The Good Fats to Eat
Good-Mood Food Number Two: Fats Excerpts from The Mood Cure, by Julia Ross, M.A. Penguin Books, 2004
Your body is supposed to be full of fat, about 18 percent if you are a man, and 28 percent if you are a woman. Your brain must be particularly fatty. Up to 60 of your brain should be composed of specialized fatty substances that have to be replaced constantly and have very complex mood-related duties that can’t be performed by French fries or corn chips. To feel your best, you need to feed your brain regularly with only the best fatty foods. If you’re wondering how any fatty foods could actually be good for anything, you’re about to get a ‘nutritional villain adjustment‘, so hold on to your hat. Think of the positive words associated with fat: rich, soft, moist, shining, good-natured. In ancient times, fat was associated with joy, wealth, and even sanctity. We need fats! In 2001, even the fat-phobic American ‘Heart Association became so convinced about our need for more fat than ‘it raised our fat allowance from 30 to 40 percent! It also recommended more eggs and shellfish and urged us to eat more fatty fish. Why? It caved under the overwhelming evidence. It recognized that happier and healthier cultures all over the world have a higher intake of certain fats than we do in the United States and that low fat has not led to low heart disease. It also recognized that the “low fat” sweet and starchy carbohydrates that we’ve been eating in this country in our efforts to cut fat have led to record rates of a new health and mood scourge – diabetes. Indeed, the incidence of diabetes has doubled. the past thirty years.
Let’s start out with the most spectacular good-mood fat. It’s called “omega-3,” and its first home is your brain. Every time you consume this extraordinary oil, your brain gets first dibs, because no other fats can do as good a job. In fact, the “other” omega-6 fats maybe your brain’s worst problem and the cause of some of your worst moods. The rate of depression among individuals correlates precisely with the ratio of omega-3 fats to omega-6 fats in the brain. The more omega-3, the better your mood; the more omega-6, the worse your mood. In the United States, we are very low in omega-3. If we add more omega-3, we can quickly raise a potent natural antidepressant brain chemical called “dopamine” by 40 percent! That translates to mental and physical alertness, focus, and excitement. A depressed, sedentary, achy, mentally confused woman of 80 was brought to us by her daughters. We decided to give her high doses of omega-3 when her basic supplements and a better diet did not help much. Not only did she begin the daily exercise with pleasure in two days, but her aches decamped, her head cleared, and her emotional outlook improved. She began to arrange flowers again for the first time in years. She also quit “needing” her evening martinis and lost her taste for overly rich food.
Our clients generally love the way they can come alive on their omega- 3 foods and supplements. It turns out that, among other things, omega-3 is an MAO inhibitor, meaning it slows down the MAO enzymes that destroy mood-boosting brain neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. Believe it or not, these fats can even be over-stimulating to some people. If you find yourself waking up bright and early at four A.M. after too much omega-3-rich fish or fish oil supplementation, you’ll have to cut back a bit.
Severe depression and manic-depression are being treated successfully now with this fat, and ADD and alcoholism are also showing preliminary clinical response. (We successfully treat addiction to fatty foods with it, too.) Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia are clearly affected by altered fatty acid function and omega-3 fat may help. And, as if all this weren’t enough after you’ve been eating more omega-3s for a few months and your brain’s needs are met, the omega-3s will move into the linings of your arteries and remove any plaque that has built up in your body’s botched efforts to repair its linings without enough of its preferred omega-3! (The studies on omega-3’s positive impact on artery health and heart disease are heartening!)
Where can you get this wonder food? Omega-3 fat comes in two forms: a ready-for-brain-use form found only in fish and a cruder form found in flaxseeds and some other seeds and nuts. The latter is a shorter form of omega-3, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which has to be worked over, by certain enzymes that two-thirds of us don’t have, and that decline with age. For all of us, ALA helps the body expel excessive omega-6 fat but can’t, be used reliably to form the long chains that our brains need. These brain chains should wrap around in our brain cells, forming very special membranes that can transmit billions of molecular messages instantly and accurately. These fatty chains are called “DHA” and “EPA“.
Fish fat is full of EPA and DHA. Fish like sole contain some, and there’s a little bit of the shorter ALA (flaxlike) version, in almost all fatty foods, both animal and vegetable. But by far the best sources of the omega-3 fats are wild salmon, sardines, herring, anchovies, and mackerel. They have about three times more omega-3 than other fish and five times more than flaxseed oil. Their good-mood fat is concentrated in and under the skin.
