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Olive Oil & Omega-3s
In the ’80s fat fell from grace, spurring the fad of low and no-fat diets. It was touted fat-free or low fat was the way to go. People took all fats out of their diet, including the healthy ones, and food producers removed fat from their products and replaced it with sugar. Instead of this resulting in weight loss, there was an unprecedented increase in weight gain! We have since learned some fats are incredibly necessary for good health.
Research shows healthy fats like those found in olive oil and cold-water fish are key for maintaining overall wellness. They increase the absorption of vital nutrients, provide energy, and support the health of the brain, eyes, heart, immune system, joints, nerves, skin, and more.
Fats are classified as saturated and unsaturated. There are many different types of saturated fats, and they’re not all created equally. Some saturated fats, like coconut oil and palm kernel oil, contain medium-chain triglycerides that are used as fuel for energy and found to be beneficial to health. The type of saturated fat found in red meat, cheese, and full-fat dairy may have a negative impact on health, and the American Heart Association recommends limiting these fats to no more than 7 percent of your daily calories.
Unsaturated fats, which remain liquid at room temperature, are linked to improved cholesterol levels, heart health, and reduced inflammation. They fall into two categories: polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats are found in flaxseeds, walnuts, sunflower and canola oil, and fish. Omega-3s and omega-6s are important polyunsaturated fats, and they are considered essential because the body cannot make them. One of the best sources of omega-3s is fish oil (from anchovies, mackerel, salmon, sardines, cod, and other fatty fish). Sources of omega-6s include corn, safflower, soy, canola, cottonseed, sunflower, borage, and evening primrose oil.
Monounsaturated fats are found in avocados, nuts, and seeds as well as macadamia, peanut, and olive oils. Omega-9s are monounsaturated fats that are critical for supporting a healthy inflammatory response and promoting immune and cardiovascular health. Omega-9s are considered nonessential fats since the body produces them from omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. If the body has enough omega-3s and omega-6s, it can produce omega-9s; however, if the level of one of these fats is low, it becomes necessary to obtain omega-9s from our diet.
A Healthy Balance
The standard North American diet is high in red meat, dairy, and sugar, as well as refined and overly processed foods. It includes a low intake of fruits, vegetables, and omega-3s, and is abundant in omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-6 fatty acids are necessary for good health-they play a role in brain function, growth, and development and help maintain bone health, the reproductive system, and metabolism. But like saturated fats, some omega-6s are healthier than others. While some promote health, others contribute to increased inflammation levels in the body. Unfortunately, many of us consume far too many of the unhealthy omega-6s, which typically come from convenience foods and fast food.
The Mediterranean diet, which has been coined as one of the healthiest diets in the world, is filled with vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and olive oil. It also contains lean protein from poultry and fish, and moderate amounts of red wine. Research shows that following a Mediterranean eating pattern is associated with reduced inflammation and better blood glucose levels, which can lower a predisposition for diabetes. One reason why the Mediterranean diet is so healthy? Balance. This diet contains little red meat (which is high in unhealthy omega-6s) and emphasizes omega-3s, creating a health-promoting balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids.
The Star of the Mediterranean Diet: Olive Oil
Olive oil, a staple of the Mediterranean diet, is rich in omega-9 fats known as oleic acid and polyphenols, which are beneficial plant chemicals with antioxidant properties. Antioxidants protect the cells from free-radical damage, which causes oxidation and contributes to aging of the body and the mind. Free-radical damage also increases the risk for inflammatory diseases. Like other antioxidants, polyphenols promote healthy inflammation balance.
Due to the polyphenols and other healthy components of extra-virgin olive oil, it should come as no surprise that diets high in extra-virgin olive oil, including the Mediterranean diet, are associated with a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). Polyphenols are found in a variety of sources, including fruits, vegetables, tea, chocolate, and wine, but high-quality extra-virgin olive oil naturally contains an abundance of these powerful antioxidants. The oleic acid in olive oil supports good health as well, particularly for people with diabetes. Researchers in Ireland found that diets rich in oleic acid improved fasting plasma glucose, insulin sensitivity, and blood circulation. Lower fasting glucose and insulin levels, along with enhanced blood flow, suggest better diabetes control and a reduced risk for other diseases.
Choosing an Olive Oil
We are inundated with olive oil choices on the shelves, so how do we determine which is best? Extra-virgin olive oil is the way to go. Extra-virgin olive oil is mechanically pressed, whereas other varieties may use a chemical process to extract the oil from the olives, which can
diminish the health benefits. Cold-pressed olive oil contains high amounts of monounsaturated fatty acids, polyphenols, and other antioxidants. It’s important to protect the integrity of the olive oil during processing because the polyphenols start breaking down when exposed to light, heat, and air. Extra-virgin olive oil also offers the advantage of lower acidity-while virgin olive oil has an acidity of less than 2 percent, extra-virgin olive oil has an acidity of less than 0.8 percent. Lower acidity tends to indicate a less-refined, higher quality oil.
A superior extra-virgin olive oil will also indicate where the olives were grown, processed, and bottled, and it should say on the label that it has been analyzed for undesirable elements to ensure it meets or exceeds international standards. The International Olive Oil Council is one such organization that analyzes and certifies European olive oils.
Add Heart-Protective Omega-3s
There are thousands of clinical trials supporting the evidence of omega-3s and their tremendous health benefits. Omega-3s are well known, researched, and documented for supporting cardiovascular, immune, brain, nerve, vision, and joint health and lowering levels of inflammation in the body. The standard North American diet is very low in omega-3s, and fish oil provides the important omega-3 fatty acids that are crucial for supporting and maintaining well-being, preventing disease, curbing inflammation, and balancing the omega-6s in the diet.
EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosapentaenoic acid) are the most important omega-3s. EPA has positive effects on heart disease, high triglycerides, high blood pressure, and systemic inflammation. DHA is concentrated in the retina and is associated with the health of the macula, brain, and nervous system. Both EPA and DHA have been found to promote healthy moods and support learning and memory.
Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston studied 11 years’ worth of data on the dietary habits and health of 20,551 male physicians aged 40 to 84 years. Those who ate seafood containing omega-3s at least once a week had a 52 percent lower risk of sudden cardiac death (SCD) compared to those who ate fish less than once a month.
In a groundbreaking study of more than 11,000 heart attack survivors, one group was given a placebo and the other group took 1 gram daily of the omega-3s EPA and DHA. The omega-3 group had a 20 percent decrease in total deaths, a 30 percent decrease in cardiovascular deaths, and a 45 percent decreased risk for sudden death over three and a half years versus the placebo group. For the general healthy adult population, 500 mg of EPA plus DHA is recommended to lower the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD), or 1,000 mg per day for secondary prevention. Research supports more than 1,000 mg per day for a range of additional health conditions like elevated blood pressure and triglycerides. The AHA suggests we eat at least two 3.5-ounce servings of oily fish per week to get the recommended amount of omega-3s.
Scientific evidence shows us inflammation is at the root of many diseases, so it’s important to consider a variety of ways to decrease systemic inflammation. For optimal heart health, the AHA recommends substituting good fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) for bad fats (saturated and trans). An easy way to do this is by incorporating extra-virgin olive oil into your everyday diet. Combining the cardiovascular benefits of olive oil’s polyphenols and omega-9s and the omega-3s from fish oil will give you the one-two punch you need to combat inflammation and increase overall health and