Nightmare PMS, record-low energy levels, insanely dry skin - could a diet that's lacking the right fats be behind your peskiest little health problems? Find out here. By Kim Tranell, REDBOOK.
Remember when you doused every vegetable in fake butter spray and called low-fat cookies "health food?" Even if you've pretty much recovered from the fat-fearing diet craze of the '90s, there's still - admit it! - a little lingering confusion about what fats are "good" fats - and how you can work those typically calorie-dense foods into your diet without packing on the pounds.
"The bottom line is, the average American woman doesn't get enough omega-3 fatty acids," says Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD, author of The Ultimate Omega-3 Diet. She's speaking, of course, of the fat found in fish like salmon, as well as walnuts, flax seeds, and olive oil. "But just by putting those back in your diet, you'll see diverse and varied benefits."
It's true, say experts: Everything from your foggy memory, to your crappy mood, to your dry skin, to your low sex drive - heck, even that belly flab that won't disappear no matter how many spin classes you hit - could be symptoms, at least in part, of an omega-3 deficiency. The tricky thing is, even if you've been eating more fish or sprinkling walnuts on your oatmeal each morning, your diet may be working against you. Intrigued? What you don't know about fat - and your health - might surprise you.
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Out of balance
By now, you know to take it easy on the "bad," non-heart-healthy fats - that is, the saturated stuff found in meat and dairy and the trans fatty acids in fried foods. So if you skip the cheeseburger with fries, and up the "heart smart" omega-6s and omega-3s in your diet, you're golden, right?
Here's where it gets a bit more complicated, though. Omega-6s are pro-inflammatory. Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory. We need both to keep our bodies humming. But when the ratio in our diet is out of whack - research shows it should be between about 5:1 and 3:1 - our health will be, too. "If you're eating an inflammatory diet, where you have a deficiency of omega-3s and too much omega-6s or saturated fat, that will contribute to inflammatory health problems," says David L. Katz, MD, Director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center at the Yale School of Medicine. "We're talking everything from mildly annoying stuff, like allergies, to autoimmune disease."
And the kicker? It's tough to strike that balance given how our foods are made. The typical American gets an off-kilter average ratio of 17 omega-6s to one omega-3, likely due to our reliance on processed foods and refined vegetable oils rich in omega-6s. "Foods of convenience are terrible, terrible fat sources," says Alisa Vitti, HHC, AADP, integrative nutritionist and author of Women Code.
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For example, say you pick up a salad for lunch with low-fat dressing, then snack on a mini-package of trail mix. Both that "healthy" dressing, and that snack containing omega-3-rich nuts and seeds could contain sneaky soybean or vegetable oils that, over time, can throw off your body's natural equilibrium. The same goes for the salmon you order for dinner - at chain restaurants, there's a good chance your fish is cooked in refined vegetable oil. "When you look at our food supply, we eat foods and oils that didn't exist a hundred years ago," says Tribole.
Re-boot your diet
Ready to make some changes? Don't look at omega-6s as the villain and omega-3s as the savior - you'll drive yourself crazy, since many foods include a mix of these essential fatty acids. "The solution is to focus on dietary patterns, not individual food choices - then the nutrient composition will take care of itself," says Katz. He recommends a healthy, balanced Mediterranean-style diet based around fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and lean proteins that are low in saturated fat, including three servings a week of omega-3-rich fatty fish, by far the most potent source of the good stuff.
Obviously you're not going to stop eating out or grabbing packaged snacks on the go. However, these five easy tweaks to your daily routine can help you make over your diet - and establish the ratio of healthy fats your body needs. "I don't want to just set people up and tell them they're going to be feeling better tomorrow," says Tribole. "It's not a quick thing, but it's worth it." The possible payoff: everything from a better mood to a leaner body. Yes, you read that right!
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1. At breakfast, sprinkle flax seed on your cereal or yogurt, or slice up one-quarter of an avocado in your scrambled egg whites. (At the grocery store, look for omega-3 enriched eggs.)
2. Swap out your low-fat salad dressing at lunch for a full-fat olive oil-based vinaigrette.
3. Instead of roasted peanuts, snack on raw nuts that are high in omega-3s, like walnuts or pistachios.
4. When cooking, substitute extra virgin olive oil for your typical canola oil or vegetable oil.
5. Take a supplement as an insurance policy. Katz recommends one gram of fish oil daily, or an algae-based supplement for vegetarians and vegans.
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