The Oil Crisis

We’re all concerned about the oil crisis that hits us financially every time we fill the car with gas. As a nutritionist, I’m also concerned about the oil crisis that’s affecting our health. Since the topic of dietary oils and fats is quite complex, I’ll start with the basics. Fats and oils are lipids with similar chemical structures. The term “oil” refers to a fat that is liquid at room temperature, and “fatty acids” refer to the basic unit of dietary fats.

In recent years, the role of fats in human nutrition has stirred debate among experts, leaving the layperson utterly confused. It’s important to realize the significance of consuming healthy fats. They contribute to the formation of cell membranes, cushioning of the organs, transfer of vitamins throughout the body, and production of prostaglandins (hormones involved in controlling inflammation and other physiological processes). Fats are also vital for the functioning of blood vessels, brain cells, eyes, and skin. Adequate consumption of healthy fats can even reduce the risks of certain cancers and heart disease.

What is meant by “healthy fats?” Omega-3 and Omega-6 essential fatty acids are two types of polyunsaturated fats critical for health; they must be included as part of the diet since the body cannot produce them on its own. The best sources of Omega-3’s are oily, cold-water fish (such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, and herring) and ground flaxseeds. Omega-6’s, on the other hand, are found primarily in vegetable and nut oils such as corn, safflower, and sunflower oils. A sensible nutrition plan, which includes fish, raw nuts and seeds, soy, whole grains, and dark leafy greens, will supply a balanced amount of the natural oils we need. Keep in mind that our bodies require only about 2 tablespoons of oil each day.

Research shows that for optimum health and disease prevention, the intake ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 should be no more than 4 to 1. Unfortunately, the typical American diet may contain a ratio as high as 30 to 1. In addition, citizens of most Western countries, particularly the U.S., ingest an excessive quantity of harmful fats and oils, called trans fatty acids. Trans fats are the hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated man-made oils found in most margarines, salad dressings, mayonnaise, crackers, cakes, cookies, pretzels, and bread. Hydrogenated fats damage the blood vessels, raise cholesterol, and increase the risk of stroke and heart disease.

Another group whose intake tends to be excessively high in the Western diet includes saturated fats from animal products. Found primarily in red meat, butter, and full-fat dairy foods, saturated fats raise blood cholesterol levels as well. Although saturated fats do not have to be avoided completely, I strongly recommend reducing their consumption to a minimum. Also, consider substitutes, such as avocado in place of butter. And if you need oil for cooking or as a salad dressing – cold-pressed olive oil used sparingly is your best bet.

So let’s all try to eat our best and end this oil crisis as soon as possible!