As I’ve mentioned before, one of the great problems with the Western diet is an imbalance in fat intake. We’ve been oversold on the dangers of saturated fat as well as on the unqualified goodness of polyunsaturated fats. The true picture is more complex and nuanced. All saturated fat is not bad for you (see “Coconut Oil”, for example), and polyunsaturated fat is a large class of fatty acids with many members. Polyunsaturated fats include the proinflammatory omega-6s and the anti-inflammatory omega-3s. The balance between the two is essential to human health. It’s as simple as that.
We’ve heard much about the dangers of omega-6 fats, and how they contribute to inflammation. However, omega-6s aren’t, by themselves, bad for you. What is bad for you—very bad, indeed—is overconsuming omega-6s while underconsuming omega-3s, which is exactly what most of us do. Almost all processed foods are made with vegetable oils, restaurants long ago abandoned (healthy) saturated fats for vegetable oils, and health authorities have pounded the message that vegetable oil is good for decades. No wonder research now shows that we typically consume 16 times more of the proinflammatory omega-6s than we do the anti-inflammatory omega-3s.
Omega-6s (linoleic acid) and one of the omega-3s (alpha-linolenic acid) are considered essential fats (meaning our body can’t make them and we must get them from our diet). The other two omega-3s, which I consider to be the most important of all (docosahexaenoic acid [DHA] and eicosapentaenoic acid [EPA]), can theoretically be made in the body from the first omega-3 (alpha-linolenic acid), but the body does a lousy job of it—only a small percent of alpha-linolenic acid gets converted to DHA and EPA. That’s why fish and fish oil are so great—they give you ready-made DHA and EPA so your body doesn’t have to make them. But I digress.
The problem of getting far too much omega-6s is compounded by the fact that most of the omega-6s we get are crappy. Omega-6s are like foods at the typical Vegas buffet—the wrong kind of food, and there’s so darn much of it! Most of us get our omega-6s from highly refined and processed vegetable oils—safflower, sunflower, soybean, and corn—which are loaded with a refined omega-6 devoid of any of the natural health-promoting antioxidants that are normally found in these oils but are processed out because they shorten shelf life. Commercial, processed, refined vegetable oils are among the worst foods on the planet, and we’ve been told they’re healthy because they are polyunsaturated. Don’t believe it for a minute.
It’s not that omega-6s don’t do any good. They do. A comprehensive review paper on the relationship of fats to coronary heart disease by Frank Hu, JoAnn Manson, and Walter Willett from Harvard—the folks who ran the Nurses’ Health Study—points out that omega-6s do lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and also improve insulin sensitivity. But even that team, gently conservative in its phrasing, point out that “the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 [fats] is less than optimal and should be improved.” The argument is over whether to improve that ratio by increasing omega-3s, reducing omega-6s, or both. Personally, I think it’s both. No one—save theoretically the Eskimos, who eat a ton of omega-3s—is in any danger of getting too much omega-3 and not enough omega-6. In fact, it’s the opposite.
Why is the balance between omega-6 and omega-3 so important? Because these fatty acids are the building blocks of hormones and “minihormones” called eicosanoids (also called prostaglandins), which control dozens of metabolic processes in the body that need to be in balance for us to stay healthy. For example, some of these prostaglandins control inflammation, some are anti-inflammatory. Some control clotting, some control flow. It’s not that they are good or bad—but that they need to be in balance. If you’re injured, you want some inflammation and clotting—it’s part of the body’s healing response to send water and blood to the site of injury and then to allow it to clot. But if you clot too much, you get a stroke. On the other hand, if you don’t clot at all, you hemorrhage. Get it? In real estate, it’s location, location, location. In fatty acids, it’s balance, balance, balance.
Our Paleolithic ancestors—and all known hunter-gatherer societies that have been studied—consumed between a 1:1 and 4:1 ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s. Most nutritionists consider that the ideal intake ratio, and the ones I know lean more toward 1:1. Would you like to know what the average person consuming a Western diet gets? It’s between 20:1 and 25:1. (I’ve heard some estimates as high as 65:1, but even at the lower number, it’s completely unhealthy.)
Think I’m being a nervous Nelly about nothing? Consider this: High ratios of omega-6s to omega-3s are associated with increased prostate and breast cancer risk; increased risk of heart disease; and aggravated inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.
In addition, most of our restaurants, in response to the fear of “bad” saturated fat, now cook with “healthy” vegetable oils. And cook. And cook. And recook. New research shows that high amounts of a toxin called HNE (4-hydroxy-trans-2-nonenal), with connections to heart disease and neurological disorders, accumulate in vegetable-based cooking oils that are heated or reheated for hours at a time (fast-food restaurant, anyone?). HNE forms in especially high amounts in polyunsaturated oils—including canola, corn, soybean, and sunflower. (It does not form in saturated fats.) “There’s a tremendous literature in biochemistry on HNE, a library of studies going back twenty years. It’s a very toxic compound,” says lead researcher, A. Saari Csallany, a professor of food chemistry and nutritional biochemistry at the University of Minnesota.
