Sixth Principle: Good fats
This was written in my book 'Journeys Back to Health' in 2006. Read through then see my current thoughts for 2016....
The fat in our diet is critical to our health. Every cell in our body is surrounded by a membrane called the plasma membrane that is made from fat/oil. It makes sense that if the quality of the fat/oil in our diet is good our cells will have the right materials to build healthy cell walls (plasma membranes). In practice, when we get our fat from fish and chips it is this fat that makes our membranes, and when we get it from nuts, seeds and good quality oils then these fats/oils make our membranes. This membrane is very important as it allows wastes to leave the cells and nutrients to go in. As we age our bodies naturally become less elastic and lose water, so that in old age we may be less than 45% water. One of the tools to slow down this process is to look after these membranes by eating the right fats and also by taking vitamin E through our foods.
This is only the beginning of the story as the fats/oils in our diet also make many of our major hormones, such as cortisol, estrogen and testosterone, as well as locally based hormones called eicosanoids that carry out a range of functions, some of which help protect us and some that cause inflammatory (swelling and pain) actions in the body.
An example here is crohn’s disease. By eating the wrong type of fat, inflammatory chemicals are produced that cause pain and swelling in gut tissues and worsen the condition. By eating the right type of fat, anti-inflammatory chemicals are produced that relieve the pain and help the condition. It is very common these days to recommend fish oils for this condition.
This leads us to ask: What is good fat and what should we avoid? Our case studies show that oils that are monounsaturated or polyunsaturated, unheated, and kept in a cool dark place away from air are the best for our health. More specifically, the omega three oils found in oily fish and flax seed oil provide the most benefit to the human body. From a dietary perspective this means eating more unprocessed nuts and seeds, extra virgin oils and oily fish that has not been overcooked. In this way we can obtain the anti-inflammatory and healing properties of these fats on a continual basis.
At the same time we have to be aware of excesses in saturated fats from meat and dairy, and oils that have been processed and hydrogenated creating trans fatty acids. These fats have been implicated in heart disease and a number of inflammatory conditions.
Getting back to our example of crohn’s disease, naturopaths would recommend cutting back on dairy, meat fat and heated and processed oils and margarines, whilst increasing oily fish and taking fish or flax oil as a dietary supplement.
That was 2006. In 2016 fats are all the rage in health circles and high fat diets are once again popular. Everyone knows about omega three fats and the debate around saturated fats continues on. It is still the major focus for me when someone comes to me with a chronic inflammatory disorder! And it still remains true that fat consumption is a major determinant of overall health and its management has to be a part of every consultation .