To get enough of the vital omega-3 fats, you’ll need to eat fish more often, as your ancestors did. For example, the Japanese still eat two and a half pounds of fish weekly, and their depression rates have historically been nil, as have their heart disease rates. But when was the last time you ate fish five times a week? That’s how much they eat, and you might need to eat, to get enough omega-3s to elevate your mood and energy and to counterbalance the omega-6s.
Recommendations about the ideal ratio between the two fats range from one to one (omega-6 to omega-3) up to seven to one, but in the United States, the actual ratio is now over twenty-five to one. The vital ratio has begun to change in Japan now, too. As I mentioned in chapter 7, the Japanese have been eating too much of the omega-6 vegetable oils and trans fats, and depression, heart disease, and cancer rates are increasing alarmingly as a result.
In the United States, we used to get quite a bit of omega-3 from meat and chicken as well as fish, but now most of these animals are fed grain high in omega-6 rather than grass, hay, or bugs with high omega-3 content. Grass-fed beef is coming back, though, and it’s fourteen times lower in omega-6 fats. (See the “Resource Tool Kit” to locate sources.)
According to the FDA, we can safely eat 2.2 pounds of fish a week (preferably not higher-omega-6 farmed fish). That’s about five or six servings weekly (otherwise the mercury and other pollutants will get us).
Note: Don’t cook that fish in high-omega-6 vegetable oil, and don’t dress it with mayo or tartar sauce, unless made yourself with olive oil. (See recipes in chapter 9.) If you’re unlikely to eat that much fish, don’t worry, you can take fish oil supplements to help fill your omega-3 quota. Your basic supplement schedule (page 202) includes about 2 grams a day of fish oil (combined DHA and EPA). That’s the equivalent of a one-quarter pound of salmon or sardines a day (without the mercury, which is stored in the fish muscle). If you also eat fish at least twice a week, you’ll make your omega-3 quota nicely. So eat as much fish as you can, take your supplements, and enjoy a more stable mood, more energy, more focus, and healthier arteries! Note: Flax oil is helpful in the brain only for one-third of us, at best. The rest of us, at least 2/3 of all humans, cannot convert the Flax oil ALA omega-3 fat into DHA and EPA. We would need to use five times more of it than of the fish oil to get equivalent effects, but flax also contains significant amounts of omega-6 fats, which we already have in unhealthy excess in our diets.
The SAT (for Satisfying) Fats
Now for the real fun. Think of the fatty foods you’d love to eat if you thought they wouldn’t kill you or make you fat. When I tell my clients that butter and sour cream are safe and healthful, they beam incredulously as if a loved one were being returned from the dead. Little do they know that they may be the loved one in question. We have been “good” for sixty years. We’ve cut down hard on what we thought were “bad” fats, meanwhile stocking up on “safe” vegetable oils and hydrogenated fats, but the results have been disastrous. Heart disease has escalated, and cancer and diabetes have become epidemic.
Are you ready now for some good news about cream cheese, whole-fat yogurt, chicken skin, and coconut milk? I know that this is going to be hard for you to swallow. Part of it is the term saturated fats. Let me give it a new spin. Let’s call it SAT short for SATISFIED. All saturated fats are complete in their molecular structure, unlike the omega-6 or even the omega-3 fat molecules, which look like combs with broken teeth. This density gives SATs their undisputed stability and strength. It’s also why they don’t easily get rancid, something no one disputes. The study I mentioned in chapter 7 that convicted the trans fats in margarine and shortening of murder by heart disease also pardoned the saturated fats. There was no association between the intake of saturated fat and the risk of coronary death. The scientific literature is loaded with this exonerating evidence. In fact, SATs are the preferred energy source for your heart because they burn at such a reliable pace, much steadier and, longer than carbs do. Many studies confirm that saturated fats can also protect you from a stroke.
One mood benefit provided by the creamy fats we’ve been avoiding all these years is that they support the function of the omega-3s in our brains, reducing the negative effects of the excess omega-6s. They actually lower levels of the most potentially damaging omega-6 fat, arachidonic acid.