Remember Vioxx and Celebrex? They were COX-2 inhibitors. COX-2 enzymes create inflammation in the body. When our intake of omega-6 fats greatly exceeds our omega-3 fats, guess what happens? COX-2 enzymes increase. High intakes of omega-6 polyunsaturated fats (coupled with low intakes of omega-3s) equal higher levels of inflammation. If you don’t think that’s anything to worry about, recall the 2004 cover story in Time magazine that called inflammation “The Secret Killer.” The subtitle: “The surprising link between inflammation and heart attacks, cancer, Alzheimer’s and other diseases.”
So consider all this when you look at this chapter. Here are the take-home points:
• Some saturated fat is good for us.
• Omega-3s are very, very good for us.
• Monounsaturated fats are good for us.
• Omega-6s are good for us in balanced (usually small) amounts and from sources that haven’t been processed and refined to death.
• Reused (reheated) vegetable oils are really, really bad.
• Trans fats are metabolic poison. The acceptable level in the diet is zero.
Keep these points in mind when you read through the fats and oils that have been selected for inclusion in the “world’s healthiest foods.” Remember as well that in all cases, unrefined, cold-pressed oils beat the pants off the refined kind, even when it’s a healthy oil such as olive oil.
Along with sesame oil, almond oil is probably one of the most popular massage oils, primarily because it smells so darn good. But besides its nonfood uses, almond oil is a really good, healthful oil to use for cooking.
Almond oil is very high in monounsaturated fats—61 to 65 percent of the fat in almond oil is from oleic acid, the same omega-9 monounsaturated fat that makes olive and macadamia nut oils so healthy. Monounsaturated fats (omega-9s) are central to the Mediterranean diet that has been shown in virtually every single research study to be associated with lower rates of heart disease.
Through admirable lobbying on behalf of the olive oil industry, the FDA took a look at the massive evidence for the health benefits of monounsaturated fats and allowed a health claim to be made for olive oil as a result. Understand that the health benefit comes from monounsaturated fat in general, but because it was the Olive Oil Association who petitioned the FDA, the FDA limited its investigation of the research to “monounsaturated fat in olive oil,” while recognizing that other oils provide this same fat. It’s all political. Monounsaturated fat is monounsaturated fat, and it does good things for you whether you get it from olive oil or almond oil or macadamia oil or avocado oil. True, almond oil doesn’t have quite as much as olive or macadamia nut oil, but it’s still a good source of this healthy fat.
There are dozens of studies on the potential role of almonds in a healthy diet and on the antioxidant properties of various phytochemicals found in the nut itself. (For more on this, see Almonds.) How many of these compounds get into the oil is anyone’s guess, but it stands to reason that the less high heat, chemicals, and processing used in extracting the oil, the better. (That’s why I recommend buying cold-pressed, organic oils whenever possible.)
Though no cooking oils are strong sources of vitamins and minerals, almond oil does have a little bit of vitamin E and vitamin K. It’s also got a high smoke point, so it can be used for all kinds of cooking.
And if you use it for the massage I suggested earlier, almond oil can be a terrific stress reliever. Try keeping it at bedside for relaxing times with your loved one.
This oil has become increasingly popular for cooking in the years since the first edition of this book came out—and for very good reasons.
For one thing, avocados have become much more recognized as the superb fruit they are. The fat in them—and in avocado oil—is now universally recognized as a good, heart-healthy fat. The predominant class of fat in avocado oil—monounsaturated fat—is the same kind of fat found in olive oil.) What’s more, the smokepoint of avocado oil (approximately 480° to 500°F [250° to 260°C]) is much higher than most other oils, including olive oil.
Important carotenoids such as beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin need fat to be absorbed well. (That’s why they’re called fat-soluble nutrients!) And although all fat should theoretically help carotenoids (and fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin E, K and D) be absorbed more efficiently, researchers actually tested the concept of increased absorption using avocados or avocado oil. They found that it significantly enhanced carotenoid absorption both from salads and salsa by as much as 15 times more than similar foods without avocado oil.
Research published in the April 2005 Journal of Ethnopharmacology shows that avocado oil lowers blood pressure. In this animal study, a diet high in avocado oil changed the levels of essential fatty acids in kidneys, causing changes in the way the kidneys respond to hormones that regulate blood pressure. Avocado oil also influenced the fatty acid profile in the heart, causing researchers to conclude that a diet that includes good amounts of avocado oil may improve blood pressure.
Finally, avocado oil possesses anti-inflammatory properties and can be effective as part of a treatment for skin disorders such as psoriasis.
When the first edition of this book was published, the Dr. Oz radio show on SiriusXM was very much in full swing. I was invited to be a guest on the show, and I spent a full hour discussing foods with Mehmet Oz, M.D., his lovely wife Lisa, and his coauthor (and the Cleveland Clinic’s chief wellness officer), Michael Roizen, M.D.
