Can Healthy Fats Help You to Experience Healthy Aging?
For decades, the conventional wisdom was that eating fat made us fat. As a result, food manufacturers went wild with refined carbohydrates and sugar, seeking to make low-fat foods more palatable. Now, it’s understood that it’s those foods that make us fat.
As explained in my previous article, Fats: The Good, The Debatable, The Ugly, our body needs certain types of fat to maintain health. These fats are called essential fatty acids (EFAs) because they are required for normal metabolic function. Because they are not manufactured internally, we must obtain them from foods and nutritional supplements we consume.
The most important of these are Omega-3 EFAs, found in a variety of foods, including fatty fish, olives, avocados, nuts and seeds. Recently, some saturated fats, previously considered unhealthful, are also being shown to be beneficial.
Let’s take a look at some of these healthy fats, which have variable compositions. In combination, these fats may help you to experience healthy aging.
Flax Seed Oil
Flax seed oil is an excellent source of Omega-3 EFAs, particularly for vegetarians who don’t eat fish. Like other vegetable sources, its anti-inflammatory impact is not as potent as fish Omega-3s, as it undergoes a conversion process from alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) to Omega-3. Flax oil also contains lignans, which have been found to be protective against estrogen-associated cancers.
Because flax oil is unstable and easily oxidized, it shouldn’t be used for cooking. It is a good addition to smoothies and makes a fantastic base for salad dressings, dips and spreads.
Coconut oil is solid at room temperature and is thus considered a saturated fat. For many these days, coconut oil has become a favorite, but it is far from a fad. Coconut oil has a wide range of healthful benefits, and it has long been used as a traditional medicine among Asian and Pacific populations.
Its primary healing ingredient is lauric acid, which offers a plethora of immunity, digestive, cardiovascular, blood sugar and brain function benefits.
Lauric acid is a medium-chain triglyceride (MCT), comprising about half of the fatty acid content in coconut milk, coconut oil and palm kernel (not palm) oil. The vast majority of fats and oils in our diets, be they are saturated or unsaturated, derived from animals or plants, are composed of long-chain fatty triglycerides (LCTs).
MCTs, unlike LCTs, don’t require the release of bile for digestion. Instead they are rapidly metabolized by the liver, producing ketones, which are used as energy by both the body and the brain. Besides increasing energy levels, these fats stimulate fat-burning, enhance brain function and normalize blood sugar. Their weight-loss benefits are increasingly being researched.
For example, one recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, showed that study participants who consumed MCT oil during a 16-week weight loss program lost more total weight, total fat mass and trunk fat mass. Most importantly, they lost more deep visceral “belly fat,” associated with increased cardiovascular risk, than did the participants consuming olive oil.
Coconut oil can be substituted for other fats for all cooking purposes from frying to baking. Many people add a tablespoon daily to their smoothie.
This amazing oil also has beauty applications. It is an effective, natural moisturizer for the body and hair and is increasing appearing in a wide variety of personal care products. In Ayurvedic medicine, the oil, which also has antimicrobial properties, is swished in the mouth for about 10 minutes to reduce plaque accumulation and prevent cavities.
As noted earlier, the best sources of MCTs are coconut and palm kernel oils. MCT oil can be found as a standalone product, usually in the athletic performance section of health food stores. Because MCTs increase energy quickly and burn body fat, they are a favorite performance enhancer for many athletes.
The sports products typically contain both coconut and palm kernel oils. Because this blend may cause digestive upset, it is recommended that it be taken with food. When added to a nutrient-rich smoothie, many people find that it acts as an appetite suppressant.
MCT oil can be substituted for other oils for most cooking applications, except for frying, as it has a low smoke point. Unlike coconut oil, MCT oil does not have a sweet taste.
Ghee is the primary fat used in India and other South Asian countries. It is simply fresh butter that is slowly cooked (clarified) until the milk protein separates and is removed. It is a useful fat for those who are lactose-intolerant and can be used for all cooking purposes, as it has a high smoke point.
Look for products labeled grass-fed, pasture-raised and pesticide-free. It is golden-colored and has a nutty flavor.
Ghee also contains butyric acid, a short-chained triglyceride (SCT), which is beneficial for the colon. It has been demonstrated to maintain the integrity of the intestinal lining and reduce inflammatory bowel diseases.
When it comes to healthy aging and fats, one thing is clear – not all fats are created equal. I hope that this short explanation has given you plenty to think about.
What are your favorite sources of healthy fats? Do you eat flax seed oil, coconut oil or ghee on a regular basis? Please join the conversation.
Sherry Kahn, MPH, is a health educator, writer, author and Medicare consultant. A former UCLA Medical Center principal editor and Reuters medical journalist, Sherry’s career has taken her into all areas of the U.S. health system. Her most recent book is Surviving the U.S. Health System: Insurance, Providers, Well Care, Sick Care. She has presented at major conferences and made numerous media appearances, including on The View. Connect with Sherry at surviveushealthsystem.com and consultkahn.com.