Generally speaking dietary fat is made up of saturated fat (animal fat and tropical oils) and unsaturated fat (liquid oils and plant-based fat). Unsaturated fats may be broken down into the subcategories of polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and more recently trans fat. While trans-fat is typically the result of processors changing the chemical structure of the unsaturated fatty acids in their attempt to saturate them, poly and monounsaturated fats are formed naturally. Polyunsaturated (http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/FatsAndOils/MeettheFats/Meet-Poly_UCM_305109_Article.jsp) fats are then divided into omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9 fatty acids.
Omega-3 and omega-6 fats are essential to our diet as our body does not have the ability to make them on its own; on the other hand our body is able to create omega-9 fatty acids. This is largely why we primarily hear about the omega-3s and 6s, because health professionals want to ensure we are getting enough of these nutrients in our diet. These healthy fats have been found to improve cell development and brain function. The anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3s are reason alone to add more to your diet as research has linked increased inflammation with cardiovascular disease, arthritis and cancer. Omega-3 fats are also inherent to the very structure of our nerves, potentially improving memory and mental clarity.
The types of fats we consume are just as important as the balance of fats in our diet. The American Heart Association recommends we limit fat intake to less than 30% total fat, less than 7% saturated fat, with a higher proportion of omega-3 fats than omega-6. The typical American diet is much higher in omega-6 fats than omega-3s, certainly not ideal as omega-6 cause inflammation when consumed in excess.
It is easy to understand why we tend to eat more omega-6 fat than omega-3 when you realize where each type of fat is found. Omega-6 fats are found in vegetable oils (corn, safflower, sunflower, and canola), nuts, avocado, whole grains, and seeds. Omega-3 fats are found in less common sources including fatty fish (tuna, mackerel and salmon), walnuts, soybeans, dark leafy vegetables (kale and spinach), and seeds such as chia, hemp, flax, and pumpkins.
It is easy to improve the balance of fats in your own diet and that of your family. Start by cooking up a satisfying supper of Wild Alaskan Salmon with a side of baked Kale and brown rice. You could even make up a healthy trail-mix (http://www.walnuts.org/walnuts/index.cfm/all-recipes/walnut-trail-mix/ ) featuring walnuts, pumpkin seeds, dried fruit, and whole grain cereal and package it up into individual baggies so it is ready as a quick and easy on-the-go snack. In the meanwhile, be conscious of the amount of oils you are using in your diet, along with the type -canola and olive oil are healthier options than corn, sunflower, and safflower.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends at least 2% of our total calories come from omega-3 fats. This could easily be accomplished by adding a serving of fatty fish (4 ounces) and two tablespoons of ground flax or chia seeds. As the fats from seeds are not absorbed as well as those in fish, we may need to increase our serving sizes to ensure we are getting enough of these essential fats. I use ground flax as a tasty topper for my oatmeal and salads, not to mention right into the mix of baked goods. For a delicious recipe featuring this omega-3 all-star, click here (http://www.joythebaker.com/blog/2010/03/apple-walnut-flax-seed-bread/).
Finally, for those of you who may be curious, omega fats are named after the Greek letter omega, the very last letter in the Greek alphabet used to reference the specific chemical structure found near the end of the long chain of fatty acids.