The subject of coconut oil came up and I repeated exactly what I had written in the book—coconut oil is a great food.
Roizen did not agree, and we had a disagreement on the air, albeit a polite and respectful one. (Mike Roizen is a great doctor, one of the good guys. He just happened to be wrong about coconut oil.)
Years later, on the Dr. Oz website, I was gratified to see coconut oil listed as number three in a slideshow of Dr. Oz’s favorite superfoods. (The article is still online as of this writing, August, 2016.)
Even Dr. Oz had become a convert to coconut oil, which I’ve been raving about for a decade.
The fat in coconut oil—a form of saturated fat known as MCT (medium-chain triglycerides)—is among the healthiest fats in the world. It contains fatty acids such as lauric acid and caprylic acid, both known to be antiviral and antimicrobial.
And medium-chain triglycerides are more likely to be burned for energy. For many decades this made MCT oil a popular supplement among bodybuilders. Bodybuilders need the calories and energy for their workouts, but can’t afford to have an ounce of extra fat on them at contest time. MCTs—the same fat found in coconut oil—provided a source of calories for their workouts that wasn’t likely to be stored as fat on their body. (More on MCTs later on.)
In a 2009 Brazilian study, 40 women aged 20 to 40 years old with abdominal obesity were given daily dietary supplements of either soybean oil or coconut oil over the course of twelve weeks. All ubjects followed a balanced diet with the same number of calories and were told to walk for fifty minutes a day.
By the end of the study, the coconut oil group had significantly higher HDL (“good”) cholesterol and an improved LDL: HDL ratio. Meanwhile, the soybean oil group saw its HDL go down and its cholesterol ratio go up!
Though both the soybean oil group and the coconut oil group had similar reductions in BMI, only the coconut oil group saw a reduction in the circumference of their waists.
A very interesting—and unexpected—finding was that those consuming the coconut oil spontaneously reduced their consumption of carbohydrates and increased their consumption of protein and fiber over the course of the study.
“Supplementation with coconut oil does not cause dyslipidemia and seems to promote a reduction in abdominal obesity,” write the researchers.
And researchers (St-Onge, 2003) published a study in the International Journal of Obesity and Metabolic Disorders stating that “MCT consumption has been shown to increase energy expenditure and lead to greater losses of the adipose (fat) tissue in animals and humans.” Translated: It can help with fat loss (under some conditions).
The good news on coconut actually started with research back in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s long been observed that people from the Pacific Islands and Asia whose diets are very high in coconut oil are surprisingly free from cardiovascular disease, cancer and other degenerative diseases. A long-term, multidisciplinary study was set up to examine the health of the people living in the small, idyllic coconut-eating islands of Tokelau and Pukapuka.
And what it found was astonishing.
Despite eating a high-fat diet (30 to 60 percent of their calories were from fat, mostly saturated fat from coconuts), the Pukapuka and Tokelau islanders were virtually free of atherosclerosis, heart disease, and colon cancer. Digestive problems were rare. The islanders were lean and healthy. There were no signs of kidney disease, and high blood cholesterol was unknown.
Yet when these native people moved to the big cities, changed their diets, and gave up eating coconut oil in favor of the refined polyunsaturated vegetable oils that are believed to be healthier, their incidence of heart disease increased dramatically.
If all that weren’t enough, coconut oil is great for the immune system.
The predominant medium-chain triglyceride in coconut oil is lauric acid, which has been shown in countless studies to be antimicrobial, antibacterial, and antiviral. The fatty acids in coconut oil are powerful antibiotics. According to well-known naturopath Bruce Fife, N.D., who devoted a book to the subject, bacteria known to be killed by the medium-chain triglycerides in coconut oil include Streptococcus (throat infections, pneumonia, sinusitis), Staphylococcus (food poisoning, urinary tract infections), Neisseria (meningitis, gonorrhea, pelvic inflammatory disease), Chlamydia (genital infections, conjunctivitis, pneumonia, periodontitis), and Helicobacter pylori (stomach ulcers). In addition, there are at least a dozen pathogenic viruses that have been reported to be inactivated by lauric acid. Fife points out that another great thing about lauric acid is that it kills the “bad” bacteria but doesn’t harm the friendly intestinal bacteria that we need for healthy digestion. Medium-chain triglycerides also kill Candida and other fungi in the intestinal tract, further supporting healthy gut ecology.
In his seminal book Medicinal Plants of the World, the dean of American herbalists, James Duke, wrote that coconut and coconut oil are used as folk remedies to treat more than thirty-five ailments, from abscesses to wounds. And it’s well known that the absorption of calcium, magnesium, and also amino acids has been found to increase when infants are fed a diet using coconut oil. Coconut oil also has substantial antioxidant power. And populations that consume coconuts as a major part of their diets are rarely troubled by osteoporosis.
