One of the most important health and well-being shifts that I have gone through in the last year or so is re-working my relationship with fat and fats. Perhaps even more than others of my generation, I was raised and lead to believe that fats are the culprits of many health related conditions.
My father who was a medical doctor (a homeopath) deeply interested in nutrition spent his mornings when I was young helping with research about the role of cholesterol and heart disease. He was very clear with us that cholesterol, especially dairy products, contributed to heart disease and other health problems. In fact, we rarely drank milk in any form in our house, and my parents carefully watched other types of fats in our diet as well. This was back in the 1960s, before many aspects of nutrition became more mainstream.
As I entered puberty and beyond, I learned to be even more careful of my fat intake, largely to keep my weight in control and not “get fat”. I avoided oils and fats of all types whenever possible, and always had skim milk if I drank any dairy at all.
Through those years and decades, I experienced various health problems including skin allergies, low energy, mood swings, and a general sense of malaise. I learned that limiting my sugar and carbs – especially wheat – helped me significantly. Still, there seemed to be something else that was “a bit off” in my health and diet.
While a relatively poor graduate student I found a bottle of cod liver oil for sale when shopping one day and began to take a spoonful in the morning as an experiment. To my surprise, I felt much better and some of my allergies dissipated as well.
It has taken me years since that pivotal moment to finally make peace with what that spoonful of cod liver oil was telling me years ago. Oils – and fats of all kinds – are very important to our overall health and well-being. In fact, they are one of the most important components of a healthy diet. And we humans, generally speaking and barring metabolic disorders involving improper fat metabolism, need high quality oils in our diet on a regular basis.
The key is “high quality,” as well as careful selection of oil and fat type. By now most of us are aware that Transfats (also called “partially hydrogenated oil” which includes margarine, are not good for us and do indeed contribute to cholesterol buildup and a host of other health maladies.
What are healthy oils and fats critical to our health are Monounsaturated Fatty Acids (MUFA) and Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFA). Both types come from a variety of sources. MUFAs are mainly in vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, olives and avocadoes, and are liquid at room temperature. Research shows that eating a health amount of these oils actually reduces cholesterol levels, lowers risk for heart disease and stroke, contributed to weight loss, and helps reduce belly fat.
PUFAs are also important to overall health and can be found in vegetable oils, fish and seafood. They can be liquid (like the cod liver oil I discovered as a graduate student) or soft at room temperature. They contain both Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, which are essential to eat because our bodies can not make them.
Obtaining the proper balance of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids is an important component of proper oil use and consumption. While Omega-3 fatty acids are necessary for proper brain growth and development, as well as being an anti-inflammatory, the typically US diet tends to rely more on oils and other fats high in Omega-6 – such as corn, safflower and soybean oils. While we do need some Omega-6, most of us tend to consume more Omega-6 and less Omega-3 than is recommended by health experts.
So in the last few years, I have begun to make oils my friend. I have realized that the quality and type of oils I purchase and use are as important as the vegetables, proteins and other foods I purchase. I buy cold-pressed oils and organic oils whenever possible, despite their higher price tag. And I strive to employ a variety of different oils in my cooking and food use, while avoiding corn, safflower and soybean oil. I figure that each oil has its own health-enhancing qualities.
Besides for the well-known olive oil, other oils I really enjoy include hemp oil (one of the healthiest oils with the ideal Omega-3 to Omega-6 balance) on my salads (keeping it in the refrigerator to maintain its quality), sesame oil for stir fries and – yes – body massage and gargle (remember our skin is our largest organ and absorbs into our body whatever we put on it), coconut oil (very delicious and good for cooking and baking), almond oil for specialty purposes, and others.
Yes, oils are now among my favorite food friends for pleasure enhancement as well as overall well-being. Each oil type is delicious and since embracing rather than rejecting oil in my diet I have felt calmer, my skin has improved, my sleep patterns are better, and my weight and cholesterol levels are just fine!
So make oil your friend – good quality oil that – recognizing the very important role it plays in our health – body, mind and soul.
Author Skye Stephenson. Published in the Monadnock Shopper March 2014