Four recent studies,- three on Type 11 diabetics (with their doubled rates of depression) and one on mildly obese men and women, used a high-saturated-fat, low-carb diet. Their results: All showed improvement in cholesterol levels, weight, and insulin levels. But these studies are really just confirming common sense. Many peoples all over the world have consumed lots of these saturated fats and thrived physically and emotionally. We did, too, before 1910. In 1909, we ate about twenty-six pounds of saturated fat per year and nine pounds of omega -6 fats (on top of what was in our eggs, meat, and so forth). In 1998, we consumed less than nine pounds of saturated fat and sixty-six pounds of omega-6 fat! SATs are not our problem. The high omega-6s – in margarine and vegetable oils – are the source of our problems (as I hope I made clear in chapter 7).
You can safely cook with SATs because at a heat that would toxify any vegetable oil, the sturdy SATs hold up. In your brain and body, the SATs build protective cell walls. In your skin, they keep damaging UV rays from penetrating and keep moisture in. Many SATs are also great for energy. They slow the entry time of refined carbohydrates, protecting you from diabetes. They keep your blood sugar levels rock solid, which keeps your mood solid, too. The medium-chain saturated fats are wonderful, steady, stress-relieving energy fuels that athletes use to perform better. The crucial fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and E cannot be absorbed into our bodies without their carrier, saturated fats. Nor can calcium! For example, spinach has lots of calcium, which is not absorbed well unless it’s eaten with butter (or olive oil, which also contains some SAT). Same principle with collard greens and bacon fat.
Speaking of butter, let’s take a look at my personal favorite SAT. Butter is so packed nutritionally, with its ten vitamins, ten minerals, eighteen amino acids, and eleven kinds of fat that it’s hard to know where to begin. It’s tremendously high in vitamin A, which helps deliver to your eyes (night vision is absolutely dependent on an adequate vitamin A supply). Vitamin A regulates the female sex hormone progesterone, too, providing many moods as well as fertility and other benefits. (While saturated fats like butter assist vital vitamin A absorption and uptake, too many omegala” 6 fats can prevent it.) Then there’s butter’s butyrate, the fastest burning of all fats. This very special fatty acid is used extensively in your brain. For one thing, it serves as a base for making GABA, your natural Valium (GABA stands for gamma-aminobutyric acid). It can also protect you from colon cancer and is used as a medicine in precancerous colon problems to do just that.
How did I lose my own fear of SAT fats? Through twenty years of working with people who had eating disorders. The overeaters and bulimics in our program often avoided both protein and fat to save their calories for carb binges. At first, we asked them to increase protein, which helped stop their moodiness, overeating, and obsessiveness. They added lots of vegetables as the only carbohydrates allowed and tried to keep fat levels low. At the same time, we expected them to exercise regularly, but this low-fat, low-carb diet didn’t give them enough energy to do the exercise we recommended. It didn’t always lower their high cholesterol levels, either, and it kept them feeling deprived. They didn’t enjoy eating. Because nuts and seeds were often binge foods and too high in omega-6 fats, we couldn’t recommend them, so we tried a new food plan that ended up working like a charm. It was very simple: high protein, high vegetables, and more, mostly saturated, fat. No sweets (even fruit) or high-starch foods at all. The results: no cravings, high energy, satisfied with the food, mood fine, weight normalizing, and cholesterol-lowering!
What About Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is not fat, but I could go on at the same length about the health and mood benefits of cholesterol as I just have about the benefits of saturated fat. An impressive review of 195 international studies showed that a cholesterol level between 160 and 260 seems to be ideal. With levels above or below that range, we can have more health troubles, but more of the trouble than you think comes with cholesterol levels that are too low rather than too high. A forty-year study of four thousand people in Hawaii found that “the earlier that patients start to have lower cholesterol concentrations, the greater the risk of death.” Many other studies concur.
Surprisingly, cholesterol is one of the most valuable nutrients there is for mood, particularly for stress coping since it is the substance that we use to make our stress-coping hormones and our mood-regulating sex hormones. If you’ve been avoiding it stringently, you may have innocently compounded your mood problems.
Low cholesterol is firmly associated with depression, anxiety, irritability, violence, suicide, and insomnia. Cholesterol in the brain is essential for natural antidepressant serotonin production. A huge amount of the brain, about 25 percent of it, is cholesterol. Cholesterol is (surprise!) an antioxidant that actually protects our tissues, including our brain tissues, and is the base from which we make all the stress and sex hormones that direct our brain’s whole mood show. Cholesterol is not fat; it’s an alcohol that can be made from many foods. Cows can obviously make it from the grass. I recommend several books in the Action Steps that will tell you much more about the fascinating true cholesterol story.