So do you need to worry about the natural, healthy saturated fat in coconut oil? I don’t think so, and neither do many experts. “Coconut oil has a neutral effect on blood cholesterol, even in situations where coconut oil is the sole source of fat,” said George Blackburn, M.D., Ph.D., a Harvard Medical School researcher testifying at a congressional hearing about tropical oils back in 1988. “These (tropical) oils have been consumed as a substantial part of the diet of many groups for thousands of years with absolutely no evidence of any harmful effects to the populations consuming them,” said the late Mary Enig, Ph.D., who was one of the premier lipid biochemists in the United States and a former research associate at the University of Maryland. Even C. Everett Koop, M.D., former surgeon general of the United States, called the tropical-oil scare “foolishness.”
Remember—the saturated fats in fast-food french fries and the saturated fats in healthy, natural foods such as coconut and coconut oil are two completely different animals. Avoid the first like the plague, and enjoy the second to your heart’s content.
Ketones are metabolites of fat, a kind of by-product of fat metabolism. Very low-carb diets force the body to make more of these ketones, which turn out to be an excellent fuel for the brain, the muscles and the heart. Coconut oil is another way to get ketones into your system.
This is not the place to debate the many benefits (and challenges) of a ketogenic diet, or nutritional ketosis. But it’s a topic of intense research, particularly when it comes to ketones and the brain. Diets that produce high levels of ketones—(ketogenic diets)—are routinely used as a treatment for childhood epilepsy. Indeed, the U.S. Navy is researching ketogenic diets with Navy SEALs.
Ketones are a great fuel for the brain. “You can boost the availability of ketones for your brain by simply adding coconut oil or MCT oil to your daily regimen,” writes noted integrative neurologist and best-selling author David Perlmutter, M.D. But don’t expect to get all the benefits of this added source of rocket fuel if you’re still eating a high-sugar diet. Perlmutter hastens to add that to make the addition of ketones from coconut oil effective, “carb restriction is a must.”
Tempting though it may be to attribute robust good health to any one factor, the truth is that it’s always a combination of things. Unlike lab rats and college sophomores, free-living humans always do a bunch of things together, making cause-and-effect statements much more difficult. In Mediterranean cultures where spend a lot of time outdoors, they eat their big meal in the daytime, and they eat lots of good foods.
And that gorgeous sunny climate can’t hurt, either. That said, virtually every nutritional researcher also attributes at least some of the legendary health of those in the Mediterranean to the copious consumption of olive oil.
Now don’t go running out and start pouring olive oil on your cheeseburgers thinking you’re going to get the same results. Obviously, there are a lot of other factors at play here, such as what else besides olive oil is on the menu. The Mediterranean diet is notoriously high in fish, vegetables, and fruits, and it is a lot lower in saturated fats. But all things being equal, a ton of research supports the statement that olive oil has some serious health benefits.
In fact, all that research was compelling enough to cause the FDA to permit olive oil membership in a very select group: foods or food substances whose label may contain a health claim benefit.
So what exactly is in olive oil, and what the heck does it do for you? Well, to start with, olive oil is very high in compounds called phenols, which are potent antioxidants. Olive oil is also mainly made up of monounsaturated fat, the most important of which is called oleic acid, shown in research to be extremely heart healthy. Compared with carbohydrates, for example, monounsaturated fat lowers LDL cholesterol (the bad stuff) and raises the protective HDL cholesterol. Research in the Archives of Internal Medicine concluded that greater adherence to the traditional Mediterranean diet (including plenty of monounsaturated fat) was associated with significant reduction in mortality among people diagnosed with heart disease. And another study in the same journal compared two groups of people with high blood pressure. One group was given sunflower oil, a typical oil used in Western diets, and one group was given the good stuff: extra-virgin olive oil (more about that in a moment). The olive oil decreased the second group’s blood pressure by a significant amount; it also decreased their need for blood pressure meds by a whopping 48 percent. As the English might say, “not too shabby.”
Michael Goldacre, B.M., B.Ch.—who researched diet and disease at the Institute of Health Sciences and published his results in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health—says that olive oil may have a protective effect on the development of colon cancer. And researchers at Oxford found that a diet rich in olive oil was associated with a decreased risk of bowel cancer.
Mark Houston, M.D., director of the Hypertension Institute in Nashville, and my favorite go-to guy for all things related to hypertension, says that monounsaturated fats “make nitric oxide more bioavailable, which makes it better able to keep the arteries dilated,” plus they “help combat the ill effects of oxidation and improve endothelial function.” Translated from the scientific jargon: The stuff is really good for you. Houston recommends 4 tablespoons (60 ml) a day for his patients.
