Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Essentials On Fats In The Diet

"But I need fat in my diet."

I've heard this line one too many times when talking to others about switching to a healthier, low-fat diet. Somehow, someway we Americans have come to the conclusion if we don't have large amounts of fat in our diet then we'll wither away like the famished populations of Sub-Saharan Africa. The reality of the situation is far from this preconceived notion.

Fat is an essential part of the human diet. This fact is true. However, we consume far too much of it in Western cultures. We also consume the wrong kinds of fats. This article and the accompanying videos at the end will serve to eliminate any confusion on how much and what kind of fats are actually needed for the human body to function properly.

How Much Fat Does America Consume?

Americans consume on average 33% of their calories from fat according to the latest National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) [1]. Not surprisingly, fast food—known for its high fat content—accounted for 11.3% of total calories consumed by the U.S. adult population from 2007-2010 [2]. Obviously this is too much fat, especially with the latest obesity rates topping out at 35.7% amongst U.S. adults, not to mention the other third of the population categorized as overweight in America [3].

These facts certainly contribute, if not make up a major part of the chronic disease epidemic now going on in the U.S. We're simply eating our way into a big, fat medical mess in this country.

How Much Fat Do Humans Require To Function Properly?

The answer to this question might surprise you. The only required dietary sources of fat for the human population come in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA—the parent omega-3 fatty acid) and linoleic acid (LA—the parent omega-6 fatty acid). These are collectively known as essential fatty acids. The human body cannot produce these essential fatty acids, and, therefore, they must be consumed in the foods we eat. All other fats are able to be assembled in the body through a series of chemical reactions. This includes docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), both of which are considered long-chain omega-3 fatty acids [4]. EPA and DHA are actually derived from the short-chain parent omega-3 fatty acid ALA, elongated into their current forms.

You may or may not be familiar with the above terms and names. That's ok. Surely, however, you have heard of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Likewise, you have probably also heard that we need to consume more omega-3's and less omega-6's in our diet. Why? Because omega-3 fatty acids have an anti-inflammatory effect on our body, while omega-6 fatty acids have a pro-inflammatory effect on our body. Over the past 100-150 years there has been an enormous increase in omega-6 fatty acid consumption in Western diets leading to the surge in chronic diseases seen in today's world. Ideally, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the diet would be 2:1 or 1:1. Western diets—based heavily on animal-based and processed foods (including vegetable oils)—have a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids of 20-30:1 [5]. Clearly this is too much. The elimination—or at least a sizable reduction—in the consumption of rich Western foods would go a long ways in improving the health of the United States and other countries like us.

Likewise, a reduction in the overall intake of fats in our diet would go a long way in improving the health of our country. But how much fat do we really need in our diet? According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), only 2-3% of total calories need to come from LA and 1% of total calories from ALA to achieve adequate intake levels [4]. This is a far cry from the 33% of total calories from fat we are currently consuming in the United States. The good news is that perfection in this category is not needed. Several physicians and clinicians have successfully reduced and/or eliminated a number of chronic diseases (heart disease, type 2 diabetes, autoimmune diseases, cancer, etc.) in their patients by helping them adopt a whole foods, plant-based diet. This diet allows for the consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains in any amounts desired, all while keeping the total fat content to approximately 7-10% of total calories. By including a generous portion of dark leafy greens and/or a small amount (1 oz per day) of walnuts/seeds (flaxseeds, chia seeds, or hemp seeds) plenty of essential fatty acids are obtainable to meet the body's needs.

To conclude the topic of fats watch these videos by Dr. Rick Dina. They are the best explanation of fats currently available in regards to human nutrition.

Essential Fats - Part I

Essential Fats - Part II

Essential Fats Q&A Session - Part III

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by Dustin Rudolph, PharmD
Clinical Pharmacist

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1 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Centers For Disease Control. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey: Intake of Calories and Selected Nutrients for the United States Population, 1999-2000. Available: Accessed 2013 Mar 23.
2 Fryar CD, Ervin RB. Caloric intake from fast food among adults: United States, 2007-2010. NCHS data brief, no 114. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2013.
3 Ogden CL, Carroll MD, Kit BK, et al. Prevalence of Obesity in the United States, 2009-2010. NCHS data brief, no 82. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2012.
4 Davis BC, Kris-Etherton PM. Achieving optimal essential fatty acid status in vegetarians: current knowledge and practical implications. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003 Sep;78(3 Suppl):640S-646S.
5 Simopoulos AP. Essential fatty acids in health and chronic disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999 Sep;70(3 Suppl):560S-569S. Review.

1 comment:

  1. I am 72 year old male and have a problem with your concept that only 1 to 2 % of fat is sufficient given most of it is ALA like flaxseeds. As a person gets older the conversion of ALA gets less efficient so I would not be getting enough EPA and DHA.


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