American Heart Association these fats can help reduce bad cholesterol levels in your blood which can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. They can also provide nutrients to help develop and maintain your body’s cells.
Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFAs)
This type of fat contains multiple double bonds hence "poly." It is found in high amounts in sunflower, corn, soybean, flaxseed oils, walnuts, flax seeds, and fish. The American Heart Association suggests that 8-10 percent of daily calories should come from polyunsaturated fats, and there is evidence that eating more polyunsaturated fat—up to 15 percent of daily calories—in place of saturated fat can lower heart disease risk. They key difference here is that foods rich in polyunsaturated fats also provide essential fats that your body needs but can’t produce itself – such as omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. You must get these essential fats through food as they are important for many bodily functions.
There are 3 kinds of Omega-3, Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), & Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). This type of polyunsaturated fat has a wide range of proven benefits from improving heart health by management of cholesterol and blood pressure, to supporting brain development, and reducing inflammation. Along with potential benefit (needs more research to make claims) to support mental health, reduce total body weight, and decrease liver fat.
EPA & DHA
EPA is a 20-carbon fatty acid whose main function is to produce beneficial chemicals called eicosanoids, which help reduce inflammation.
DHA is a 22-carbon fatty acid that makes up about 8% of brain weight and contributes to brain development and function.
The omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are found in seafood, including fatty fish (salmon, tuna, and trout) and shellfish (crab, mussels, and oysters).
These nutrients are the main reason why many researchers argue for the inclusion of fish/ seafood in a plant-based diet. There has not been a study yet to compare a healthful plant-based diet to a plant-based diet + fish however you cannot argue the benefits of fish including these omega-3 fatty acids. What I can argue is this, it is simply unsustainable for our environment for everyone to consume fish. We have not only been overfishing our oceans and producing farmed fish without these healthful qualities, but have also been polluting the very water that they live in. While consuming a small amount of fish (1-2 servings/week) may be healthful for the omega-3 that it provides, it is not the only way to get this nutrient and is not sustainable long term.
This type of omega- 3 is found in other foods, including some vegetable oils (canola, flax, and soy) and seeds (chia & flax). This type can actually be converted to EPA & DHA but the conversion rates differ from person to person, how much ALA you consume and what type.
While consuming food sources rich in omega-3s has been proven to be healthful, supplementation has not seen as strong scientific correlations. Omega-3 supplementation has grown popular over the years and are commonly available as fish oil supplements that contain EPA and DHA, and flaxseed oil supplements contain ALA. However, a new supplement is beginning to grow in popularity, the algae supplement. This would contain EPA & DHA as the algae is what the fish consume to have those nutrients. While there is not a great amount of research present about the benefits of this type of supplement it does seem to be a healthful option for someone following a plant based diet.
My ultimate recommendation here is to speak with your doctor or dietitian about your risk factors for chronic disease, then talk about what food sources you are eating, and get your levels checked. While I aim to get in my omega-3 by consuming a tbsp of ground flax each day, some people may have a low conversion rate of ALA to EPA & DHA. If this applies to you, you may benefit from an algae supplement. Give it a try in a low dose to start under doctor or dietitian supervision and follow the progression of research. Look for sourcing and other ingredients in the supplement to be safe. Once again, there is not enough research present to fully support the health benefits of omega-3 supplementation compared to the benefits of eating the food source but if you are not consuming any at all on a daily basis supplementation may be necessary.
*supplementation will be more important during pregnancy
This type of polyunsaturated fat is another essential fat that our body can't produce, thus we need to consume. It can be found in walnuts, grape seed, safflower, and sunflower oil, tofu, hemp seeds, peanut butter, avocado, almonds, and eggs. The one caveat with omega-6 is that while they contain many health benefits of PUFAs they can be inflammatory during their conversions to other fatty acids. This is definitely no cause to avoid them however, the amounts and the ratio to omega-6s should be monitored. You want to aim for a higher omega-3 intake than omega-6 intake but not by decreasing omega-6 intake but by increasing omega-3 as they both have many proven health benefits.
Trans fatty acids, more commonly called trans fats, are made by heating liquid vegetable oils in the presence of hydrogen gas and a catalyst, a process called hydrogenation. These industrialized fats are found in processed foods and have proven health risks and should simply be avoided! The reason why they were even created was because they are easy to use, inexpensive to produce and last a long time. Trans fats give foods a desirable taste and texture. Many restaurants and fast-food outlets use trans fats to deep-fry foods because oils with trans fats can be used many times in commercial fryers. If you come across these, definitely do your best to avoid them.
My Favorite Way to get in Omega-3
As I mentioned one of the best sources of plant-based Omega-3s are flax seeds and chia seeds. While you can add them to a smoothie or top your oatmeal bowl with them, in order to get the amount needed daily I have been loving making chia + flax seed pudding! It is so easy to prep and is a delicious way to get in this essential fatty acid!
Check out the recipe here!
I have been listening to Simon Hill's podcast Plant Proof lately and something he always brings up is the importance for researchers to not fabricate evidence or work it in your favor to prove a point you may feel strongly about. While I do follow a diet that does not include foods high in saturated fat I will not say that that is the best way of eating proven by science until that science is present. A whole food, plant-based diet has been proven to be healthful and nutritious but the amount of fat present, low fat or moderate fat, simply has not been proven one way or the other to be more beneficial. I chose to follow the RDA for fat and range from 20-35% of calories depending on the day, mainly coming from unsaturated fats, of varied sources. If more research does come out on the benefits of an algae supplement or I find myself not consuming enough omega-3 I may supplement in the future.
All information comes from the USDA, the NIH, the AHA, & Harvard Health.