But now the bad news. All olive oil is not created equal. Unfortunately, commercial manufacturers, trying to ride the health hype on olive oil, have rushed to market all kinds of imitation and inferior products that say olive oil on them but have questionable benefits. Here’s where being an educated consumer makes a difference. You may have been wondering what this “extra-virgin” designation is all about. Well, here’s the deal. Olive oil is almost unique among the oils in that you can consume it in its crude form without any processing. If you had the chance, you could walk around barefoot in barrels of it, and take the resultant oil and use it directly on your salad (something you can’t do with most other oils). Not refining the oil has the benefit of conserving the vitamins, essential fatty acids, antioxidants, and other nutrients. On the best family-owned farms, the oil is produced in ways similar to those of the ancient Greeks and Romans: Organic olives are picked by hand so as not to damage the skin or pulp; the oil is separated without the use of heat, hot water, or solvents; and it is left unfiltered. The first pressing produces the best stuff, known as extra-virgin olive oil.
And that’s the stuff you want. That’s the oil that makes the list of the world’s healthiest foods. Once you begin machine harvesting and processing with heat, you start damaging the delicate compounds in olive oil responsible for all those great health benefits. The antioxidant polyphenols are water soluble—they’re washed away with factory processing. In fact, that’s one reason that factory-produced olive oil has a shorter shelf life—no antioxidants to protect it. Real olive oil—the extra-virgin kind, made with care and love and the absence of heat and harsh chemicals—lasts for years.
So don’t fall for the idea that just because an oil in a restaurant says olive, it’s necessarily the good stuff. Seek out the extra-virgin stuff. It’s worth the extra money and effort to find it.
Your heart will thank you.
“Wherever flaxseed becomes a regular food item among the people, there will be better health,” said Mahatma Gandhi. He was right. The true nature of flaxseed as a health food has been known for centuries. In the eighth century, Charlemagne considered flaxseed so essential for health that he actually passed laws requiring its use. Flaxseed was one of the original medicines, used by Hippocrates himself.
It’s hard to talk about flaxseed and flaxseed oil without discussing essential fatty acids, particularly the omega-3s. You can read about this in more detail beginning shown here, but briefly, here’s what you need to know: Flaxseeds and flaxseed oil are one of the best sources on the planet for the important omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid. Alpha-linolenic acid is considered an essential fatty acid because the body can’t make it—it has to be obtained from the diet. The research on the benefits of omega-3 fats is so overwhelming that it would take a book to review them (and many good ones have been written). Flaxseed oil can help protect against cardiovascular disease, cancer, arthritis, and many other degenerative diseases. And though it’s primarily a source of omega-3, the oil has the virtue of containing some other fatty acids as well, notably some omega-6s and some heart-healthy omega-9s, providing a nice fatty acid balance.
But the benefits of flax are not limited to the omega-3 content. Far from it. The oil, and especially the seeds, are a great source of something called lignans, which have a whole host of health benefits of their own, for both men and women. Lignans have a protective effect against cancer, especially those that are hormone-sensitive like breast, uterine, and prostate cancers. Lignans increase sex-hormone binding globulin (SHBG), which binds to estrogen and helps get it out of the body. The lignans break down in the gut into two compounds—enterolactone and enterodiol—which interfere with the cancer-promoting effects of estrogen. (Lignans are probably one of the reasons vegetarian women have lower rates of breast cancer.) Researchers have also found that lignans inhibited the growth of human prostate cancer cells in a test tube. Research at Duke University published in the journal Urology showed that men with prostate cancer who were given 3 tablespoons (36 g) of flaxseed per day and a low-fat diet had decreased cancer cell growth. And lignans interfere with the production of a nasty testosterone metabolite (DHT, dihydrotestosterone), which is partly responsible for hair loss and benign prostate hyperplasia (the condition that makes men over forty have to go to the bathroom a lot at night).
The flaxseeds—but not, obviously, the oil—also contain soluble fiber. You get all the benefits of the oil, plus the fiber when you eat the seeds. They’re ideal for baking, sprinkling on salads, and adding to cereals and smoothies—but you need to break the hard outer coating because the whole seeds can’t be digested. Best way: Grind them in a coffee grinder for a few seconds. It’s worth the effort. (Or you can buy high-quality pre-ground flax.) That said, 4 tablespoons (28 g) of ground flaxseeds (also known as flaxseed meal) will give you 6 g of protein and 8 g of fiber. And, in addition to all the other good stuff, flaxseeds are also anti-inflammatory and have antioxidant properties as well.
Flax promotes cardiovascular and colon health, can boost immunity, promotes healthy skin, and helps stabilize blood sugar. Because the lignans in flax are actually phytoestrogens (weak estrogenic compounds from plants), they may help relieve menopausal symptoms. In fact, in one study, flaxseed was as effective as hormone replacement therapy in reducing mild menopausal symptoms in menopausal women.
One other note: There has been much discussion in the nutritional community about the pros and cons of flaxseed oil vs. fish oil. For those people who are only going to take one or the other, I’ve generally recommended fish oil. That’s because I believe that the two omega-3s found in fish oil (EPA and DHA) are even more important than the one that’s found in flax (ALA). That said, the omega-3 fatty acid in flaxseeds and flaxseed oil does have health benefits of its own, and the lignans add enough value to make it worth recommending that you take both.
Hemp seed oil (hemp oil) is another of the lesser-known oils that deserves a closer look.
First things first: Don’t confuse this nutritious and amazing oil with marijuana. It’s not the same. True, they come from the same plant originally, but so do linens, fiber, rope, and tablecloths. In fact, the word canvas is derived from cannabis, which is the Latin name for hemp.
So you won’t get high from hemp seed oil. You will, however, get some significant health benefits. And it’s perfectly legal.
Hemp seed oil is probably the best balanced of all the oils on the market. What does that mean? Well, remember that every oil is a combination of fatty acids from different families—some are saturated, some monounsaturated, some polyunsaturated. The oils—or fats—tend to get known by their primary fatty acid—for example, olive oil is known as a monounsaturated fat because that’s the predominant (but not only) fat it contains. Most oils contain a blend.
Hemp seed oil contains both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Both omega-6 fatty acids (linoleic acid) and omega-3 fatty acids (alpha-linolenic acid) are considered essential fats because the body can’t make them and they have to be obtained from the diet. One of the problems in our diet is too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3, compounded by the fact that most of the omega-6 we get is highly refined and not of good quality. The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in hemp seed is the best of all oils. It’s balanced in a ratio of 3:1, which is pretty darn good. In addition, this oil hasn’t become a commercial favorite, and it’s still relatively easy to find the unrefined, cold-pressed, organic oil. Stores and Internet sites that carry it tend to have this nutrient-rich version.
Some of the omega-6 in hemp seed oil is GLA (gamma-linolenic acid), an important omega-6 that we don’t get nearly enough of. GLA, the primary ingredient in evening primrose and borage oils, is very helpful for PMS and is a good omega-6; the body can make it, but doesn’t always do so efficiently. Hemp seed oil is about 2 percent GLA—as far as I know, hemp is the only edible seed containing GLA.
So yes, hemp is more dominant in the polyunsaturated omega-6 series of fatty acids, but it is highly beneficial in maintaining cardiovascular health. A comprehensive review paper on the relationship of fats to coronary heart disease by Frank Hu, JoAnn Manson, and Walter Willett from Harvard—the folks who ran the Nurses’ Health Study—points out that omega-6s do lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and also improve insulin sensitivity. As for the omega-3s, hundreds of studies have shown that they lower triglycerides and cholesterol levels. The omega-3 fatty acids in hemp are effective in decreasing blood pressure, platelet stickiness, and fibrinogen levels, a key marker in atherosclerosis. Research has found that for every 1 percent increase in alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3) content there was a decrease of 5 mm Hg in the systolic, diastolic, and mean blood pressure. Omega-3s are also anti-inflammatory and are being studied at Harvard and elsewhere for their effect on mood and depression.
Hemp oil should be stored in the refrigerator, used quickly, and never heated. (There are experts who argue that you can use it at low heat for a short time, but I’d be on the safe side. Omega-3s—such as those in flaxseed, fish oil, and hemp seed oil—are highly unstable and form toxic by-products when they’re heated to high temperatures.) Use the nutty-tasting oil on salads and cooked vegetables, or put a tablespoon (15 ml) in your smoothie. You can also mix half-and-half with organic butter for a terrific “essential fatty acid butter.”
Macadamia nut oil probably owes its popularity—at least in this country—to the fact that the noted nutritionist and health author Fred Pescatore, M.D., championed it in his excellent book The Hamptons Diet. Pescatore has been a friend of mine for years, and I can tell you this: He’s very smart, and he knows his stuff. His program is basically the Mediterranean diet, updated to include macadamia nut oil as the main source of fat instead of the more traditional extra-virgin olive oil. Pescatore, who has become something of an expert on the oils and their manufacturing, worries that there are many highly processed olive oils flooding the market that do not have the health properties of real, extra-virgin, estate-bottled olive oil.
He’s a big fan of 100 percent macadamia nut oil, unrefined, of course. Two excellent sources of macadamia nut oil are organic macadamia nut oil from Kenya by Vital Choice, which can be found in the shopping section of my website (www.jonnybowden.com), and MacNut Oil from Australia (www.mac-nut-oil.com).
Macadamia nut oil is even richer in monounsaturated fat than olive oil. The fat in macadamia nut oil is 85 percent monounsaturated, with a predominance of the heart-healthy oleic acid. Oleic acid increases the incorporation of omega-3 fatty acids into the cell membrane, which has all kinds of health benefits. Oleic acid (monounsaturated fats) and omega-3s lower triglyceride levels and raise HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels, a very protective combination. (The ratio of triglycerides to HDL cholesterol is even more predictive of coronary heart disease than cholesterol is; anything that lowers triglycerides and raises HDL improves that ratio.) Monounsaturated fats (omega-9s) are central to the Mediterranean diet that has been shown in virtually every single research study to be associated with lower rates of heart disease. The monounsaturated fat in macadamia nut oil, together with a nice intake of omega-3s from fish and fish oil, is a very winning combination guaranteed to provide good health.
Through admirable lobbying on behalf of the olive oil industry, the FDA took a look at the massive evidence for the health benefits of monounsaturated fats. They allow a health claim to be made for olive oil as a result. Understand that the health benefit comes from monounsaturated fat in general, but because it was the Olive Oil Association who petitioned the FDA, the FDA limited its investigation of the research to “monounsaturated fat in olive oil” while recognizing that other oils provide this same fat. It’s all political. Monounsaturated fat is monounsaturated fat, and it does good things for you whether you get it from olive oil or macadamia nut oil. Macadamia nut oil is even more monounsaturated-rich than olive oil, so it stands to reason that the cardiac and anticancer benefits would accrue to it as well.
When the first edition of this book came out, palm oil was hardly ever used in the United States. But that was then, and this is now. This wonderful, underappreciated oil is becoming better known every day, and with good reason.
Palm oil is to tropical African cooking what olive oil is to Mediterranean cooking. It’s the most heavily consumed dietary oil in the world after soybean oil. The late lipid biochemist Mary Enig, Ph.D., called it “one of the most important edible oils in the world” and with good reason. It’s shelf stable, contains absolutely no GMOs, and is trans fat free. Plus, for you cooks, it has a nice smoke point of 450°F (230°C).
What’s more, as Enig points out, modern extraction is accomplished with steam, and because 30 to 70 percent of the fruit is oil, solvent (chemical) extraction is not needed and isn’t often used. (Contrast that with the darling of the health food set, canola oil, or as Enig called it, “con-ola oil!” Enough said!)
There are other great things about palm oil. First, there’s the carotenoid content. The reason palm oil is red is because it’s so rich in carotenes (like beta-carotene and its relatives, together known as the carotenoid family). These are powerful antioxidants and have multiple benefits.
Palm oil is also rich in a particular form of vitamin E called tocotrienols, which are the subject of great interest in the nutrition and functional medicine communities because of their rich array of health benefits. Palm oil is actually the richest source of alpha-tocotrienol—which possess unique biological activity even independent of its power as an antioxidant.
What’s more, tocotrienols have been found to protect the brain from the damage that can occur after a stroke, possibly because of the neuroprotective properties of alpha-tocotrienol. Chandan K. Sen, Ph.D., associate dean for research at the Ohio State University Medical Center, thinks so much of tocotrienols that he encourages tocotrienol supplementation. In a June 2, 2010, interview with the Orange County Register, he said, “Alpha tocotrienol is markedly more potent than the more common available forms of vitamin E in its ability to help protect neurons in the brain from damage or death.”
So why has it taken palm oil so long to catch on?
Simple, because of two common beliefs about palm oil, both of which are incorrect.
The first is that palm oil is a saturated fat, which is true. And also meaningless. Here’s why.
For the last few decades, conventional wisdom held that saturated fat was one of the bad guys in our diet. This has turned out not to be true, despite the fact that many people (including some doctors) still believe it. We now know, from at least two major peer-reviewed studies in mainstream medical and nutritional journals, that saturated fat does not cause—and never did cause, in my opinion—heart disease. It’s not even related to it.
Saturated fat from healthy natural sources such as palm oil, coconut oil, grass-fed beef or butter, are simply no longer fats we have to avoid. I think we’d be much better off substituting some of these healthy saturated fats for the excessive amount of proinflammatory vegetable oil we consume. Many saturated fats are either neutral or have potential benefits—i.e., the tocotrienols in palm oil, the MCTs in coconut oil, and the CLA in grass-fed butter. Although I don’t personally believe cholesterol is a big deal (see my book with cardiologist Stephen Sinatra, M.D., The Great Cholesterol Myth) for those who might be concerned, plant fats such as palm oil do not actually increase LDL cholesterol (the so-called bad kind), though they often increase HDL (which your doctor would love to see).
The second rap against palm oil has to do with the environment and with animal habitats that are frequently—though not always—destroyed in the making of it. This criticism is valid—but not so in Malaysia and a few other places such as Ecuador.
This is why I always recommend Malaysian red palm oil. Malaysia is environmentally conscious—more than 50 percent of its forests are protected (as opposed to 3 percent of ours). Their palm oil industry is sustainable, and no animal habitats are harmed. That’s personally important to me, particularly because I love orangutans, which are the animals most often affected by the deforestation of some palm oil production.
What’s more, the Malaysian palm industry even set up a Malaysian Palm Oil Wildlife Conservation Fund, which, among its many functions, safeguards wildlife, deters poaching, and even set up a project specifically to explore orangutan conservation.
Palm oil has a distinct, amazingly rich flavor, and it is popping up at more and more natural food and ethnic food stores.
(unrefined, cold pressed, organic)
The introduction to this section (shown here) was a result of my internal debate over whether to include sesame oil in this book. Sesame oil has a lot to recommend it—but it’s high in omega-6s.
Ultimately, I figured by explaining what you need to be aware of regarding omega-6s, I could include sesame oil with a clear conscience; despite being a high-omega-6 oil, it has a lot of potential health benefits. The thing about sesame oil is that it contains a fully developed antioxidant system of its own. Sesame oil and toasted sesame oil contain a powerful antioxidant called sesamol, as well as two related compounds, sesamin and sesamolin. This natural antioxidant system is one reason why unrefined sesame oil doesn’t go rancid for a long time. Besides containing antioxidants, these compounds have other benefits. Sesamin inhibits the manufacture of inflammatory compounds in the body. In animal studies, it lowers cholesterol and increases the ability of the liver to burn (oxidize) fat.
There’s also evidence that sesame oil can lower blood pressure. In a report to the American Heart Association’s Inter-American Society of Hypertension, Devarajan Sankar, Ph.D., presented evidence that patients with high blood pressure who were taking blood pressure medications (but still had high blood pressure) were able to drop their blood pressure into the normal range by simply switching to sesame oil as their only cooking oil. Sampath Parthasarathy, Ph.D., a biochemist and an expert in antioxidants and metabolism, suspects that the lower blood pressure may be an indirect effect of the sesamin or sesamol or both.
Though the lion’s share of fat in sesame oil (45 percent) is omega-6 fat, sesame oil also is 40 percent monounsaturated fat, the heart-healthy type of fat that makes extra-virgin olive oil so good for us. Annemarie Colbin, Ph.D., author of Food and Healing, says that in her experience, “The best-quality fats to use are extra-virgin olive oil (see here), unrefined sesame oil, and ghee (see here).” I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to get cold-processed unrefined oils no matter which oil you’re using.
Sesame oil is a popular choice for stir-fries. Fred Pescatore, M.D., author of The Hamptons Diet, says sesame oil has a medium smoke point, which makes it good for light sautéing, low-heat baking, and pressure cooking where the temperature stays below 320°F (160°C). Pescatore puts it on his “use rarely” list only because of the high omega-6 content, but we’ve already covered that issue.
Dave Asprey is the founder of The Bulletproof Executive and the creator of the phenomenally successful Bulletproof Coffee. He’s the host of the #1 health podcast, Bulletproof Radio, and is the New York Times bestselling author of The Bulletproof Diet, The Bulletproof Cookbook, and Head Strong.
I first met Dave at JJ Virgin’s Mindshare Summit, an annual meeting of health professionals and entrepreneurs, and I’ve since interviewed him several times (and been interviewed by him for his podcast). He’s a fascinating guy—a Silicon Valley investor and technology entrepreneur who weighed 300 pounds (136 kg) and spent two decades and more than $300,000 to essentially “hack” his own biology and improve his performance, losing 100 pounds (45 kg) in the process. He overcame severe health problems (not the least of which was being obese) and has become what I call a “high-performance crusader,” always looking for cutting edge products (and foods) that can improve stamina, brainpower, and well-being. Here’s his list:
1. Mold-free coffee. Coffee is the number one source of special antioxidants called polyphenols that are vital to keep the cells in your body at full charge. Mold toxins that are common in coffee inhibit mitochondrial function, so it’s critical to get coffee that’s completely mold-free.
2. Grass-fed butter. It’s a rich source of undamaged fat that acts as a building block for your cell membranes and hormones. Grass-fed butter also contains higher amounts of nutrients like CLA, (conjugated linolenic acid) which is associated with weight loss—and butyrate, a special fatty acid that is important for gut health and also reduces inflammation in the brain.
3. Dark chocolate. This is another rich source of polyphenols that most people don’t get enough of.
4. Green tea. Drinking green tea is a terrific way to get antioxidants, such as polyphenols.
5. Broccoli. Broccoli contains special enzymes that inhibit cancer. It’s best to steam it and have a couple bites raw to get activated enzymes.
6. Grass-fed beef. This contains special fat-soluble vitamins that are hard to get anywhere else. Grain-fed beef doesn’t do the same thing for you, plus it accumulates toxins that are bad for you.
7. Sockeye salmon. This fish contains considerable amounts of the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is vital for cellular energy production and brain health. Sockeye is lowest in mercury because it lives only a short period of time, making it fully renewable and sustainable.
8. Avocado. This terrific fruit is a great source of undamaged monounsaturated fat and polyphenols. And it’s delicious!
9. Seaweed. This is a rich source of iodine and polyphenols. Just order the salad at a sushi restaurant!
10. Herbs. By using a lot of herbs, such as oregano, sage, thyme, and rosemary, you can easily double the amount of antioxidant polyphenols in your diet. So go heavy on the flavor!